I met over the holidays a friend who had recently moved here from Minnesota. He had just gone through his first experience of buying fireplace wood in Georgetown, and had found that his experience with wood, its measurement, type and quality in Minnesota, was quite useless in Georgetown.

Having seen the wood trade from both ends of the line -- that of a purchaser in Georgetown and, not as a producer, but as an observer of producers in Rappahannock County -- I attempted to explain the whole matter to him.

I grew up in a rural community in Minnesota where wood was used for fuel, and I knew from experience, sustained by an education in which measures such as pecks and gills were still taught, that a cord of wood contained 128 cubic feet of wood, allowing for some air spaces, and that the common practice was to measure a cord of wood as 4 feet by 4 feet, by 8 feet.

My first surprise in buying wood in Georgetown when I moved there, as my friend had, was that a cord of wood was still 4 feet high, roughly 8 feet in length, but that in width it was only 18 inches. I also found that wood was sold as measured in ricks, racks, which in Minnesota were measures of hay, and cribs, which were measures of corn. The measurement depended on the dimensions of the pickup truck from which the wood was delivered. The exact volume of wood in a rick, rack or crib, I had never found out. The sellers did allow a prospective buyer to make a quick judgment by eye and then decide whether the price was right.

Being most certain of the quality of oak wood, and of my ability to judge it, I tried to limit my purchases to oak, but sometimes, under duress -- either needing the wood or responding to a seller's plea that I buy the last of his load so that he could get back to the county (Culpeper or Rappahannock) before nightfall or before the predicted snowstorm arrived, I did occasionally buy what was described as a "mixed" cord. A "mixed" cord contained, according to the seller, usually some oak, hickory, cherry, locust, possibly ash, maple and apple. Sometimes my purchase did have the types of woods listed by the seller. Other times it contained woods that did not fit my recollection of their qualities.

On moving to Rappahannock County, I found that hickory, ash, cherry, apple, locust and other types of trees that grow there are like the same trees in Minnesota, as are the poplar and black birch. However, somewhere and somehow between the wood cutting and the delivery in Georgetown, something happens to some of these woods. As a rule, I found that oak that left the country as oak arrived in Georgetown as oak, although its age might have changed along the way. Wood from dead falls sometimes lost age, and green oak took on age, sometimes arriving "cured."

These changes, although noteworthy, fall short of the miraculous changes to be observed in the case of poplar that leaves the county (either Culpeper or Rappahannock) as poplar but arrives in Georgetown as ash or hickory. Locust, too, en route sometimes changes into hickory. Black birch is transmuted into cherry and occasionally into apple wood. These miracles, not unlike the scriptural report of the changing of water into wine, seem to occur somewhere between Warrenton and Gainesville.

I gave all of this information to the Minnesotan, and then advised him that the character of the wood supplier was also important. For four or five years I had the same provider in Georgetown. I suspected that some kind of territorial or personal imperative had been established in that part of the city, for all other wood-men seemed to avoid my house.

I got the best wood from my supplier in the early years of our association. When later I complained about a cord I had bought, he advised me that one had to make choices among woods, which, he said, were like women -- some gave heat and some gave light. He went on to give me a dissertation on what kind of wood was best for each variety of romantic situation, and as to which of the senses were most affected by different kinds of wood. He recommended oak and hickory for warmth, locust and pine for sound and color, birch and poplar for light, cherry and apple if it were odor you wanted.

As the years of our relationship ran on, the wood man seemed gradually to lose interest in wood and natural phenomena, and to turn to religion. As he became more religious, the quality of his wood declined. As the last wood bought from him smoldered in my fireplace, I read the card he had left. It encouraged me to have faith in the Lord and in my fellow men (including wood sellers), and advised me to "Keep Smiling."

I advised the Minnesotan first to buy only oak, and second to settle for a "Georgetown Cord," over ricks, racks and cribs and other odd measures, and third, to be careful of philosophical wood sellers, and fourth, to shun those who offered religion, especially with mixed wood.