“To me the winter would be well spent if I did nothing but gather wood to burn in an open fire, where I could watch its sublimation into smoke and ashes.”
-Harlan Hubbard, Payne HollowThe winter has been harsh as has been broadcast upon the television news and in local papers. We have not been immune to the ongoing freezing temperatures, the snow-packed roads and the absent sunshine. Currently, there is a good five inches of snow upon the ground, the third such covering we have received this year. Besides making commutes into town difficult, the cold winter has also meant a greater need for a warm home.
Normally, to heat our home we would be dependent upon some form of gas – run through a pipeline to our home or housed in a tank. Indeed, we have such a tank on the western side of our house, but we have used its gas only sparingly this year.
Instead, we have been reliant upon a wood burning furnace on the eastern side of the house. Or, more directly: we have been reliant upon the dozen or so trees that were felled and cut into two foot long logs. Much of the wood is poplar, but there is also plenty of oak and hickory and even the remains of a persimmon tree that just last winter had left a host of seeds upon the driveway and in front of the porch. That was the first one we cut down. Another fell to a bolt of lightning this summer. Several more were felled to extend my father-in-law’s runway that is just south of our property.
I have found the use of wood as fuel to be a type of good work. It is a chore to be sure (although not nearly as much of a chore as burning wood inside a home or the chore it would have been for the early settlers to fell the trees and cut the trees with only hand tools). On these cold days, it requires either Anna or I to dress in heavy clothes both early in the day and later in the afternoon or evening, to push the wheelbarrow to the wood pile and to gather a dozen or so logs. Sometimes it also requires us to chop a thicker log into quarters. And, finally, it requires us to push the wheelbarrow back to the furnace, to open the metal door, and to deposit the wood – letting the fire do its work of consumption, turning the hard material into energy and heat.
Still, as much as the logs strain my back, there is satisfaction in this labor: satisfaction from having a hand in the whole process, satisfaction from the physical exercise that strengthens my body even in the lethargy of winter, satisfaction from the involvement of my senses.
What I mean by this last satisfaction, this arousal of the senses, is the connection and pleasure derived from all facets of wood fuel. There is the thrill of hearing the heavy axe sink into the log and the true feeling when the blade hits the heart and splits. There is the primal arousal of the smoke’s smell rising into my nose, the hot flames warming the hands and face as logs are placed into the inferno. Finally, there is the witnessing of the fruit of the labor: smoke pouring out in a snake-trail from the stack.
But, perhaps most importantly, heating our home through the use of wood has made me conscious as a consumer of the fuel. There is only one and a half cords of wood left as I write. That is supposed to last us the rest of the winter (if the cold persists, it won’t). We have probably been through another sixteen or twenty cords. I have not been keeping an accurate count. Still, for the first time in my life I have a general sense of the resources I am using and need to survive a winter in Indiana. I am gaining awareness, which is the first step in living responsibly.