Wood Stove in Winter
Riverdave’s Journal
March 6, 2010

On a cold winter evening in our log cabin by the Eno, the gentle whir of our wood stove sending warm air up the flue is a most comforting sound.  The wood crackles in the flames and the cast iron stove creaks as it expands with heat. These sonic emanations from our stone hearth create an evening atmosphere conducive to reading, writing and meditation.  When we moved into this house in 2002, we gave up our evening television routine, probably forever ...

In our neighborhood there was an unusually abundant mast of acorns from white oaks this past fall.  I heard several wizened nature watchers in North Durham comment that this year’s bountiful mast pointed to a hard, cold winter ahead. This was Mother Nature’s way of providing for squirrels, deer and other local wildlife. November weather teased us with mild days but December ushered in a wave of cold that has remained with us ever since.

One friend drew my attention to a folk tradition that forecasts the severity of the upcoming winter by studying the inside of a persimmon seed.  If a seed is split in half in late fall,  the inside will display a knife, spoon or fork pattern.  She said that her seed revealed a spoon pattern which forecast a snowy winter.  And in fact, there have been more days with snow on the ground than any other winter in recent memory. 

My wife and I scavenge for all the wood that we burn in our wood stove.  It either comes through collecting dead limbs on our half acre forest lot or through the generous offerings of neighbors and friends who also have downed trees. We have no heating bill, except for the cost of maintaining a small power saw and an ax. Fortunately, during the warm season of 2009, friends offered us more wood than in any other previous years. I did not see it as such back in the summer, but this was obviously a natural gifting experience similar to masting, another example of the Great Mother taking care of her children before a hard winter.

While both my wife and I experienced an active family fireplace growing up, it is through the example of Henry Thoreau that we are most inspired.  Of course in Henry’s day, most everyone heated with wood and it was important to own a few acres of wood lot as a source of home fuel.  But it was Henry’s attitude towards the entire warming process that we most resonate with.  In his chapter in Walden called “House Warming,” Henry noted,

“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.  I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work.  I had an old ax which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played-about with stumps which I had got out of my bean-field.  As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice, once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give more heat.”

I have found this to be so true.  Scavenging wood from trees downed by age or passing storms, cutting it up into logs and finally splitting it with an ax is a wonderful way to generate heat in winter hours.  I usually begin wearing both sweatshirt and jacket but soon shed these outer layers as the wood processing proceeds.  My pleasure increases as I finally get to stack my cuttings in tidy piles around my backyard.  You may call it “affection,”  or even “play” if you like ...

For kindling, we enjoy gathering the huge resin-loaded cones of the long leaf pine that we find scattered along highway margins in Moore County.  In addition, a building contractor supplies us with leftover two-by-four pine scraps.  When finally lit, the whole woody mixture explodes into flame. We often place leaves of sage or eucalyptus on top of the stove to waft our incense heavenward

Instead of the drone of evening television, we are soothed by dancing flames, crackling wood and whirring heated air. Our highlight comes during the winter holiday season. With visiting children and grandchildren, we huddle together and gaze in wonder at this primal phenomenon.  A kettle of  simmering water on the stove top makes ready for warming herbal teas.  A few roasted marshmallows may not be a bad idea. It could even be said that we were now warmed thrice ...
Photo by Riverdave: winter wood pile