A few weeks ago I turned off the propane furnace in my apartment and decided to use the wood stove as my only source of heat. I have always loved fires and I liked the idea of living more organically and more aware of the resources I need to survive. There are so many – food, water, electricity, and all of my stuff – so in the scheme of things, making my own heat is only a small step out of the womb of modern comfort. And saying that is already taking too much credit: all I have to do is carry the wood from the wood pile to the stove, split some kindling and make the fire. I did not grow the tree, or chop the logs, or build the stove itself – so much energy already expended on my behalf! But my small part is still an education and a discipline. I have learned that the wood I am using comes from two sources – the round, grey logs from an unwanted laurel that grew in the yard, and the orange, squarish logs from a Sitka spruce. Most of the spruce was “tone wood,” used to make instruments at a shop upriver. I was initially aghast at the thought of burning fetal violins – but I learned the pieces I am using are the off-cuts: the parts with too many knots and twists in the grain. Still, it is sobering to think that my heat is the cousin of music.
I quickly calculated how many logs it takes to keep me warm throughout each day, multiplied by the number of potentially cold days this winter, subtracted from the number of logs in the wood pile – which, now that I think about, does not seem like very many – which in turn makes me judicious about how much heat I really need. If I have on all my fleece and am drinking hot tea and still feel the need to also put on my woolliest hat, then I figure it is probably time to build a fire. I have become much more aware of temperature: the fact that the 40s and 50s are not as cold as I thought they were, that the work of splitting kindling will sometimes warm me up enough that building a fire seems unnecessary, that the 20s and 30s are intimidatingly cold when you are not sure the fire will last all night.
And I have learned that each fire is different. In general, they start off crackling and popping, making a show of flames without producing much heat. Once I shut down the flue the warmth builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until I notice that I am taking off layers and cracking open windows. Then the fire seems to die down sleepily, but this is when the real, delicious heat begins – the heat of the coals, radiating into the room, so smooth and luscious you are lulled into thinking it will last forever – until a chill rises, and you realize you should have put on another log before the coals died. It is a learning process. I am still learning, for example, that to keep myself warm without dying of smoke inhalation is some fine balance of wood, kindling, flue, air vents, and luck. Each fire is different depending on the temperature outside and the type of wood I use, and how diligent I am about kindling, structure, and timing. It is a constant relationship, and like all relationships, emotions are involved: gratitude, patience, anger, fear, frustration. The fire is like a living creature in my home that needs my care, making me get up to feed it and tend it, reminding me I am human, that I have a place in the world, a job to do, even if it is only to keep us both alive.