Wood Heat: A Special Kind of Comfort

Written by Karen Verna Carlson, N.D., Ph.D..

CARLSON-WOOD-HEAT-JAN-2012 “We sit by the fire and speak softly,

While the wind blows, and the rain
Lashes against the windows
The lights flicker and are gone,
The storm grows worse….
We sit quietly watching the fire,
It hisses as the rain comes down the chimney,
The lights come back,
The storm grows worse.
The wind whirls around the roof….
Daylight comes, the clouds are gone.
The sun is shining.”
Hurricane Bob, by Mary Hoxie Jones, 1991; in
Tracing the Rainbow, Manchester Ctr, VT, 1995.

 

 

 isions of New Year’s fireworks are rekindled as I tend the little crackling blaze in my Franklin stove. That gives me winter use of a sunroom—three walls of glass with a roof and skylight. Right now, I’m comfortably cocooned in radiant heat that holds back the cold. I see a panorama of forest-flanked yard silhouetted by Wilmington’s ambient light. Maple wood burning softly sizzles, emits a nutty aroma, and through a row of one-inch vent holes at the bottom of the cast iron doors, I can see vignettes of shimmering embers and pirouetting flames. This sensual wood-heat entertainment also holds back the more ominous tones of winter nights.


• Ceremonial Dancing •
Tending the fire is a rhythmic dance that requires my conscious engagement, as though it were a family pet. Somehow it feels like a ceremony for endings and beginnings as I place onto a funeral pyre dry pieces of wood which burst into new incarnations of light and heat for my benefit. The first moon of the new year swells to illuminate our way into a greener future. Burning wood instead of fossil fuel for heat is one way I’ve come to live more greenly and more joyously, although I did not set out on so bold a mission as to eliminate my reliance on fossil heating fuel.

• Mysterious Support •
Several years ago I began a conscious commitment to favor wood heat and progressively decrease my use of fossil fuel. The story that led to that commitment, however, doesn’t center on scientific research or a specific environmental calling. The story is more of a holistic saga with physical, mental and spiritual components ‘mysteriously’ converging to support some deep intention to honor life.
• Synchronicities •
Think about your life for a moment. What synchronicities have you encountered on your journey? Like, the way you met your spouse, reared a child, pursued education, found just the right place to live, or landed a job you love. I believe in miracles because I’ve witnessed so many. These experiences validate that we can tune into some fundamental, loving life support.
• Uplifting Harmony •
My parents made wood fires in our living room fireplace for every winter holiday, creating positive associations with the sights, smells and sounds of burning wood. Since then, most of the places I’ve lived have had fireplaces that I maybe used a couple times a week for winter reading, writing or conversation. Periodically, I scrutinize the burning configuration and shift logs to facilitate heat and/or esthetics. Whether I’m alone or socializing, tending a fire always fits into a harmonious flow of activity. And I very much like physically gathering, sawing, breaking and storing a winter’s supply of wood from fallen trees and branches.
• Restful Sleep •
What led to rediscovering my passion for wood heat was a leaky roof. You see, I lived in a studio apartment above my garage and used the main house for my healing school. The garage needed a new roof. It was a raw, chilly April that I moved out of the studio and spent the month camping on the floor in front of the living room fireplace in the main house during studio construction. Each night, I’d build a little fire for necessary warmth, and then sit on my mattress reading or journaling. Every half hour or so, after giving it a stir or feeding it another stick of wood, I’d dally to watch the gentle flames change colors and shapes. Then back to reading or writing for awhile. After two or three hours of this peaceful rhythmic physical-mental waltz, I snuggled under the covers for restful sleep as fading embers cast their last shadows onto walls and ceiling.
• A New Ritual •
This ritual so pleasantly replaced nightly big screen TV surfing from my studio bed that I cancelled service when I moved back after the roofers finished. The propane stove that heated the studio had a glass window for a good view of the flames. My view of Nature from those three glass walls was still panoramic. I continued to enjoy reading or journaling for nightly preparation to sleep. I switched on three or four outside 75-watt lights to watch hemlock branches play in breezes whenever I lifted my eyes from the page. Lights out for sleep offers more moments of pleasure appreciating the silhouettes of background oaks, pines, beeches and tulip poplars as stars and planets wink beyond their branches.
• Mother Nature Induces Sleep •
For years, I thought I needed TV to prepare for sleep mode. Channel surfing distracted me from worldly obligations, and calmed my monkey mind with enough boredom to make sleep appealing. The effects were more deadening than restful. Now, however, it’s Mother Nature that lulls me to sleep in a way that deeply enriches me on so many levels. So, involvement with wood heat for a month’s necessary comfort helped me find a more effective way of manifesting restful sleep.
• Start with a Stack •
Do you think that should be the end of my story? It’d be a good enough ending, if it were. However, my commitment to minimize dependence on fossil heating fuel was just beginning to coalesce. Back in the studio with a propane fire, I yearned for the olfactory, and audio effects of wood burning, as well as direct involvement with the fire. And I especially missed that deeply comforting radiant heat. Inspired by the “If you build it they will come” message in Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner, I installed a code-compliant vent stack through the studio roof for some possible future acquisition of a wood stove.
• Prioritize •
Winter comfort was my main motivation, within the context of environmental respect. That penetrating quality of radiant heat feels soooo good. Economy also motivated me—gas and oil prices were less than a dollar per gallon when I moved here 15 years ago. (Since then, keeping thermostat settings low, I’ve conserved fuel, but suffered great discomfort indoors despite home winterizing and layered dressing.)
• Research •
With priorities recognized and rightly ordered, I began to research wood heat technology by talking to people about their experiences with fireplace inserts and wood stoves. An overwhelming array of companies from around the world offer an overwhelming selection of stoves. I began to hear about stoves that use either wood or coal, and questioned people about storing and burning coal. As a beginner, I just responded as intelligently and sensitively as I could to the prompts that my Spirit seemed to present.
• Protect the Floor •
Next, I made a fireproof floor pad after looking at retail offerings complying with fire prevention codes. It so happens I had a 4-ft square sheet of half-inch plywood. My sister, driving through from New England, brought Dad’s jigsaw (she inherited all his tools 30 years ago) to round the corners. Our sagging sibling relationship was strengthened and ancient resentments softened by our collaboration on the stove pad—a significant breakthrough filled with such grace that I imagine it was orchestrated on some spiritual level. Can you sense that this personal journey towards a more satisfying, more ecological, more economical heating strategy has manifested many, many delightful growth opportunities?
• More Blessings •
Then I phoned tile stores to scrounge some leftovers. More blessings blossomed. After being curtly dismissed by every outlet, I discovered Dino’s just off Kirkwood Highway puts overstocked and discontinued tiles outside on a bench free for artisans and crafters. I broke tiles into pieces and assembled a collage that I cemented to the plywood base, rimmed it with colorful river rocks, and grouted all the spaces.
It was my first attempt at such work. The contractor warned me of the short set time (about 20 minutes) for the cement application, so I only mixed enough to lay a third of the tiles at a time. It’s beautiful. It’s functional. It’s a holistic creation. The win/win vibes from recycling ripple out into the community and into the world. All because I was willing to start as a clueless beginner and follow what I now perceive to be a spiritual calling to recycle wood for heat.
• Exploring Options •
Sounds like another good ending. But I’ve only told you about a third of this saga. It continues …with serendipitous acquisitions and installations of used stoves, ...with testing wood supply strategies,
…with experiments adjunctively using anthracite,
…with implementing a cordwood transfer program for downed wood,
…with promoting clean air standards,
…and with a couple slightly scary sizzlers.
Meanwhile, I hope I’ve stimulated your thinking about exploring wood heat options. Would you be willing to direct some thought towards ways our society and you personally might reduce use of fossil heating fuels by burning wood? That’s how this story began for me—just recognizing and considering options as I meet more people who are beginning to think differently about home heating.
Please let me know what you think - you can email me at
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