Whose wood these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here . . . Robert Frost

Buying firewood has always seemed to me to be an unnatural act, especially at the prices dealers quote for the long, unsplit logs I like.

Logs stack so compactly that a cord of them will contain up to 25 percent more wood than 128 cubic feet os splits. And, once you get the fire started, they burn longer. Having spent a winter of my youth cutting and delivering wood, I don't blame dealers for being reluctant to supply an honest cord of roundwood for a reasonable price. The money I made never seemed fair compensation for those long bitter days.

More than once I have paid outrageous prices to firewood gypsies because I have no heart for trying to beat down men who work harder than I do. Besides, they usually have a ragged little kid in the truck with them.

The only way to avoid all this angst and expense is to cut my own firewood, which is satisfying and only pleasantly fatiguing. And later, as all that work goes up in smoke, the fires seem to warm from the inside as well; the muscles remember.

Which is why I was out in St. Marys County last week, using a friend's chain saw to fill up the friend's pickup truck with oak, beech and hickory cut from the abandoned and over-grown Colonial farm the friend is dreaming of putting back into production.

My father-in-law, who knows about such things, chose trees that were disased or stunted or crowding others. We worked the edge of a clearing, stopping now and then to marvel over the number and size of the deer tracks that laced the slope. Squirrels scolded us, but the trees we were cutting would never have matured to make nuts for them, and the openings we were making let in light that would encourage the undergrowth rabbits and deer need for cover and browse.

The day was sunny but cold enough to make working pleasant, not quite windy enough to blow the falling trees off line. The truck was filling at a satisfactory rate, and the only sour note was the banshee scream of the chainsaw.

Chainsaws are so loud that the only reason all woodcutters don't go deaf is that the damn things kill or disable them first. It is the most deadly of all common tools, but it is absolutely indispensable for serious woodcutting. I have two of them, a gas-powered one for cutting long baulks in the woods and an electric one for slicing them quietly into logs at home.

The owners of the property cannot spend as much time there as they should, and ask those of us they let use it to keep an eye out for poachers and timber rustlers. There are walnut trees on it that could send a kid to college. The neighboring landowner is running a sizable timbering operation, and it looked to me as though the crews had ranged well over my friend's property line.

The truck was about half full when we began to hear the saws and heavy equipment of the neighbor's crew, and by and by a couple of rough-looking young men came riding up on a front-end loader. they were no more rough-looking than I was when working the woods at their age, but I alas am now old enough to be ill at ease in the country of the young. No one spoke for a few moments, and I spent the time memorizing their faces and clothing so I could describe them to my friend . . . or to the sheriff.

We chatted about weather and deer sign before one of them got around to saying, in the mildest of tones, "I think you're cutting on my grandfather's land."

"I was just about to say that I think you've been cutting on my friend's land," I said, showing him where I thought the line ran.

"I don't think so," the young man said.

"I'm pretty sure all this piece through here belongs to Granddaddy. My father picks the trees, and he knows the place. He'll be along in a little while and we can ask him."

"Well, if I'm poaching I'll stop."

"No," he said, waving a hand toward the handful of small trees we had felled, "don't worry about that, what you're cutting is no problem. We've got something over 600 acres. here. Anyway I'm not real sure about where the line is, you might be right." They went back to skidding logs.

Two trees later the father came along. "Didn't the schoolteacher show you the line?" he asked.

"The schoolteacher doesn't own it any more, he sold it to a friend of mine. I came down with him in the spring, and as I recall it he said his line ran right above the cut there where the boys are working."

"Well," he said, smiling, "that's a little bit off. About three-quarters of a mile, or a little more. Hop on the tractor and I'll show you how the lines run."

My embarrassment grew as we wound along the rutted road. Eventually we came to a massive beech stump that jogged my memory, and I began to apologize abjectly.

"Aw, don't worry about it," he said. "I don't think you could get that pickup out with a load anyway, bad as the road is down here. The only thing is, you'll never get that green wood to burn this winter. Why don't you cut up some of the logs we felled last year? We've got more than we'll ever get around to, and it's been seasoning since February, so it'll burn good."

"I must say you're being pretty generous with a timber thief," I said. "Where I come from somebody would call the police."

He laughed. "There's a lot more here than you could ever haul off. Easy enough for a man to miss a property line where it isn't marked clear."

We talked long, in the way of the country. He spoke of his father, 93 and still putting in a day's work on the farm every day, and of the developer's scheme that the family had recently thwarted, and of the game on the land and the adjoining marsh, and how the county and the country are going to hell. We told Army stories, his from Korea, mine from the Vietnam era. I told him of my friend's modest plans for the property, and saw his relief when he learned that the land had been bought for what it was rather than for what could be done to it. I looked forward to telling my friend how much he was going to enjoy his neighbors.

The day dwindled down, and by the time we both went back to work it was too late for me to make a full load. I stopped on the way out to offer to pay for the poached wood, but thought better of it just in time to avoid adding insult to injury.

"Not much of a load there," he said.

"I was wondering if I could buy some to go along with what I stole," I said. His boys loaded the truck until it groaned, and the price he named was half the market value of the dense red oak.

I had driven halfway home before the thought struck me that I had spent the day taking advantage of a man who cuts firewood for a living.