On Not Heating With Wood


Heading home after an early morning meeting on  a recent wet, raw October day I found myself looking forward to building a fire in the wood stove. Then I recalled that we were planning to avoid wood fires for a while to see if it made any difference in the symptoms of a family allergy.  So I’d just have to rely on the oil burner.  But  I was surprised by how disappointed I felt.  What was the trouble?


It wasn’t entirely the cost.  It wasn’t one of those ten below zero days when the furnace would grind away ninety percent of the time to keep the house tolerable.  It would only take a few minutes to warm up the place, and because of all the weatherization we’ve done over the years it would remain warm for quite a while before the thermostat called for more heat.  And anyway the price of fuel oil is way down because of all the shenanigans of the marketplace.  I do admit to being pretty thrifty but it wasn’t all the cost.


And it wasn’t guilt, even though  I’m plenty concerned about climate disruption and the environmental degradation from burning fossil fuels.  After all, I drive a Prius, I look for Energy Star appliances whenever one needs replacing, and, thanks to my wife’s urging, we have lots of solar panels.  I also try to do my part to persuade our elected officials to ignore all those bogus arguments and huge campaign contributions from the oil, gas and coal folks.  So a couple of pints of heating oil on a raw fall day won’t tarnish my crown in heaven too much.


It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I think I finally did.  I was disappointed because I like the process of firing up the woodstove and feeling the results of what I’ve done.  I like crumpling up the newspaper – not so tightly that it resembles a log, but loosely enough that the ratio of air to compressed wood fibers permits rapid combustion.  I like laying on just enough kindling – not enough to smother the burning paper but enough to sustain the fire as I lay on larger wood. I feel competent when I do those things and as I do, I am reminded that the wood came from a local tree which has a set of its own amazingly efficient small green solar panels that capture the sun’s radiant energy and store it as chemical energy in the covalent bonds of cellulose being laid down silently all summer right beneath the tree’s knobbly bark – no associated air pollution, no multimillion dollar XL Pipeline, no terrorist threats.   Thinking about all that as I make the fire is better than watching some morning TV talk show.  But missing that process, it turns out, is only part of my disappointment.


Another part, I think, has to do with having a broader understanding of my world and where I fit in.  When I build that wood fire – and this is especially true if I’ve cut down the tree and worked up the wood myself – I understand some of the implications.  I know, sort of, how long it took that tree to grow.  I think about how big my woodlot is and whether the steady growth of the hardwoods is greater or less than the rate at which I am taking trees down. In short I have a pretty good idea of whether my woodburning is sustainable.   I also know that by harvesting a tree when I do, instead of letting it die in place, that tree will no longer provide a home first for woodpeckers and then, perhaps a kestrel;  that I’ve messed with the ecology of my woodlot; that it’s not quite as rich a habitat as it would have been were the tree  left standing.    I understand those tradeoffs in a much more immediate way than the tradeoffs involved in opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  And I also have a pretty good idea about the real costs of staying warm through a whole New Hampshire winter – how many person hours it takes to get that wood down, cut up, split, processed and moved into the cellar before the snow flies.


But I’ve saved the best ‘til last.   I realized that the biggest reason I was disappointed by not building a fire in the woodstove when I got home is that I am a control freak. I like to be in charge. I like knowing how to do stuff and calling the shots on how it is done.


So, aren’t I in charge when I turn up the thermostat?  Well, no, not really.   I  don’t have much of an idea about how to find oil – though I do know that it sometimes involves setting off underwater explosions which risk blowing out the eardrums of some of earth’s biggest and most mysterious creatures .  I don’t have a clue about how to drill for oil – though I am aware that doing so creates some pretty ugly international relations and often involves opening up pristine wilderness.  I don’t have any idea where to buy a drilling rig or how to set it up or where to hire the crews to man it or who to schmooze with to get the best price when and if the stuff finally comes up out of where it’s been for the last hundred million years.  I don’t have any idea about how to hire a tanker, or determine whether or not the tanker skipper is likely to be drunk when he approaches some reef.  I just know that when I call up my oil company they deliver some oil so my burner comes on when I turn up the thermostat.  All the rest of the stuff is under somebody else’s control and I just don’t like it.


So as soon as we figure out that those allergy symptoms aren’t related to the wisps of smoke that occasionally escape while I’m stoking the stove, I’m going back to heating with wood.

7 thoughts on “On Not Heating With Wood

  1. Love the contrast of building a fire in the wood stove in the morning vs watching depressing, blaring TV news. Life is full of these small decisions that we make every day!

  2. Fantastic musings which tug at the desires of our DNA, the primordial prehistoric feel of raw fire versus our modern magical turn of a dial. Both have their place nowadays but that smell of burning wood, the faint hiss of exiting steam, the cracking and popping, that unique feeling of heat emitting from wood takes us back somewhere between 50,000 and 400,000 years and connects us to the estimated 108 billion human souls that have ever existed and who have experienced this same pleasurable feeling and smell 🙂 Your musing go deep, especially in a time when we so many modern marvels have removed us from working the magic ourselves.

    • Thanks so much for the comments, Sean, and for reminding me of the historical perspective of it all. It got me thinking that for all my high-minded thoughts about being in control, I actually have no idea how to make a match. And I love the idea of a wood fire representing a connection to those 108 billion other human souls. For nearly all of them it was a tedious matter of rubbing two sticks together, striking a flint or carrying around a burning ember!

  3. Romantic insights of an out-of-touch elitist, I’m afraid. In a world as densely populated as ours, wood smoke is a harmful pollutant and can no longer be tolerated. The problem is not simply “allergies”, but breathing in the suspended smoke particles. And it is not only you who is affected, but everyone who is within the range of your smoke’s travels. Wood fires should be banned altogether in the modern world. Furthermore, of course, few urban dwellers, or those less well off, have the luxury of their own woodlot. On the other hand, once our civilization collapses and most of the current population dies off, the survivors will be back to burning wood again as a basic necessity. (Sorry to be so unsympathetic on this one!)

    • Guilty as charged! Though it does get awfully cold here in New Hampshire. And we do have solar panels and lots of insulation and try to keep the thermostat at 55 in spite of a bad case of chillblains last winter. Life is so full of difficult choices. We all need to work on creating more of the good ones and replacing the bad ones with them.

  4. I love it – there’s nothing like a good wood fire. The smoke in the room, the soot on your hands and the mess on the floor are all outweighed by the warmth – and the companionship.

    Matches, on the other hand, are increasingly a disappointment. One wonder if the manufactures ever use the product…

    • In 1995 a fisheries biologist named Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome” to call attention to the fact that each generation measures a current situation against what they observed when they were young rather than a much better baseline generations earlier. Same with matches. Our kids will think that it’s dreadful when only 25% of the matches in a pack actually work instead of the 50% they will recall from their childhood. We elders, however, recall that there was a time when you could count on every match striking a blaze – and when you could actually get a kitchen match going by whizzing it along the backside of some tight-fitting jeans!

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