Learning from Wood

by Craig Urda Russell

“Every man looks at his wood pile with a kind of affection.“
Henry David Thoreau

Itís late autumn, and when I look out the window of my upstairs study I can see the Chenango River through the now-barren trees.  It hasnít been too cold in upstate New York yet, but itís coming. 

For almost all of my fifty years living in this part of the world, I never really thought much about how I would stay warm through the winter.  I just took it for granted that I would.  Every house Iíve ever lived in has had a furnace.  Whether it burned oil or gas, there was always a thermostat in the house somewhere.  All I needed to do was turn a dial or push a button, and the heat could come on.  Sometimes I didnít even need to do that because I had a programmable thermostat that turned the heat up and down for me.  I never really had to think very hard about heat.  Few Americans do, beyond the constant concern of cost. 

During the few months, though, I have started to think about it, thanks to our decision to rely on wood as our primary source of heat.  The nature of heating with wood differs so much from the nature of heating with other fuels that Iíve been learning a number of things about technology, about time and patience, and about the nature of our relationship with nature and the world. 

Oil or gas forced-air furnaces are usually hidden away in the basement, out of sight and away from daily consciousness.  The main visible evidence of their existence is the thermostat, usually on the main floor of the house.  Turn its little wheel, or push a button, and the furnace turns on, burning its fuel and blowing the heat that results through the houseís ducts until the thermostat registers the amount of heat you want and shuts the furnace back down.  Itís fast, easy, neat, takes little time and even less thought. 

Theyíre complicated things, though, these gas and oil furnaces.  Think of all that goes into making them work.  First someone has to get that fuel for you and to you.  Oil and gas presuppose technology as well as an organized network to find them and get them to you.  Once you have it, you need a way to feed this fuel to the burner.  You need a way to spray the fuel into the burning chamber in a controlled, regulated way.  You need ducts to direct the heat into the various rooms of the house and a blower to push the hot air through them.  Finally, you need electricity to make all these things work, as well as access to someone with specialized knowledge to fix them when something goes wrong. 

Shortly after we bought our new home in late May, we spent a couple hundred dollars to have the oil furnace in our basement serviced, hoping that this would prevent any troubles in the future.  We were, of course, wrong.  We first turned it on after the remnants of one of the Caribbean hurricanes came through in September.  It ran for about 30 seconds before we started smelling smoke.  While we could hear the furnace itself working, the blower never came on.  Apparently the water that came into our 100-year-old laid-up stone basement Ė we had about six inches downstairs at one point Ė damaged it.  It cost us several hundred more dollars to replace it.  Three weeks later we decided to take the chill off the morning with our serviced and repaired furnace Ė but again it wouldnít run.  This time it needed new fuses and switches which cost us, once again, several hundred dollars. 

Our two woodstoves, on the other hand, utilize quite simple technology.  Theyíre just cast-iron boxes lined inside with firebrick.  They have hinged doors to open them up and a chimney up through the ceiling.  They donít require electricity and contain nothing complicated or difficult to fix. 

This simplicity, of course, means that I have to involve myself much more in the heating of our house.  I canít just push a button and have everything happen automatically.  I have to do it myself.  Often we react poorly to such a prospect.  American culture indoctrinates us to want everything fast and easy, without any effort or even thought on our part.  And itís no wonder that we receive such indoctrination because these beliefs keep us safe and soft in the grasp of Power.  Fast, easy, and effortless means dependence.  Slow, hard, and laborious means just the opposite. 

Because heating with wood requires more individual effort, it gives you a different perception and understanding of time.  When we lived in the city and had a gas furnace, we never had to think about it.  The gas was always there.  We had only to turn up the thermostat to get the house warmed up.  Everything else was done for us. 

With wood, though, I have to do much more, beginning with the seemingly simple idea of anticipating the future.  This isnít as necessary with oil and gas, which are easily available all winter long.  While it is possible to get wood during the winter, itís not always easy to do and it will probably cost you more than if you planned ahead.  You not only want to get enough to get you through the winter, you want to get it early enough so it can season Ė so most of the water can dry out of it to provide a cleaner, hotter burn.  I bought mine in early September, but even then I was a few months too late.  Luckily, the former owner left several cords of seasoned wood behind, and thatís what weíve been burning while the new stuff dries. 

I also have to arrange things so the wood is relatively easy to access.  We have no technology that feeds wood to the stove.  I have to do this by hand.  My woodshed is up the hillside by our barn.  We have about six full cords stored out there.  I built a wood rack that can hold about one face cord and put that down by our front door.  It takes about eight trips with our cart to fill it up.  I built another, smaller wood rack and put that inside by the main woodstove.  I replenish that one as necessary.  Iíve been refilling the outdoor one only when it empties because that allows me to keep a rough account of how much Iíve used so far. 

I also have to plan ahead for the fire itself.  Unlike gas or oil, wood doesnít burn right away.  I have to pile up a few logs inside the stove and set a small fire underneath them with fatwood and kindling.  If I set it up right, if I provide that kindling with enough air and heat, it will catch and in a few minutes that fire will start the logs to burning.  I have to be patient, and I have to pay attention.  Sometimes the kindling goes out because I havenít planned it well enough and I have to start over. 

I have to plan ahead for the length of the fire, too.  I have to plan for how hot the fire will burn, and for how long.  I can control the relative strength and heat of the fire by turning the damper in the door to adjust the amount of oxygen it gets.  I can leave them wide open and have a fast, hot burn, or shut them down and have a slower, less intense fire.  For the 5 AM fire right after we wake up, I like the former.  If itís cold and we need a mid-day fire, I like to combine heat and length as best I can.  For the 5 PM fire, the last of the day, I prefer the latter, wanting a fire that will provide enough heat over a long enough period of time that we wonít be too cold when 5 AM rolls around again.  I have to be much more aware of time because I canít just turn up the thermostat if it gets a little colder than I want.  I constantly have to be thinking several hours down the road. 

Sometimes, as I sit before the stove watching the kindling begin to consume the logs, I dwell upon the sheer dangerousness of having a fire in my living room, and upon how ingeniously the stove contains it.  Watching it burn makes me think about heat and light and the dangers inherent in both Ė dangers that arenít apparent until you decide to take matters, as much as you can, into your own hands and take control of that energy yourself.  It makes me think about how we have socialized the dangers and troubles involved in the production of heat and light Ė and of the awareness and understanding, the competence and freedom, that we have given up as a result. 

Iím not dependent upon the electric company for heat anymore.  Iím not dependent upon oil or gas companies.  And Iím not dependent upon someone to fix my furnace for me when things go wrong.  As a result, I donít need as much money as I used to.  The woodstove, then, frees me in several ways.  It frees me technically by lessening my dependence and need for the Power Grid and all that entails.  It frees me financially by lessening my dependence on corporations for fuel and on technicians for repairs.  And it frees me spiritually by giving me a better, fuller understanding of time, of the dangerous nature of energy, and of manís use Ė or misuse Ė of both. 

Sure, itís more work Ė between stacking the fifteen face cords we bought in September in the woodshed and filling the wood racks, I think Iíve touched every piece of wood we have right now at least twice.  I have to carry it down from the woodshed, stack it on the outside rack, then bring it inside and store it on inside rack.  I have to bend down to fill the stove with wood for each new fire, and every now and then I have to empty out the ashes that remain.  I even have to sweep up the dirt and bark around the indoor rack.  But with that work comes an understanding and an appreciation of heat missing when you depend upon powered technology.  With that work comes a sense of power and control over my own life.  With that work comes freedom. 

Taking for granted something as fundamental as heat has a price.  Giving up our understanding of it, our control over it, has helped bring us to the horrible place we now find ourselves: to the illegal, unprovoked invasion of other countries and the brutal murder of uncounted innocent civilians.  Our immense carelessness and greed Ė our overwhelming, unconcerned self-centeredness Ė is raining death and destruction on the people of Iraq this very moment, people whose only crime was to be born there.  If we truly want to stop this, we need to regain control of our individual lives.  We need to pull back from the abyss before itís too lateÖif it isnít already.  Taking control of our heat is just one step in that direction. 

 published at Endervidualism on  November 30, 2004

Craig Russell lives on a small farm in upstate New York.