A Hero’s Guide to France: Stacking Wood

While the heroes waited for Stage Eighteen to come sweeping by on this year’s tour, we walked the few streets of the Commune of Cervières, a village of one hundred and fifty-nine souls, which can be found somewhere below the Col d’Izoard. As we wandered, our eyes were drawn to the beautiful stacks of wood, and the many people working on small chores around their homes. More than a few seemed disinterested in the tour, as responsibilities for the coming winter took precedence over Schlecks and Contadors.

The quietness of these pursuits gave the Heroes an idea, and we are willing to give it away for free, right here, for those that have the time to see it through. Someone should write a book (complete with beautiful photos) about preparing for winter, specifically the gathering of wood. It occurred to us that transporting, chopping and stacking wood is an ancient act that takes one back to a time before history. This primal art has been practiced wherever there has been a man or woman who feels the cold, has access to wood, knowledge of fire, and something sharp. Here in our day, nowhere is this act more beautifully accomplished than the Alps. Even with modern aids such as trucks, chainsaws, and wood splitters, the task of gathering wood is fraught with injury and long hours, yet ultimately a rough beauty. This work, this paean to wood splitting, would be a silent but essential story, with old men and young families going about their days, quietly continuing an art that is all but lost in our twenty-first century world.

There is one place in Cervières to have coffee. Talking with a few locals in this small café we Heroes found that beyond the yearly foraging for wood and other winter provisions, this small town has a history that is as dark and long as a mighty peak’s shadow. Almost burned to the ground during the liberation from German forces near the end of World War II, many of the surviving buildings were subsequently destroyed by a flood in 1957. The old farmhouses that still stand are fitted with a thousand improvisations made of stone, timber, and mortar. These homes reflect the changes that have come sweeping through their little Alpine village, bit by bit. But no matter how many years go by, the denizens of Cervières still need wood. And so they gather, they chop, they stack. An ancient rhythm, played out in the shadow of even more ancient hills.

(Words by Hannah Burtness and Luke Batten)(Photographs by Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler)