Wood and Water   Leave a comment

There’s elemental comfort in contemplating the woodpile in our back lean-to (and a second one outdoors) — a reassurance that reaches to the bone.  Wood is our primary source of heat, and we spend about $600 a year to heat our small ranch house.  Some rooms have electric baseboard which we use only minimally, when we’re away for more than a few days in winter, to save pipes from freezing.  Taking a break from splitting, I stand and count days and logs, logs and days.  And I give thanks to the waiting trees around our property.

Yes, it’s labor-intensive to feed a stove and keep it drawing well. If you’ve maintained a fire, you know these things, of course — I’m hardly telling you anything new.  But for us the payback of wood is true solace:  even when the power goes out, and no matter the windchill, we stay warm.  Each log is captured sunlight, and if you’ve spent any time in wood heat, you know its delightful penetrating quality, much like sunbathing. (This winter has been mild so far for southern VT — our heaviest single snowfall clocked in at under a foot, and the thermometer dove and hovered just below zero Fahrenheit for only a couple of days last month.  Today on our hilltop the mercury hit the mid-40s — briefly.)

Especially at night during a winter outage, with flames or embers our only source of illumination beyond candlelight or short bursts of flashlight, a moment’s reverie can transport us back 10,000 years to a Neolithic cave and the flicker of firelight on stone walls.  You sit close to each other for added warmth, and fire-watching feels both utterly ancient and distinctly human.  Then the hearth resumes its old and honored place as center of life and civilization.  (Brigid, saint and goddess, patron of Candlemas and Imbolc just past, is lady of the hearth-fire.) Without heat on a bitter night, we’re each reduced to King Lear’s “thing itself … unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal.”  At such times, more even than water, heat’s the immediate necessity.

When we first visited the house with a realtor on a bright, cold January day some years back, I remember thinking how much work wood heat would be.  But we’ve only needed to start a fire about half a dozen times since late October, when the stove began burning steadily.  Since then, the coals are almost always still hot enough in the morning to re-ignite whole logs without kindling.  My wife or I wake up most nights now, in the small hours,  almost taking turns without consciously planning it, to stoke the fire just once, and return to bed.  And we can cook on the stove.  Yes, it takes longer, but if the power’s out, time suddenly returns in abundance.

As for water, beyond our well, we have a small pond at the bottom of our yard.  Again, when we first saw the property, all I thought was “mosquito breeding ground,” but I’ve come to see its multiple advantages.  No, the water’s not potable (though the minnows, salamanders and frogs don’t seem to mind), but we can boil it if need be. It also serves for irrigation in a drought. Come spring, we’ll be fitting a hand pump to our well-head for water during extended power outages.  (I stare at the pond now, this pale February light reducing the scene to white, gray, black, wondering how thick the ice is, how much chipping with an axe to reach the frigid liquid water.)

I record all these details in part because my wife and I spent half an hour yesterday watching clips of the new National Geographic series Doomsday Preppers, premiering next Tues., Feb. 7.  While the featured families and individuals carry their preparations to extremes most of us would not, it’s perfectly sensible to maintain a store of several days’ food and drinking water in case of power outages or local natural disasters.  Dried, canned and easy-to-prep foods if you have no means of cooking, rice and flour, beans and pasta if you do.

The harshness of local events in the past several months, like the drought in Texas, the severe tornadoes in the Midwest, and hurricane Irene in the Northeast, have persuaded people in ways nothing else could to consider such preparations.  If heat isn’t under your control and you live in a temperate (read “cold”) zone, it’s wise to have a fall-back plan.  Ditto for cooling, if your home otherwise bakes in the summer.  You don’t have to expect “the end of the world as we know it” to use (as my grandmother liked to say) — “the good sense God gave gravel.”

While much is made of Americans’ dependence on electricity and foreign oil, most of us learn pretty quickly, if we have to, how to make do with wind, water, wood and fire.  If you grew up in a small town,  attended a summer camp, went hiking or just stayed up overnight outside a house, you have a preliminary sense of your abilities and tolerances in the natural world.  It’s useful to know these, and build on them.  That old sense of self-reliance that’s part of the story we tell ourselves about the “American character” is a good place to begin.  And for you readers from other parts of the world, consider the equivalents in your cultures.  Make it a game, especially if you have young kids.   Think through your options in emergencies and disasters, and if they feel too constraining, work to expand them.  We live in such varied circumstances, so no one solution will work for everybody.  And that’s as it should be.

Come September, my wife and I will be back in CT, in school housing, with different contingency plans to consider.

A weekend’s reflection and planning will pay off down the road, even if they simply get you through the next minor “inconvenience” more smoothly.  As the inconvenience increases, so will the payoff.  Live long enough and you know from personal experience that John Lennon spoke true: life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

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