by Lisa Schauer
About a dozen mysterious beehive-shaped wooden structures stand in a quiet meadow facing Sleepy Creek Mountain.
Each sturdy cylinder is over six feet high, lifted off the ground by a horizontal ring of cordwood, and topped by a sloped roof made of bark.
On closer inspection, these hut-like constructions look to contain about two cords of wood, firmly stacked with nary a nail or rail in sight. They seem to share a purposeful aesthetic that blends form and function.
People have wondered about these odd Nordic-looking structures. Why were they built? As props for a wedding or Renaissance Fair, or is it a new type of Airbnb?
These are the Holz Housen, German for roundhouse, a Scandinavian tradition of roundly stacking unlimited amounts of firewood to cure without the use of a rack, fence or wall. Only an axe or chainsaw is used in its construction.
“It’s good exercise,” says Larry Schultz of Berkeley Springs, owner and builder of the self-supporting round stacks. Schultz is an attorney who says he enjoys being in the outdoors.
Usually found stacking alone after work in the spring and fall, Schultz sometimes hires his 14-year-old neighbor Daniel to help.
Schultz is burning black cherry wood in his rustic wood stove on this day. It emits a sweet, warm aroma. He has stacks of elm, ash, oak and maple. Each variety carries its own unique properties.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Schultz said he made friends with a Swedish family. The father was an artist who had seven sons to help him build their Holz Housen, and from them Schultz first learned how to build one.
“You have to spend money on chainsaws and fuel. So it may not be cheaper than just heating your home. But it does make you popular with the neighbors after high winds,” said Schultz, who sometimes fells unwanted trees in the neighborhood to help fuel his passion for wood stacking.
Other than the occasional squirrel, no one dwells in the huts. A swarm of hornets had to be knocked out once.
Round stacking is an efficient way to stack and cure wood. Each ring is stacked inward, leaving an empty area inside to toss small and uneven pieces.
Firewood must be cured quickly to avoid fungus and rot. It should be elevated off the ground and stacked in such a way to encourage maximum exposure to wind and sun.
Best gathered in the spring, the wood shrinks and seasons properly over the summer and fall in the round. When moved to a woodshed or next to a woodstove in the winter, the cured wood emits a type of heat unequaled by that of oil or electric.
Popular for centuries in the Scandinavian Peninsula, including the countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland, the round wood stack is still an uncommon sight in the new world.
Schultz burns about eight cords of firewood every winter, heating his large A-frame log cabin. Neighbors call him when a tree goes down, and he is happy to help remove unwanted trees, chopping them into next winter’s firewood.
Fire contains the same electromagnetic particles found in the sun. So a crackling fire with its glowing embers seeps into the skin like sunshine. Sitting contentedly beside a crackling fire is one of life’s greatest eternal pleasures.
Wood fire is considered a green, renewable source of biofuel. Trees absorb carbon dioxide up to a certain point, and then release it before they die. So when a tree is burned, it is considered carbon-neutral.
In the old world, countries like England, Scotland and Ireland relied on coal after the landscape was deforested. In heavily wooded nations like Norway, Sweden and Finland, the tradition of wood heat never died, and is more popular than ever, with improved efficiencies of cleaner-burning wood stoves.
Over a century ago, before electric, oil and gas heat, a wood-fired kitchen stove burned steadily in every farmhouse to boil water, bake bread and braise meats day and night. A pot-bellied cast iron stove was the focal point of the family’s activities in the living area, just as the open fire pit was the primeval gathering spot for early humans.
Some early human tribes didn’t know how to start a fire, so they borrowed a flame from a neighboring tribe and kept it alive. Having enough firewood meant the difference between life and freezing to death. Even today, wood stoves are a crucial backup heat source in modern homes.
If Schultz stopped stacking wood today, he figures he’d have enough firewood to last about a year and a half. But with no mandatory retirement age for a woodsman, he plans to continue building his roundhouses as long as he can. These days, his only concession may be to let someone younger chop down the tree.