Reflections From The Front Porch
A Beautiful Day
Written by Darrell Anderson.
Today was one of those wonderfully beautiful days. The calendar shows early December, but the outdoor temperature reached the low thirties (Fahrenheit), there was hardly a cloud in the deep blue sky, and the wind was napping. A raven flew by and cawed its way into my consciousness.
Today I hauled firewood into the basement, a regular routine throughout the winter. My basement stall is now full and I will rest easy knowing my heating fuel bill will remain low. Every year I cut six to eight full cords. Right now I have one-half to three-quarters of a full cord in my basement and almost six full cords stacked outside. I started the heating season with more than eight full cords. To find myself in December with more than six full cords is a good feeling.
For those who are wondering, a full cord is approximately 128 cubic feet, traditionally measured at 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet. Split wood is not perfectly square and the dimensions of a cord are loose numbers. Split wood can be stacked tight, but there always is space between the cut pieces. A veteran woodcutter usually can stack a reasonably tight cord, although a veteran never is concerned about “perfect” stacking. Stacked wood needs air space to dry properly.
I try to be a part of the land and cut as much deadwood as possible. Of the live trees I harvest I try to find those that “never will amount to much.” I also look up to ensure I don’t interrupt some animal’s day — there are always other days to cut such trees after the animal has moved on.
I built my house with a baseboard hydronic (hot water) heating system. I have two boilers, one fired by wood and the other by propane. I absolutely love hydronic heating — quiet, clean, efficient, no cold zones in the house, and unlike scorched air systems, there is less furniture dusting and cleaning required. Dry itchy skin is usually not the problem as with the typical scorched air system.
Unlike other heating systems, heating with wood requires active participation. Merely setting the thermostat is insufficient with a wood heating system. The wood does not hop into the burner and the firebox needs to be replenished every two to four hours depending upon the type of wood being burned. Heating with wood also is more challenging to regulate than with gas or oil systems. Although I use programmable thermostats, there are warm days when the indoor temperature simply rises above the thermostat setting. Additionally, unless I awaken in the middle of my nighttime slumbers to stoke the fire, the wood fire always extinguishes and during truly cold nights the house begins to cool. However, I keep the propane burner enabled so on those truly nasty nights I don’t awaken to frost on the windows.
Heating with wood tends to be a “use it or lose it” approach to home heating. I’d rather have the interior of my home a little warm than have the heat rise up the chimney as waste. I smile when my home is toasty warm and the winter wind is howling insults at me. There also is something wonderfully comforting and mesmerizing when I open the firebox door and watch the flames as I add more wood.
As with any human, I typically am drawn to satisfying my needs and wants with as little effort as possible. Thus, some people might wonder why I bother cutting and heating my home with wood. There is a lot of physical work involved, and time too. With my trusty chain saw and pick-up truck, I usually satisfy my wood needs in four to five weeks spending three or five hours in the afternoon dedicated to the task.
I heat with wood for several reasons. One reason is I enjoy being in the woods. There is something psychological involved when humans stay close to the land. I don’t care to investigate so I can articulate those psychological reasons; I need only be in the woods to appreciate the effects. As wonderful as labor-saving technology can be, I believe something is lost when humans no longer work physically with the land. Cutting wood helps remind and humble me that I am merely a part of nature, not its master.
I heat with wood to reduce my home heating bill. I purposely burn propane only at the bookends of winter and during the summer to heat my potable hot water. I could heat all winter using propane, but then I am at the mercy of the local dealers and I must then play the game of accumulating little green pieces of paper to facilitate the exchange. Although I buy my propane at the end of July when prices are always the lowest of the year and I usually need less than 200 gallons per year, I always smile when I realize my heating bill could be as low as $25 a year. That amount is how much I spend for gas, oil, and chain sharpening. There always are a handful of days when I heat with propane, and sometimes I get absorbed in my activities and forget to mind the fire, but if required I could heat solely with the wood. That $25 number is enough to make any individual purr like a kitten.
Cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking wood is good exercise. Although not a daily routine, I feel healthier when I am devoting my days to my firewood. I split about three-fourths of my supply by hand using a splitting mauler, and save only the nasty stuff for the hydraulic splitter. I am not a large-sized or muscular man, but every year I nonetheless notice the difference in my body when I focus on my firewood.
I cut wood as mental training. One reason is to separate myself from the world and to simply enjoy physical labor. Physical labor allows my mind to rest. Another reason is I have my doubts about the modern world, especially when I consider the frailty of the global economic system and the dependency of humans upon the concept of money. I am not predicting an economic collapse, but if one occurred I am comforted in knowing that mentally and emotionally I am already partially accustomed to the physical labor required to sustain my life and home. Physical labor keeps me mentally tougher and more prepared for the unexpected.
Every few weeks during the winter I replenish my basement wood supply. Those moments provide me opportunities to get outside, breath fresh air, and exercise my body. Those moments of hauling wood help me avoid cabin fever. Hauling wood with a wheelbarrow is not physically exhausting, although within the first two or three trips back and forth from the wood stack I often find myself removing my gloves and jacket. Even in winter temperatures, with too much clothing one can sweat quite easily.
I usually require about two hours to accomplish my winter task. I watch the weather patterns so my basement stall is never empty during foul winter weather. Minimally, when the stall gets emptier I haul a couple of wheelbarrows full to at least get me through an upcoming storm. Usually, however, I just fill the entire stall.
Often on windless days, after finishing my wood hauling, I will sit on my front porch swing. My front porch faces southwesterly and is recessed into the house — protecting me from most winds. Thus, I can sit and actually bake in the winter sunlight. Such moments are precious, as I bask in the warmth and watch the chickadees, and hairy and downy woodpeckers visit the area. If the snow is not too high, a deer or two will wander through, as might a squirrel or a fisher.
As I write these words I am aware that my house is toasty warm because of my hydronic heating system and wood burner. I realize that heating with wood requires time and dedicated physical labor to be prepared for winter. For this season, those preparatory days are now several months behind me, yet today I am relaxed and comforted. I don’t pretend to understand this universe, this world, or the complexities of human action. Yet, days such as today are indeed beautiful.