Firewood and Chinese People in Toronto

Tree branches cut by a Mainland Chinese neighbour. These cannot easily fit into my fireplace. Toronto, Canada

Tree branches cut by a Mainland Chinese neighbour. These cannot easily fit into my fireplace. Toronto, Canada

Random events pummel our life on a regular basis. This is also true here in Toronto, Canada. My fireplace is used somewhat frequently during the colder months, so I am always on the hunt for firewood. We have many Mainland Chinese people here in Scarborough that throw out burnable wood, mostly from trees on their property. It is an odd experience to me to see cut up tree branches from these Chinese houses, as most of the wood is not able to easily fit in my fireplace. This is markedly different from firewood left curbside of Canadian houses. I postulate that those Mainland Chinese that migrate to Canada are intellectuals and university graduates, and that they have no experience in making a fire or preparing wood to be burned in a fireplace or stove. Canada only welcomes educated and affluent Mainland Chinese to our shores. Maybe wood cutting should also be part of the entry criteria.

It is not that Mainland Chinese people cannot make fires. Far from it. In most of the rural villages in China life centers around a stove powered by burning wood. Someone gets up at the crack of dawn, usually the oldest woman of the house, and starts the fire in the stove. Twenty or thirty minutes later hot water is boiling and breakfast can be cooked. This occurs only if someone has previously collected and broken wood branches in such a size as to fit into the stove. Suffice to say that I have more fire starting enthusiasm than skill.

Lunch and dinner in rural China are similar to breakfast. Therefore a lot of firewood needs to be collected and prepared. Exhausting it is to collect enough wood for the family. This is also the reason you see so few trees in many farming areas. Deforestation is a real threat to rural China. In rural China collecting wood is commonplace. Not so for the Mainland Chinese that are my neighbours here in Scarborough.

Tree branches cut by a Mainland Chinese neighbour. These cannot easily fit into my fireplace. Toronto, Canada

Tree branches cut by a Mainland Chinese neighbour. These cannot easily fit into my fireplace. Toronto, Canada

As home owners we all love the looks and benefits of our local trees. They provide shade in the hot summer, allow animals to nest in them, and may even bloom for your visual and olfactory enjoyment. Trees do need yearly care. Branches sometimes die, which needs to be cut down and removed from the site of the tree. Leave it too long and a large dead branch might be broken during a violent storm and fall on your house.

The routine is pretty simple. Identify a dead branch, use a saw specifically for green wood, cut the branch down. Cut up the wood into smaller sections. Haul the wood to the curb. On a scheduled day determined by your garbage schedule, the City of Toronto yard waste pickup will come and haul it away. Or one of your neighbours will cart the large pieces of wood away from your house, to be burned in their fireplace as firewood. When a neighbour takes away the excess wood, the wood is burned for heat and enjoyment. When the City of Toronto takes the wood away it is cut into small chips and used as mulch for garden beds throughout the city. Either way, tree branches are not wasted.

I am one of those neighbours who’s car trunk always seem to have bark and wood chips stuck in the interior carpet. It is pretty simple, really. When you find someone throwing out wood, you determine if it is pine. If not, load it into your car trunk and haul it home. Unload it, cut it up, mark the year, stack it properly in your garage and store it for 2-3 years. This storage period allows the wood to to dry out and is more easily split and burned. Hard woods burn the slowest and is the best. Pine is the worst because it sparks and explodes when in a fire, great for an outside fire but not great for a fireplace. Burning pine in your fireplace will also accumulate creosote, a black sticky mess which needs to be cleaned. The family enjoys a warm fire, and the kids toast marshmallows to a crisp. Then I get to clean up the messy ashes.

Recently two Chinese families decided to massacre the large foliage on their property. This is a common behaviour here in Scarborough. Tree branches are broken by hand, and then the bark of the live tree is inadvertently stripped down when the cut is not clean. This scars the tree for life, looks hideous, and degrades the value of their house. Large branches of bundles in excess of 3′ are left at the curb, and not collected by the City of Toronto because the bundle is too long for their trucks.

Most Canadian families will cut a branch off a “Y” section of the tree, and as close to the branch crotch as possible. The other fork of the “Y” is then cut down top and bottom. This allows straighter sections to be more easily cut into nice bite sized wood sections that fit into a fireplace just nicely. Chinese families rarely do this. The Chinese method is to lop off the tops of the two top sections of the “Y” and then cut the base. The resulting “Y” shaped piece of wood cannot be easily stacked and is not easily burned in a fireplace. It is not easy to change their behaviour and not really my business to educate them in the not so subtle art of tree pruining and wood cutting. For sure though, these Mainland and Hong Kong Chinese have little experience with a fireplace.

Tools are another interesting topic. Mainland Chinese families seem to not want to buy the proper tools for trimming a tree. Rather than saw a branch off neatly and closely to the tree, they seem to prefer snapping it off with their hands and help from gravity. These leave jagged pieces of wood on the tree, a real eyesore to the rest of the neighbours, and is not very healthy for the tree. One neighbour was trimming his shrubs, which were so overgrown that branches were 2″ in diameter. He brings out a 2′ backsaw that had fine teeth, one used in wood carpentry. I had to stop him early for fear the saw would jump off the cut line and rip through his hand. That day, in front of me, was not the day he would visit the local hospital Emergency Department. Red is only becoming to a tree in the form of a flower. He did not know that green wood needs a different saw from a carpenter’s saw. A 2′ backsaw does not cut shrub branches very efficiently, cleanly nor safely. Lopers and saw blades specifically used for cutting down green trees are required both for efficiency and safety.

As I loaded up the wood from the curb to my car I realized that the wood was so oddly cut and knew the house owner was Chinese. Sure enough the Mainland Chinese owner came out to help be load the wood into my car. He was a nice fellow and we chatted in Mandarin. I could hardly stack the wood properly in my trunk, as there were so many “Y” pieces of wood. He wondered what I would do with the wood and I told him, in Mandarin. It was news to him that someone would want to burn wood in a fireplace, and that person was in his neighbourhood here in Toronto! Still, he was happy that I was carting away his rubbish wood and annoying tree refuse.

Mainland Chinese people migrate to Canada and live in Scarborough, and we welcome them. It is interesting for me, who has a foot in both Canadian and Chinese culture to be the bridge between. Still, with the wood cutting skills of our newly migrated, that bridge will not be made of straight wood.

1 thought on “Firewood and Chinese People in Toronto

  1. David Ing

    Don, the observation that Mainland Chinese in Canada don’t know how to cut trees speaks to (i) skills specialization in a country where labour is cheap, (ii) an education system that doesn’t appreciate basic hands-on skills, and/or (iii) a culture where practices prefer uninformed action to reflective study.

    While I was raised closer to the forest than my sons in downtown Toronto, pruning the tree (and clearing branches after a windstorm) turned out to educational family experiences. We did try to figure out the appropriate tools — a chainsaw was really needed — before acting. This may speak more to the strength of the Canadian education system than our direct proximity to nature.

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