Storing Up Wood for the Winter–in Champagne

October 14, 2016 at 7:28 pm 4 comments


How the wood was delivered

The first thing that happened is that my usual source of wood during the winter–our friend, Jojo–called me up to say he couldn’t find any wood, and that I should start seeing if I could find some myself.

Oh. Wow. And just before I was to have a visitor coming to stay with me for a week. Everyone knows I don’t mind keeping warm however-I-can for myself  (blankets, layers, flannel-lined jeans, warm showers, etc). But I do like to keep my house at least somewhat cozy for my guests 😦 )

Since it was already a little bit past prime wood-hunting season, I was afraid that I might be in a bit of a pickle. I had almost no wood left from last season, and knew I had to find wood–although my house is equipped with some electrical heating units, it is very expensive to use them, and I can’t afford to heat the house that way.

But, as I began to try to do-this-myself, the problems in doing so became clear.

The first problem was that I knew basically none of the things one would need to know in order to get wood for the winter. Here is an almost verbatim transcript of the first conversation I had with a friend who was trying to help me figure it out:

Friend: So, how much wood will you need?

Me: Um. I don’t know.

Friend: Well, how big is your house? And do you have double-glass windows?

Me: Um. I don’t know.

Friend: Hmm. Well, how many stères did you have last year?

Me: Um. I don’t know. (pause) What’s a stère? 

I am so much wiser now, two weeks later.

For one thing, I now know that a stère is the unit of measurement used to sell wood in France. (I also know that, according to one website I consulted, it has not been an “authorized” unit of measurement since 1977. However, it is the unit of measurement used in France to sell wood. It just is.)

I also know (having learned the almost-hard way) that there are legal sources of firewood, and illegal ones. And that if you don’t want trouble with the gendarmes, you’d best use the ones that are legal. (You’re probably also likely to get better-quality wood that way, and at a better price. Especially if the connection between you and the supplier of wood has been made for you by your local forest ranger. I was very lucky that way!)

Another thing I didn’t know is that though the price of the wood you are having delivered may include the delivery of the wood (if you are lucky), it probably doesn’t include the price of stacking the wood. So it was that I was surprised to learn that it was going to be left to me to stack the wood–ten stères of wood–that was delivered to me last week in a huge truck, which deftly deposited all that wood in a huge, unorganized pile in my driveway. (Ten stères is a lot of wood. It is a little more than three cords.)


The first half of the delivery

Fortunately, the wood was delivered during a dry spell, so I didn’t have to worry about it getting rained on while I went about getting it stacked.

At first it seemed to me that it would probably take me about a week to get it all done, but in fact it only took about two full days. (I hurried because I wanted to be able to return the tarp I had borrowed from my neighbor the forest ranger to her before it rained.)

The next surprise was how much fun it was, actually. Like the biggest, coolest game of pick-up sticks in the world. And good exercise. And a great way to clear one’s mind, and enjoy the fresh air on a beautiful autumn weekend.

But this was a game of pick-up sticks with somewhat higher stakes, actually.

I knew that in order for the woodpile(s) to be stable, I had to do it right. So before doing anything else, I went to the Internet for some advice, and there I received help from the handsome cowboy at, who taught me how to create stable “free-standing” piles of wood using a log-cabin construction technique.

He also impressed me with his remark that “you can tell a lot about a man’s character from the way he stacks his wood.”

I could only guess that it would be true of a woman’s character also, if it were a woman stacking wood.

I certainly didn’t want my woodpile to betray a lack of good character, and so I proceeded carefully. In the beginning the cowboy’s advice to fit the pieces of wood into the pile”like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle” made no sense at all to me. But as I began to do it, I saw what he meant. Some pieces fit well, and felt stable, and left room for air to circulate between the pieces of wood. Others did not fit well, and so I set them aside until I could find the right place for them. I was incredibly proud of myself–not normally good at all at doing this kind of thing–for figuring out how to do it, and for understanding what the cowboy meant. Amazing!


As the piles grew, so did the danger. And the need for very careful, strategic piling.

As the haphazard pile of wood diminished, and the orderly rows of carefully arranged piles of wood grew, I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment. I also began to feel an odd, and totally unanticipated, sense of affinity with both of my grandfathers, both of whom had heated their homes with wood–one of whom had been passionately fond of splitting and stacking wood, and the other who had been fond of wood carving, and of making us toys out of odd pieces of wood in his wood shop.

As the stacks grew higher I also began to remember hearing stories about woodpile-related accidents in the rural communities where my parents had grown up. It occurred to me that since I really didn’t know much at all about what I was doing, maybe I should at least be wearing a helmet (I didn’t do so, though I was very careful to position myself out of the way of any possible woodpile tumbling I could imagine, and to avoid tugging or leaning on anything).

I also moved my car out of the way of any conceivable woodroll, just in case.

Finally, it was done. Ta-dah!


Not as good as Grandpa’s, but not bad for a first timer!

Then I asked both my neighbor the ranger and the former owner of our house to take a look and check my work, and they both approved it. In fact the former owner even pronounced it “très bien.” (If you know anything about the French, you will know what a high compliment that was!)


Of course the greatest satisfaction of all has been enjoying the warm glow of the fires I can make now. For my guests and–with 10 stères of wood stacked up for the winter–I can afford to keep the house nice and warm even for just myself! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. She is currently leading a book group at the American Library in Paris, and in January will be teaching “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the Queens College (CUNY) Education Abroad Program.

Entry filed under: Neither Here nor There....

Q & A with Harriet Welty Rochefort, Author of “Joie de Vivre” and other books about the French Autumn in Essoyes

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ivakaiser  |  October 14, 2016 at 9:17 pm


    I love reading of your adventures in France. This piece was priceless, and you have gained respect in my eyes!!

    Joan Owings


    • 2. Janet Hulstrand  |  October 15, 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Thanks, Joan. 🙂 I hope you will come and visit Essoyes one day!

  • 3. Deborah Takiff Smith  |  October 16, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Photos and words stacked together carefully to tell a good story.


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