Oh it's really winter all right, and it's been cold. For a
while it seemed like that might not happen at all this season,
but it found us. You know it's cold when half your conversations
in town start with the subject. You know from the squeak your
boots make on the snow as it gets close to zero. And it's
definitely a sign when the sand pile for the driveway‚s
frozen so hard your shovel just bounces off it. But you really
know it‚s cold when you go out to your woodpile and
start pulling only the good stuff, the two and three year-old
maple and oak and cherry packed with every last BTU the forest
could squeeze into it.
Those of us who heat with wood all have our own intimate relationships
with our stoves and woodpiles and even our kindling supply,
along with all the tricks we‚ve taught ourselves to
maximize the heat or minimize the work. We each have our own
ways of choosing when to shovel the ash out or to build again
on what‚s left of last night's embers. We all have our
ways of raking the coals, and of loading for the fastest,
hottest burn we can get and then closing it down to something
controllable. We've learned how to reach without thinking
for exactly the species and size that's needed at any given
moment. And we've all figured out that every woodstove plays
a bit like a musical instrument only vaguely like any we‚ve
played before. My stove looks like something from Jules Verne's
Nautilus, with an old style catalytic converter, three airflow
controls, and two thermometers. Every time you walk over to
it it's an exercise in thermodynamic problem solving. It's
efficient, it cranks, but it doesn't kick out the heat my
friend's oil barrel stove with a blower does.
My editor thought we should probably be looking at either
the state's budget ,or maybe the state of the union in this
issue of the paper. Okay, well, the President's right you
know: steroid use among professional athletes really is a
problem. As for the state's budget, we talked about it last
year but it didn't do much good. It does seem the Governor's
gone a bit casino-happy, pinning his hopes for funding education
on New Yorkers' willingness to play bad odds and tax the poor.
We're not suggesting it's easy to run or fund a state, but
the job does come with some ethical obligations to the future.
Meanwhile back in a less abstract world, I've been using hemlock
for kindling this year but next year I'm going back to white
pine. Dead dry they're equally combustible, but the hemlock
rarely splits as well, and you can almost count on taking
a splinter out of your hand for every round or two you bring
in the house. I've also been using basswood for kindling this
season, following the lead of a logger I trust. It burns fine,
no creosote at all, but for plant matter that's light as balsa
and looks as if it should split like a dream, it doesn't.
All right, you probably want to know where all the wood talk's
going. The thing about heating with wood is you can't take
it for granted. You can't flip a switch and everything's okay.
You've got to be there, you've got to work it, and you've
either got to deal with it very practically and very immediately,
or you deal with the consequences in frozen pipes and stacks
of dirty dishes. So heating with wood is sort of an object
lesson in causality. You do one set of things attentively,
you stay warm. You do anything else and everything falls apart.
It‚s kind of like climbing, where in a vertical environment
cause and effect are more apparent than in most places. Spend
enough time just barely attached to walls of rock or ice and
paying attention becomes a central part of who you are and
how you deal with problems. And that‚s what it takes
to make anything work well; a life, a family, a business,
a town, anything.
Our community, our region, and our country all have choices
to make, and they all require an attentiveness on all of our
parts that‚s not so dissimilar to heating with wood
in January. Like most folks with woodstoves, I‚ve got
a backup system. But the backup systems for communities and
countries are slow to kick in. They're regulatory and electoral
processes subject to all kinds of influence, and they need
to be watched as carefully as any fire we tend.
This is a good time in our seasonal cycle to be doing that.
It‚s reading season, for one thing. And it's a time
for turning inward toward ourselves and those closest to us.
It's the time for a change of pace most of us could use, a
time to try and find a balance for ourselves between doing
and being, between how we spend our time and how we invest
it in self awareness. It's a tough time of year but it's not
without its rewards. Next time it's 10 below, try walking
outside and taking a long look at the night sky. See whether
your eyes don't start tearing first from the cold, or from
the beauty. If it's not so clear to you which, it could be
you've become more a part of these mountains than you realized.