Stacking firewood can be rather compulsive. Like building a stone wall where each constituent rock or pebble has its own place in the complex puzzle, so it it with a log stack. The builder’s job is to find the right place for each element so that a ton or so of wood becomes a two metre high, 50 centimetre wide stable structure. It must not fall. The ends are important. With three logs stacked at right angles to the three beneath followed by another row of three at right angles to these, they should form a stable pillar holding in the rest of the stack. My first effort was poor and, as it neared its completion, began slowly to lean sideways like an exhausted drunk coming to rest against the barn wall. I resolved to do better. While making the second pile I was careful to make my end pillars lean inwards a little in order to avoid the same thing happening and so pleased was I with the progress that at eleven o’clock at night, rather than heading for bed, I thought that I’d just add another row or two. As I said, it can become compulsive.
Six “stere” in the barn
Normally, itâ€™s a good idea to wear protective gloves when stacking firewood. Hands become dry, splinters penetrate skin and explore the flesh under nails. Logs slip, crushing fingers. On this occasion, however, late at night, I was neglectful and set to work without them. Despite this, all went well and, with the stack approaching its full height, I had incurred no injuries at all. But then the unexpected happened. My gold wedding ring, which had never before fallen from my finger, slipped easily and tinkled down through the complex labyrinth of wood to come to rest, lost somewhere in the pile. It was like a scene from Lord of the Rings. And there was nothing for it; I would have to unstack the logs. But not that night.
Beach and pine forests below the summits
Although bottled gas and electric heaters are common, wood remains the main source of fuel for the people of the village. And looking towards the Cirque from our house, it is not difficult to see why. Swathes of beech and pine forest provide, in mid September, a still-green apron for the mountains while lower ridges appear overgrown with tangled jungles of trees.
The forests belong to the Commune of Lescun and those living in the village have the right to cut firewood there. Few, however, have the means or the inclination to venture out onto the invariably
steep slopes of the Bois de Larrangus, Bendeyacq or Larassiette. Working on such difficult terrain requires cables, pulleys, heavy machinery, serious chainsaws. It’s a difficult and dangerous job best left to those with the heart and the skill for it. Like us, most Lescunois prefer to buy their logs from a merchant. Our order had been in for a month or more before we arrived and, after a week here, we were beginning to wonder whether it would turn up before the pleasant autumn weather turned into winter. We need not have worried, though, as one afternoon Alf, on whom were relying for communications as we had no phone at the house, came round with a message that the wood was on its way. “Seventeen hours,” he informed us. It was already four thirty.
Now, the house we have rented is at the top of the village and accessed by a street defended at one end by a narrow right-angled bend and at the other by a sharp turn onto a steep slope. Neither would allow the passage of the merchant’s lorry, so the plan was to unload onto Alf’s courtyard and figure out how to move it later. We were expecting six stere - a stere being the standard measure firewood. Unlike home, where, there is no standard measure at all and the ubiquitous load can be anything from a disappointing
The wood arrives
back of a Landrover to a pleasing tractor trailer, our supplier of bois de chauffage sold his wares with Napoleonic precision. At the foot of his invoice there are even diagrams explaining how a stere is calculated. Basically, if the logs are one metre long, a stack of them occupying a space of one cubic metre would be one stere. The helpful illustration goes on to explain that if, as in our case, the logs have a length of fifty centimetres, they will only amount to 0.8 cubic metres. You can’t say that you don’t know what to expect. I had, in fact, expected five o’ clock to be roughly five but, true to his word, the heavily burdened lorry came straining up the slope with impressive punctuality. Its cargo of fire wood was stacked on six pallets each held together with fine but tough nylon nets - very effective at keeping it together as they are craned off the vehicle.
The log man parked his lorry outside the farm house and, with the confidence of a someone who knows exactly what he is doing, lumbered out of the cab and came striding across to meet us, his hand stretched out anticipating the customary handshakes. He was a tough looking fellow, tough as the material from which he made his living, though his face was round, smooth and immobile as if at some point in his life it had been stamped with an indelible expression that resided somewhere between happiness and surprise. A few pleasantries were exchanged before he busied himself with the blackened, oily levers that lowered hydraulic legs to brace the vehicle. He then deployed the machinery to manipulate each disturbingly swaying palette to a suitable place in the courtyard. And this while the engine revved, filling the air with diesel fumes. He left, happy and surprised that we had settled the account there and then. “Keep the little bits,” he called leaning out of the cab as he reversed back down the road. “They’re good for lighting the fire.
I learned about the power of bouche a l’oreille (word of mouth) in the summer of 2014. We’d come up to view the house with the idea of renting it for a year. Falling in love with the place, an agreement was, consequently, reached quite quickly and all parties went their separate ways. In my case “the way” took me to a family in the village which sold excellent sheep's cheese - “pur brebis”. There were a few other customers there at the time and, while I was waiting, one of them came up to me and said: “I hear you’re renting the house up there for a year.” “Yes,” said another. “You want to see all the seasons.” Fifteen minutes had passed since the visit to the house had ended! Were we committing ourselves to a situation where nothing we did would ever be private?
Fortunately, however, on the day of the wood delivery, village gossip turned out to be very helpful. I had just returned from the farmyard when a neighbour who has a house further along the street from us, leaned out of her window and called: “You’ve had some wood delivered. How much?” “In quantity?” “How many stere?” “Six.” “Should be enough. How are you going to get it up here?” “I thought I’d do it bit by bit in the boot of the car.” “Ridiculous! You can have my trailer.” “That’s very kind of you but I don’t have a tow bar.” “Take my car as well.” It this point I was quite overwhelmed by the casual generosity. But I thought about the difficulty of navigating the streets and feared damaging her vehicle. “That’s really, really kind but I’d hate to dent your car on then corner here.” “As you wish,” she said. “How much did you pay, by the way?” The following day Alf turned up announcing that he had the morning off and, if we borrowed the neighbour’s trailer, with his four by four, we could make a start bringing up the wood. It was swiftly arranged and by 10 am the Dacia Duster with trailer attached was parked next to the palettes. Alf found a blunt knife and sawed through the netting. “Afttention les pieds!” we warned in almost unison and the three of us jumped back as logs came spilling out of their imprisonment and on to the ground. We had only been working for about ten minutes when a woman from the village turned up gloved and booted. She was must have been fifty or so years of age, definitely petite. “I av com to elp you,” she announced in english. “Thanks,” said K. We were getting used to accepting help from others. The physical appearance of our new volunteer was deceptive. Strong and tenacious, she loaded logs like someone on a mission to subvert the apocalypse. I quickened my pace, trying to match hers. With four at the task, now, the logs rumbled into the trailer quickly and we were soon half a stere down. Attracted, no doubt, by the noise the elderly gentleman from the cheese shop came wandering up to see what was going on. “Work is good,” he called out. “Work while you can….Too late for me though, alas.” And with that he supported his tiny frame on the corner of the yard wall and monitored our progress as if it was the most interesting thing that had happened in the neighbourhood for a long time.
“Don’t waste the little bits!” was his parting shot when he finally lost interest and wandered off. “They’re good for lighting the fire.” “Thanks for the advice,” I called after him. Alf proved adept at manoeuvring the 4x4 and trailer round the tight corner and, with no attempt to stack the wood we simply threw it into our barn before going back to the farmhouse for another load. There we discovered a cousin who farms out on the plateau and, on passing by, had dropped in for a chat. He was admiring the netted logs. “Good wood,” he proclaimed as we all shook hands. “Dense.” And he picked up one of he pieces on the ground, turning round and round in his shovel-like calloused hands admiringly. “Keep the little bits, though,” he added, adjusting his beret. “They’re good for lighting the fire.” “Really?” the woman from the village quipped with obvious sarcasm. She was already attacking the remains of the first stere. The cousin watched us set to work again evidently unsure of his role. He had come expecting, no doubt, a glass of sweet, treacle back, coffee and a good old gossip. Instead he found manic activity. Occasionally he would pick up a log and, after examining thoroughly, stroll over to the trailer and place it carefully alongside the others. By the time we returned for the third load, however, he had gone. Somewhere between the forth and fifth load the shutters of a neighbouring house creaked open and a sleepy looking fellow peered out. He and his wife owned a second home in the village and had travelled up for a few days holiday. “Having a bit of a lie in,” he announced. We exchanged a bit of banter during which he reminded us all to make sure kept the small pieces because they were good for lighting the fire and, consequently, we all fell about laughing while he looked puzzled. Before we had topped up the trailer, however, the neighbour had found a pair of leather gloves and joined the gang. This necessitated a change in tactics. We were getting in each others’ way and in danger of incurring the end of a lump of wood in the groin or one dropped on an ill-shod foot. After a brief consultation we decided on a human chain. It worked brilliantly and progress was breathtaking. The neighbour’s wife, after reminding us to put the small pieces to one side because they were good for lighting the fire, joined us for the sixth and final stere. And six of us witnessed the last bit of winter fuel thrown into our barn just in time for lunch.
The weather during the following days was good, so the wood remained unstacked as we spent our time in the mountains. But, with the arrival of one of the most dramatic storms I’d ever witnessed in Lescun followed by two days of mist a drizzle, it was the moment to get on with the job. That night, my gold ring lay somewhere in the stack.
The following day we had an appointment with our french bank manager so there was no time to start demolishing the heap. Also, it would have to be done carefully so as not bring the whole structure crashing down. Not a job to be rushed. On the way out, however, as I was just about to lock the barn door, when I saw something glint near the bottom of the pile. Getting down on hands and knees and peering in I confirmed that what I had seen was, indeed, the lost wedding ring. My first thought was a coat hanger. Iâ€™d I cut one up, straighten it out and put a little hook on the end, it might work. But, while thinking my plan over, I found myself staring at the untidy mass of log shards and splinters we had put to one side because they are useful for lighting the fire. There was one piece that was long, slim and roughly snapped at one end. It proved to be the ideal tool.
September 23rd, 2015