For the past 6 years, we have heated our house using only wood. This statement sounds perfectly normal to us today, yet on occasion, we get a reminder that this heating arrangement is in fact very far from the norm. So far removed are we from conventional heating, that we forget it even exists and look back amusingly at the time we just “pushed at button” and the house would warm up.
This is an ode to wood, a praise to a natural resource we have come to love and respect so much that the house we are building has major features designed to embrace it.
Exercise & Energy
I used to work to pay for heating fuel; and because I worked all day, I needed to work some more to pay for a gym membership. The hope was that I would somehow find the motivation to go to a gym and put my body through crazy contraptions designed to undo the damage of sitting all day. Needless to say the battle was lost before it even began. Today with firewood, heating fuel is a byproduct of my exercising. No gym membership and no heating costs. Sorry let me repeat this slowly so it sinks in: no… heating… costs…. This represents a significant income increase indeed. On top of this, cutting wood is non-repetitive and challenging. Using exercise contraptions at a gym to the contrary is so horribly repetitive they usually stick a TV in front of them, this way you can watch ads and murders to keep your mind distracted from the absurdity of the situation around you. On the other hand, I have no problem finding the motivation to work on the wood pile because it needs to grow before winter. There is no other choice, but it rarely comes down to motivation as I thoroughly enjoy the task. Lastly, working on a wood pile is exercise that gets you outdoors and experiencing nature, both of which have been demonstrated to reduce stress. We often work on it together as a family, talking about random things and critiquing each other’s maul swinging techniques.
Needing not to pay for fuel or gym memberships, we get to consider just how much we actually need to work for money.
It’s beyond absurd today that one would break a sweat for nothing. If you need to exercise, why not get something out of it?
Freedom & Independence
The 2 notions go hand in hand, wouldn’t you know it? 🙂
Wood having replaced fossil fuels for heating our home, there is zero dependence on foreign countries, not even other states, no corporations, no politics. 100% of the energy we use in the house comes from our land no further than 2000 feet from the house. I can’t stress enough how powerful this reconfiguration is in changing the way we see the world. No need to invade countries, frack, spill, violate native land, or ruin ecosystems on our behalf. We took an uncompromising posture and as a result our thinking isn’t compromised by dependence. It’s very freeing to be able to look at our kids in the eyes and tell them we’re trying our best. It’s very freeing to not have to worry about what happens in the middle east and everywhere else in the world. It’s very freeing to be able to hold the opinion that fossil fuels should cost $100/gallon to offset their cost to the environment. It’s freeing to not have to restrain the way we think because we’re independent. Most of us won’t bite the hand that feeds us, corrupt as it may be. But if it doesn’t feed you, you can go at it in good conscience. It seems obvious today to say this, yet I know it took us much work and hindsight to realize.
More practically, It’s also nice to be independent from any particular infrastructure and know our house will be warm no matter what: wood heat is super reliable. Appliances break, grids & delivery trucks need much more upkeep than a wood stove.
Renewable Green Energy
At the risk of being repetitive: no fossil fuels. While it’s hard to estimate how much CO2 we release burning wood (it depends on many factors), it is easier to fathom the balance of CO2 surrounding the process.
Unlike fossil fuels, the CO2 we release isn’t added into the atmosphere from the ground. It was already in the atmosphere, the trees reclaimed it, and we released it back. This cycle can go on indefinitely, with the Sun providing the energy for the trees’ reclamation.
What can tip the balance one way or another is whether our forest is growing or shrinking. It so happens we are letting acres of forest grow back on our land. So we are currently responsible for absorbing more CO2 than we are producing, even while burning wood for heating. This is true simply because the forest is growing faster than we can burn it for heating.
Equally true, at some point the forest will reach a stable point of growth: it will produce trees as fast as it sheds them and we burn them. At this point we’ll “only” be carbon neutral.
Using wood for heating is green not only because it can be carbon neutral. Our family has a very strong incentive to not overuse the resource or it will not be usable anymore. We live with the impact of our decisions over this resource directly visible every day. With fossil fuels the scheme is closer to “out of sight, out of mind”. This is one of the main reason I strive for local everything, because it’s much harder to be ok with abuse when it’s happening in your own backyard.
Our house is warmer than it’s ever been. No longer am I the the token dad hand ready next to the thermostat at all times. I couldn’t care less if a window is left open. Let’s be comfortable lightly dressed. Why not cook a Boeuf Bourguignon for 5 hours? It’s all good.
Heat isn’t tied to our wallet and so we needn’t worry about it.
Heating isn’t everything
Wood is very multipurpose; on any given day, a fire on the cookstove gives us:
- house warming
- water heating
- humidifying the dry winter air
- drying clothes around it
- raising dough
There are also many more ways to produce wood heat: you can leave bed of ash for slow burning, adjust air vents, pick logs according to wood type or features, bark facing up or down? When I get the stove going, I feel like I did as a kid piloting cardboard spaceships because of all the adjustments I can make. With propane heating, things are much more “one size fits all”. With wood you get to develop a process that works for you, and adjust it to circumstances.
All the appliances we no longer need thanks to one little cookstove
There is a whole other dimension not necessarily centered around the fired cookstove. Burning wood means learning to use trees for all the things other than fuel they provide:
- leaves for compost
- ash for making lye (soapmaking), fertilizing and keeping paths non slippery
- sap for syrup
- wildlife habitat
- CO2 absorption
Trees may be one of the most efficient piece of bio-machinery out there but we fail to see them this way because of their chaotic nature. We tend to associate efficiency with orderly repetition. To think that we have these wonderful factories literally growing everywhere and yet we cut them down to make room for houses which will in term consume fossil fuels. I’ve come to see trees as disorganized marvels of efficiency.
Mindfulness, Aesthetic & Intent: the Hippie Stuff
The same way that a meal prepared with care and intent tastes infinitely better than fast food, warmth that is the results of deliberate actions feels infinitely better. Going through the layers of the woodpile in the thick of winter reminds us of shared experiences and memories. “Look it’s that silver birch that was impossible to split”, “I remember the crazy wind storm that brought this maple down”, “This is the birch Jeremy helped with”. The memories are sweet and we can read a wood pile the same way one reads a photo album. More than remembering good times, there is incredible satisfaction in having intent behind our desire for warmth. It’s not a passive thing that happens, it is a meaningful task we all partake in and enjoy the fruits of. The house is warm not because some dude installed an oil furnace and Dad pushed a button. The house is warm because we took a series of calculated and deliberate steps starting months in advance, and culminating in the best heat in the world.
The best heat? Yes, the best there is. We didn’t know this before heating with wood but everyone who does will tell you this: wood heat feels very different. It warms you deep, well into your bones, and keeps you radiating for a good while after you leave its source.
As a fan of all things building (Legos, carpentry, Keva planks), I thoroughly enjoy building a nice wood pile. It’s like playing Tetris, but every piece is misshapen bar. I would be lying if I said I don’t often have Tetris music in my head when stacking wood. Stacking is the final preparation before consumption, it’s equivalent to presenting nice food nicely. Your wood pile just as much counts as essential sustenance, it wants to look good. You’ll be seeing it for months, and reveling in what it means about your preparedness to take on winter.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than getting a fire going knowing the kids will be cozy in the house. It is a little harder however, on the very cold nights, to muster the resolve to wake up and stoke the fire so the kids don’t turn into popsicles. But it comes with a silver lining: the experience of the night. I enjoy hunting mainly because it takes me to places and times I never normally experience. The same is true with being up at various hours of the night to stoke a fire, bonus point if you need to go outside to get more wood. Deafening silence, pitch black, just you, a pair of eyes at the edge of the field, and a million stars. Would I ever find myself outside in the early AMs otherwise? Hell no I wouldn’t. Yet the experience is stunning and I’m always glad I had an inescapable excuse for it.
Gifting wood is gifting warmth. A present I remember getting vividly and which has cemented the friendship of their grantors.
Ok it’s not perfect
Having praised wood so much, I feel obligated to mention its less enjoyable aspects. They aren’t a big deal but worth mentioning.
Moving wood in a house is dirty business. We still use gas in our chainsaw. Waking up to stoke the fire kind of sucks.
But really these pale in comparison to everything else.
Overall we feel incredibly happy we made the switch. 6 years in, I feel like this is the last time we’ll have enough recollection of how our lives were before the switch to explain how wood has transformed us.
I was out in the woods a week ago, out of nowhere a giant tree came down not a hundred feet from where I was. Not a gust of wind, not any movement of any kind; just a tree coming down at the exact moment I happen to be around.
I got closer to it to see what nature had chosen for my next firewood batch, it turns out it’s one of 2 enormous oaks, some of the biggest on our land. I always had them in the back of my mind for when I’ll want an lifetime supply of nice oak boards for projects. But the timing is bad for my current lack of equipment might just leave firewood as the only option. I can’t move this bear in 8′ chunks.