Wood heat

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(HOST) This winter, for the first time, commentator Caleb Daniloff is discovering the joys – and the challenges – of heating with wood.

(DANILOFF) I recently got a woodstove for our home prompted by Katrina-fed fuel prices, peak-oil nightmares and the October snow-
fall that left parts of town without power for days. I figured it was time to get in touch with my inner survivalist.

I spend my evenings now tending the fire. I bust up the butt ends of logs with my trusty poker and break the backs of others, converting their glowing vertebrae into mounds of blistering orange jewels. I’ve set up a crude system of fans to circulate the warmth, and have so far managed to keep the thermostats down.

The fires are mesmerizing, even more so than Entertainment Tonight and Bow-Flex commercials. I often find myself staring wordless at the glass door, the narcotic warmth pinning
me in my chair.

The critical test is starting the fire. Kneeling at the stove, smudged in soot and blowing on stingy kindling touches upon your worth as a human being. Failure can blacken even the sunniest disposition. If you can t get that fire going, you might as well hang it up now.

The true triumph and unequivocal validation of your existence is getting the fire to last through the night, to uncover those errant embers in the morning and charm new flames out of them. After you’ve shown the family you’ve ensured their continued survival,
go ahead, take the rest of the day off.

Of course, firewood is my new currency. One of my central activi-
ties is now gathering wood and kindling, followed by thinking about gathering wood and kindling. Should I get a license to pull fallen logs out of the forest? How much do skids cost? What are skids?

On a recent Sunday, I spent the morning scouring our property for fallen branches. After a half hour, I proudly showed my wife my survival work. She simply pointed across the yard. A dead 30-foot maple had toppled over, uprooted by stormy weather. I’d walked by it twice. Some smaller trees had broken its fall and it now rested at a 45-degree angle above the ground. I stared lustily at this behemoth, translating its girth into heating units with abacus speed.

We grabbed a rickety step ladder and bow saw from the base-
ment. I found the tree’s mid-point and slowly sawed the thing in half, the upper portion at last crashing to the ground with a sweet, drawn-out crack.

Soon I was out of my sweat shirt and long-sleeve, and saw-
ing in just a T in the crisp November air. I thought of Thoreau,
who noted that firewood warms you twice once when you chop
it and a second time when you burn it.

After a while, a neighbor took pity and offered me his chainsaw.
I’d never used one but was soon decked out in a protective orange helmet, putting the saw’s angry teeth to the thick lower portion. I stroked magically through bark and bone.

I spent the next couple hours slicing up the two fifteen-foot sec-
tions, cutting them into thick rounds and paring off branches. By the time the sun had started dropping, I was spitting woodchips and sweating sawdust. But I’d added another row of logs to our woodpile and filled a garbage container with kindling.

A few days later, I built a fire with the new wood. It was a little wet and airy, and some pieces spat sparks of protest. I watched it catch and settle, able to identify what part of the tree the pieces had come from. And that familiarity, that evidence of my own survival, warmed me for a third time.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer, and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.

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