Buying that first wood stove in 1975 was a pragmatic decision–an option we really could not refuse.
Fuel oil was 17 cents a gallon. Our first monthly bill in the old house on Withers Road in Wytheville was 300-something dollars when I made $10k.
I awoke in the middle of a winter’s night to hear that ancient furnace gargling mildly-warm water from the basement into the massive cast iron radiators. I Imagined dollar bills floating like feathers out into the night through the sieve of a house to warm the town folk.
We bought a Fisher Stove. Ann and I cut down-and-dead wood by permit with a bow saw. We returned from the national forest with the back of the Datsun hatchback sitting hard down on the shocks with a full 30th of a cord that only took us four hours to cut, load and get home. Not a model of efficiency, that.
The next year, I owned my first Stihl chainsaw and a red Chevy Luv truck. That year we began a lifetime of gathering our lives into two hemispheres: gardening May to October; and gathering firewood and tending the stove September to May.
The point is that we are living the two-regime existence still, even after we should maybe have given up wood heat for something safer, cleaner and far easier than what we have to do to stay warm even in our mid-sixties.
But contrary to the popular way of thinking, the path of most efficient human effort is not always the best.
On one side of the balance, the homeowner tweaks a dial on the wall reflexively once or twice a day. The source of warmth is a knob in the hall. Period.
On the other, the homeowner either buys or (as I did for decades) cuts three to six cords of wood for every heating season. Then for every cut piece…
Pick it up in the field and carry it to the truck.
Unload the piece of poplar from the truck to the stacks near the house.
Carry each piece of heavy, splintery oak from the stacks to the wood ring on the back porch.
Load each piece of dogwood from the porch finally into the stove. Watch it flicker and dance through the glass door.
Two or three times a week, clean the dusty sooty cremations from the stove and kindle the fire right back again.
Holding your heat in your hands, cradling it in your arms is good, to feel the heft of summer sun–organic, fragrant, coarse and of a kind you know: locust, cherry, ash or beech.
And of a place. To know which hillside where this piece or that once lived, to hold that fact in your memory as you move the same piece again and again, closer and closer towards the stove door is to remember that because this tree prospered here, you can too. A life for a life.
Chop wood, carry water: mindful heating warms you over and over and over.