Fire and life

Africa affects me in little ways.

Like recently when I was contemplating my annual purchase of firewood. Burning real wood in a fireplace is one of my great loves during long Chicago winters. I easily tear through a cord per winter, sometimes needing extra. And yet, that’s a lot of wood for what is largely aesthetic comfort (though our basement needs all the heat help it can get).

So this year I wanted to learn more about my options. Usually I get wood from one of any number of local, similar operations. A couple of laborers-for-hire pull up in a pickup, throw a bunch of wood in a pile in your garage, and then depart. God only knows where they get this wood from. Or if the company has any interest in the sustainability of the forests from which the wood comes.

So I turned to Ascent Stage’s resident guest restoration ecologist, Cory Ritterbusch, for his usual clarity of insight. I asked about places in northern Illinois where I might deal with a firewood vendor who thinks about his source as much as his sale. Cory noted:

Right now our firewood industry has not been hit by the same environmental stewardship programs that paper and building materials have. So there is nowhere to point to for sustainable, managed firewood processes locally.

Most green thinkers choose their firewood by species to reduce the risk. Oak and Hickory are the preferred woods to burn in the fireplace, but that is done at the detriment of cutting very important slow-growing specimens.

Environmentalists will ask for Red Elm or “Elm” as they are usually standing dead trees having died due to Dutch Elm Disease. It is also a great burning wood offering high temperature, little ash and easy split-ability.

Didn’t know that. Did you?

The smell of burning firewood was constant in Ghana. In the morning, stepping out of my room to the call of the roosters; in the daytime walking down a crowded Kumasi street; at night when the smoke of a thousand dinners ascended and mixed above the town. The tang of wood on fire is for me essential Ghana. I came to love it.


But the wreckage it has caused! The denuded countryside, once rainforest, strikes you like returning to a loved home without any furniture in it. The same space, but not the same place. The soil, suddenly chemically-bereft of sustaining anything but what just got ripped out, is no longer landscape but ecological cul-de-sac. Redwood-sized trunks lashed to wheels and an engine barrel down dirt roads one after the other. it is stark cause-and-effect, easier to see than in the West with our complex chains of supply.

This is what Africa has done to me. Not a blinding moment of enlightenment, but many small moments that creep up without real thought. The things I saw there will be with me forever, ineradicable viruses of the imagination.