Elderly neighbor hones woodpile stacking to art form

Justin Isherwood
For Justin Isherwood's elderly neighbor Stanley O., fashioning a woodpile is an 'artform'.

Exists there a separate category for art, what you won’t see at the Metropolitan, the Walker, the Leigh-Yawkey. Stanley O. lives east from me a couple miles, a widower now for 20 years. His son took over the farm and built a new house next door leaving Stanley exactly where most farmers dream their career will let them off. 

Still on the farm if someone else who has to get out of bed at the crack of dawn. The crack of dawn for a dairy farmer being two time zones earlier than the crack of dawn for most other professions, except maybe snowplow drivers.

Stanley is some of 90 years old, maybe a little over or a little under, he said, close enough he says to admit of being middle age. Stanley lives by himself, makes his own breakfast, but goes to the granddaughter’s for supper, then walks the trail home in the dark with his dog. He’s recently been persuaded to carry a flashlight for safety reasons despite Stanley saying he can be dead six months and still navigate that path in the dark.

Every fall the kids cut a pile of firewood for Stanley. Every year they have the same argument whether or not they will pile it for him. For most of 80 years Stanley has been piling his own wood and he’s got a method and it’s his method and nobody else can do it his way – the way it’s supposed to be. To catch here a certain authority of the kind ordinarily left to the Ten Commandments, not wood piles. Okay if the kids fill the woodshed, throw it how they want, but the pile on the back porch of that farmhouse is Stanley’s art.

Art is a word we tend to take serious, such as when an original Picasso comes up for sale at seven figures, pushing eight, or some sculpture resembles a woman or else a building crane. On a more passerine level art, what a middlin’ tornado does to a middlin’ woods, abstract expressionist as you can get, and pretty enough if it ain’t your woods.

The woodpile on Stanley’s back porch is for his parlor stove. Stanley among the elect few who believes a parlor stove is more comfortable than central heat. Stanley does have central heat in the cellar, there’s even central air attached which he doesn’t know about. His son had it installed one weekend when the old guy went to Beloit to visit the daughter, a retired English professor. 

For summer weeks when it gets muggy, even in Rosholt, unbeknownst to Stanley his son programs the air conditioner to cool down the house about five degrees from where it’d be otherwise. Stanley wears his long johns all summer, and to bed, so by the time he switches uniforms on Sunday he is smelling harder than a barn cat. Doesn’t help he still sleeps in the upstairs bedroom instead of on the ground floor as is 40 degrees cooler.

Unlike other folks who cut wood to an approximate length, Stanley’s woodpile is cut to a length so precise there isn’t a stick more than a quarter inch out of line.

Stanley O’s woodpile is a work – how most artists refer to their business. Isn’t art, it’s a work, even Stanley would agree, whether or not their long johns smell the same.  Stanley’s woodpile is cut to a length so precise there isn’t a stick more than a quarter inch out of line. Each split by hand ‘cause Stanley believes wood 'ain’t cleaved can’t attain proper dry, no matter it’s only four inches across'. 

Stanley is not the kind to risk a chimney fire, splits every piece, which in turn puts a burden on the son and grandson who’d just as soon split Stanley’s wood with a power ram. The old boar berates their technique because they ignore the little stuff. Saying if they had ever had a chimney fire winding through 12 feet of wire-hung pipe, turning the whole length red as a Florida Finlander but to wonder when the wire holding up the pipe would melt and drop the inferno on the parlor rug and kill everybody in an instant – they’d split every stick too. This what Stanley tells them, like he’s been there at that chimney fire.

For their part, they’d rather not endure that lecture again. So they let Stanley split his own wood with a hand maul he only slightly outweighs. Meaning they have to credit his personal wood pile with only straight grained maple which splits easier than an oyster cracker. 

If you ever had to sort out a woodpile to only straight grain, you’d understand there is love of a kind that isn’t obvious. Good thing a patch of woods goes to soft maple and green ash. Every summer the grandkids get up a load of Grandpa-wood with a diameter between six inches and four. To gain a pile in the corner yard chainsawed into bolts 48 ¾” long.  Exactly 48 ¾”. What Stanley cuts into stovewood, exactly 12” long. The ¾" for the kerf of the saw, as leaves exact piece of 12” firewood. Stanley doesn’t stand a stick in his pile that is 15 inches, not 14, not 13, which is taking the art thing further than would Michaelangelo.

I have been to visit Stanley on a day when the thermometer has sunk into its burrow, when his parlor stove is the kind of art you can’t hang on the wall but wish you could.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.