Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hungry Stove

From now until April, the wood-stove will gobble up cord after cord of seasoned firewood. A cord measures 8' x 4' x 4' and we may well use FOUR of them this winter, if the cold endures as it did in 2013-14.  If I load it right, the stove will burn nearly all night and keeps the entire house warm. Last night was a cold one for November, and I came downstairs at about 3am and added logs. I was up anyway. When I woke again at 6, the fire was still burning a bit. Add more wood and the house responded.

All that burning brings to mind a few things, and that's not bad when one spends so much evening time by the hungry stove, sipping a good whisky and writing.  I think there is a time-suck called television, but ignoring it for the stove's show is one reason I get so many things done, including learning about what matters to me.

First, there is the notion of burning wood itself. I plan to do so until I am physically unable, but already I've outlasted a few contemporaries who find wood too much trouble. They want to come home flip a switch, and warm up by the simulacrum of a wood fire. That's their choice to make, but to me the entire point of a wood stove is to make you work for heat. The effort to split wood is great, even with a hydraulic-ram splitter such as the one I use for twisted or large logs. Increasingly I hand-split just to get some exercise, a trip to the gym being my idea of hell. Thus the old adage that wood warms you three times: splitting, toting, and burning. 

Gas logs do not add a thing to the garden, and between Dominic's market-garden and mine, we went through 100 gallons of wood ash to raise the PH of our acidic top soil. I will barely replenish that in a season of burning, but it is good to know that ash goes back into the cycle of planting and harvesting out here, not into the landfill. My gas-log acquaintances tend to go to gyms and gripe about the ash-removal part, as they do about raking (or for them, blowing) leaves. I take away leaves and actually bring them here to compost, to add leaf-mold to our garden.

The earth is as hungry like the stove, after all, as are our bellies. Now, after nearly two years of rural life, nearly every meal we fix includes a home-grown ingredient. Some meals are nearly all from the garden, a life-long goal of mine. All that ash and compost is doing the job well.

The biggest lesson of having a stove is spiritual. The second half of life should be a time of letting go, gently. Dylan Thomas was wrong: we should go gentle. So tending stove becomes a ritual of personal and even metaphysical import: I'm reminded of the Busk, a Native-American tradition that Thoreau discusses in Walden, after he encountered it in the travel narratives of William Bartram (a writer I wish we remembers more).  We refer to "busking" today as a way to sell things, but the old word was quite the opposite: it was an act of creative and cleansing destruction.  Tribes would burn old and broken possessions, worn-out furniture, and other items to make way for the new.

My stove is doing exactly that, by trading old wood and kindling (the latter from a hundred carpentry projects) for a Spring garden. The fire-pit outside burns other less seasoned and softer woods, but also outdated paperwork and such. It's a wonderful tradition we might revive in our consumerist present.

And thus, be a bit thankful about letting things go. Happy Thanksgiving and stay warm!

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