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Retiree Andy Bell enjoys the comradeship of woodcutting. Photo/Hannah Miller

N.C. firewood ministry warms hearts and homes
By Hannah Miller

Some chilly work by members of a Bat Cave, N.C., church helps keep their neighbors in the North Carolina mountains a little warmer during the area’s cold winters.

Nearly every Monday, men of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration don ear protection and heavy shoes, climb into pickup trucks and wind up steep mountain trails to find the downed trees that are their destination.

There are usually three to four of the woodcutters, sometimes as many as eight. They attack the donated timber with determination, scarcely stopping during the morning as their chainsaws turn gigantic oaks into manageable logs.

Ranging in age from 40 — the Rev. Wes Shields’ age — to over 65, they feed the cut logs into a splitter. The split wood is then delivered to some 25 families who need help with their heating costs.

“In the part of the population that struggles to make ends meet, we’re certainly a piece of the puzzle,” Shields said.

The men deliver about three pickup loads weekly, not counting those weeks when weather keeps them off the hillsides.

The firewood ministry began when Shields, a North Carolina native fresh from another firewood ministry at St. Columba church in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, arrived in Bat Cave three and a half years ago.

The inspiration for both ministries was the same, he said: “A need we could fill.”

The Church of the Transfiguration, part of the Diocese of Western North Carolina, perches on a hillside in Hickory Nut Gorge, a valley carved through the Blue Ridge Mountains by the Rocky Broad River. Its native-stone building shows up strikingly in fall against a backdrop of brilliantly colored hardwoods.

The community of Bat Cave shares the gorge with the slightly better known communities of Chimney Rock — a rock formation that’s a well-known tourist destination — and Lake Lure, a location for the film “Dirty Dancing.” The 75 or so parishioners who attend Sunday morning services come from a multi-county area.

Shields and his wife Laura both grew up in nearby Buncombe County, one of the four counties to which the church delivers wood. The others are the church’s home county of Henderson, plus Rutherford and Polk.

At Church of the Transfiguration, the Shields family — including daughters Emma, 9, and Cody, 6, and son Tucker, 3 — found a small but mission-minded congregation of longtime residents, more recently arrived retirees and summer residents.

Women of the church are the force behind a Bare Necessities ministry, which sews cloth diapers for families that need them and prepares feminine hygiene kits for young women in distressed areas like Haiti.

A community-wide Sunday night dinner prepared by the church not only offers meals and socializing but also brings offers of trees and helps the church’s woodcutters find out who needs their help.

Getting Started

The firewood ministry started when newly arrived Shields asked Hope Wittmer of the food pantry and community-service organization Hickory Nut Gorge Outreach, “Is there a need?”

“I said, ‘Oh yeah, we have lots of folks that can use that,’” she said. “Some of these homes aren’t insulated enough, so they have extremely high electric bills.”

Firewood may be a complementary source of heat for some families, she said, but “for some it may be the primary source of heat throughout.”

So Shields and his parishioners went to work. The church donated a log splitter and a chainsaw; a church member provided a pickup. The men rounded up other chainsaws.

“I think I split wood with them before we finished moving here,” said Patrick Warncke, 50, who moved to Chimney Rock from Texas.

Some of the volunteers had never used a chainsaw before, Shields said, but “you don’t need to be skilled; you just need to be willing.”

Andy Bell, 65, retired from organizing charitable foundations, says he’s no stranger to firewood. He and his wife heated and cooked with it when they were first married.

The old saw about firewood giving off double heat — when you work up a sweat cutting it and then again when you burn it — is true, he said.

But he would add a third “warmth,” he said — the feeling of companionship he gets from joining his friends on the hillsides. His wife helps cement the bonds by preparing rehydrated apple slices that he passes around during breaks

You can learn about other people by simply talking to them, he said, but you can learn a lot more about them from working with them.

And firewood cutting on the scale that he and his friends do, he said, can’t be a solitary pursuit.

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