Twice now I've gone back to that pile and loaded the van with as much wood as I can carry. The first time I tried to chop it, I damaged the axe. On the second round, the axe almost fell apart. I went to the hardware store and purchased a new axe with a solid plastic handle. To make decent progress on a cut, I have to raise the axe as high as I possibly can - standing on my toes, even - and swing it straight down with all the force I can muster. This is the damn hardest wood I've tried to cut since the turn of the century. (I get a kick out of being able to use 'century' in my timeframes. Ha!)
Anyway, every couple of days I've been able to chip a meager pile of kindling off the stolen planks I keep in the back yard. I take the kindling inside and drop it onto a stack of our old bills and junk mail, and in the late evenings we get a nice little fire. Tonight I was lounging in front of the fireplace and my mind loped back around to wondering what kind of wood this could be. "All I'm familiar with is redwood, oak, pine, and madrone. Is this pine, perhaps? Something else?" I let the thought drift lazily away and pondered my build-system code instead.
The fire was dying, so I rolled off the couch and started poking at the scraps in the fireplace with the cast-iron poker. I scooted them all together, then set the poker down, leaned over, and blew some air onto the scraps, making an encouraging red glow. Then a gust of backdraft pushed into my face and straight up my nose. My whole head exploded with the sweet papery taste of hickory smoke. "WHOAH" I thought, and blew on the fire again. I stood there for about a minute, breathing in and out, my mind roiling with images of sausage, cheese, ham, burnt bacon, Doritos, fried salami, barbecue sauce, and Slim Jims.
All this time I must have known that Hickory Smoke flavor was derived from wood ... but now, I think, I really understand it. How ironic that I smell the wood and I think of barbecue sauce, when instead I should smell barbecue sauce and be reminded of this wood. Just another one of those shocking reminders that I keep stumbling over as I age - reminders of how much of my life has been shaped and channeled by a man-made environment, that is in turn a product of the times. Everybody loves Hickory Smoke Flavor. Now we synthesize it in a lab, removing the wood entirely from the picture. ... And how many people have actually smelled the wood burning? One in ten? I imagine the ratio's pretty good in the southern U.S. (where the wood is abundant), but not so good elsewhere.
For what it's worth, the wood itself smells amazing. I really had no idea, and Slim Jims do not do it justice. You know me -- my eyes sting and I cough at the merest hint of cigarette smoke -- but I feel like I could stand around smelling this stuff all day long. I'm going to have to go swipe some more.