Lighterd knots were uncelebrated treasures of the piney woods. To clarify, “lighterd” is the name for a type of wood, the pitch rich remnants of pines after natural destruction or human harvesting. The word is a run-together popular construction from “lighter wood,” meaning wood used to light fires in fireplaces, kitchen stoves, syrup boilers or around wash pots. Some people use the word “kindling,” but not those from South Georgia. If anything, they added the word “fat” to characterize the concentrated tar, thus “fat lighterd.”
Brainard Cheyney used the word Lightwood in his fictionalized account of the land war of the late 1900s in the region between the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers, but that is not the word used by the plain folk there. That wood is anything but light. They said and maybe spelled it in two or three ways, but it always ended in erd or urd.
Lighterd was encountered in three basic forms: snags, stumps and knots. Snags were standing remnants of pines killed by storms, lightning or land-clearing efforts by Native Americans. They only had to girdle the trees (cut away a strip of bark all the way around) to kill pines and end their competition for soil nutrients needed for corn and other crops. Resin (tar) trapped in ancient pines made the wood burn hot and readily.
White settlers with axes and, later, crosscut saws, harvested the trees for lumber or removed them to clear land for cultivation. What remained was stumps, millions of them. While trees could be piled up and burned in “clearing up land,” stumps were stubborn. Tap roots of longleaf pines run deep into the earth, 3 to 5 feet depending on the age of the tree, and that might mean centuries. Removal required digging deep around the stump and trying to burn it out -- hard work and often unsuccessful. Roots and buried remnants of stumps persisted in fields for years, leading to broken plows and bruised bellies from sudden encounters with plow handles when stumps stopped mules in their tracks. Finally, dynamite and bulldozers cleared fields of stumps and cleaned up the working language of plow hands.
Lighterd knots, fist sized and larger, formed where limbs met the heartwood of the pine. As snags dropped limbs in the process of dying, knots would fall at their bases. In timbering, limbs were cut away where they joined the tree. Eventually, the softer wood of limbs was reclaimed by nature, but knots remained where resin collected at the junction point between limb and tree. Lighterd knots were handy, easy to find and gather, a ready source of serious heat. Some were destroyed when woods were burned, as were some stumps, but they were weathered and usually withstood the quick burning woods fires.
Lighterd of every sort was important to farm families. Because it burned so intensely, it was only used to start fires in kitchen stoves. Dry wood from smaller pines was used to bake biscuits. It was used sparingly in syrup making. Cane juice was boiled steadily, but it must not be scorched. However, the big old houses with high ceilings were cold in winter. I have seen my father split a large stump, lug one half into the house and into the fireplace and fire it up, driving out the cold, at least for a time. The wash pot had to boil briskly to loosen soil from the fields and tar from tobacco. Long splinters from snags or stumps could be used as torches.
Lighterd knots could be substituted for the wood from snags or stumps in many cases. They might be added to a fire around the wash pot or in a fireplace to bump up the heat a bit. Because they were sealed by weathering, they had to be exposed to existing fire or cut enough to open their “fat” before they would “catch.”
For decades lighterd knots were almost as numerous as gnats. If there came a sudden cold snap before the big pile of firewood for winter had been gathered or in the spring after the woodpile had been depleted, it was easy to take a mule and wagon into the woods and pick up enough lighterd knots to beat back the chill. “Just send the boys looking for lighterd knots.”
These days it might be hard to find lighterd knots, although there are not many uses for them in houses heated by electricity or gas. Nor are they used for making syrup, butchering hogs, laundering clothes or making lye soap. However, over the decades, many were gathered and burned in these activities.
Lighterd knots have not escaped destruction in the woods. Modern forest management favors clear-cutting with limbs and other things pushed together and burned to make way for rows of planted pines. Lighterd knots get pushed into the piles and burned or buried by machines used for cutting, clearing and planting.
I did discover some fine lighterd knots some years ago. Reedy Creek went mostly dry. Walking down the stream bed behind our family farm in Toombs County, I saw several lighterd knots that had been protected and preserved by the creek’s dark waters. I had no use for them, but took one anyway. For the good times.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.