Five Hundred Years of Sun

piñon pitchwood

Take a good look and don’t forget

Behold the magic piñon! Do you have any idea what you’re looking at? The dark areas are crystallized resin. You can see it extending in a shallow curve across the cut face of the wood. This particular piece is about five inches wide. It came from the top of a mountain and was probably here when Columbus showed up. My friend only cuts standing or naturally-felled dead trees. In this climate, they cure to perfection and take eons to rot. Some of the trees have pitchwood like this. What I do is split it up small enough to break the pieces in two and use them for fire starters. It’s just insane how well this works.

A piece will ignite with a sputtering hiss like lighting a fuse. In the morning I light one, prop it up against a chunk of piñon, lay another chunk in there to hold it in place, place a stick of cedar or aspen on top, and stand back. That’s it, you’re done. I haven’t used paper or cardboard in years. No, you don’t put a whole firewood-sized hunk of that pitchwood in there! But sometimes I miss one, or gamble that a too-heavy piece won’t betray me.

One thing to remember is that even if you get it throttled back by closing the draft, watch out: the thing can still bite you in the ass. Not long ago I “shut ‘er down” and thought I could relax. After you’ve cut off the air, a piñon fire will usually just incandesce and pump out heat. This time though, after a few minutes, there were enough volatile gases in the smoke to explode, and with a whomp like someone snapped a great big carpet in my face, smoke and great big flakes of greasy soot blew out from every seam and joint! They floated in the air and settled slowly, inexorably, onto everything in sight. This beats burning down the house, but not by much.

I yammer on to keep the riff-raff out. This wood is a gift and doesn’t love abuse. Treat it with respect, and heaven opens up to you. Kick it in the junk, it kills you dead.

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