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Living off the woody fat of the land

  • LARRY PARNASS<br/>The author's new basement wood furnace ready for action.
  • LARRY PARNASS<br/>The author's new basement wood furnace ready for action.
  • LARRY PARNASS<br/>Dry and ready for a season of heating that enables the author to skip on home heating oil purchases.
  • LARRY PARNASS<br/>At least 10 cords of wood will be consigned to flame before next spring arrives. <br/>
  • Paul Truehart operates his wood stove in Southampton<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Paul Truehart operates his wood stove in Southampton<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Paul Truehart operates his wood stove in Southampton<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Paul Truehart operates his wood stove in Southampton<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

And so I joined the fraternity of those who heat with wood, long before hearing the word biomass.

We pay property taxes on our woodlot, for sure. But when winter nears, it’s my own little Saudi Arabia of energy. For 20 years, I cut and split enough wood to feed the kitchen woodstove and living-room fireplace.

With all that standing timber, it never occurred to me to seek another source of fuel such as pellets, the subject of this month’s cover story. All I had to do was get into protective gear — and a little more of it each year — and go harvest. Last year, tired of paying for oil to heat most of the house, we installed a basement wood furnace — thanks again, Scandinavia — that set us up for our own version of heating energy independence.

Like all chores, laying in cordwood can be a nuisance. But I spend my weekdays at a desk and I like physical labor. And so the hard bargain of self-reliance is this: Many days a year, the laundry comes out of the washer smelling a little like chain saw bar oil. I return from dropping trees scratched, bleeding slightly and flecked with bits of wood.

One of the wisest people I know looked at me oddly when we traded notes on winter heating, amazed I’d take the risks involved with using a chain saw near falling bodies that weigh tons.

Knock wood — or get knocked by it, I guess.

But across the Valley, a lot of us do it, mostly because it saves a lot of money. It’s about more than that, and here are a few reasons why:

• Alone, together: I love the time I spend alone walking our woodlot, culling out dead or distressed trees, dropping and sectioning them and hauling it all home. Other times, family members join me to split and stack cordwood. On the best days, a long stint of shared labor ends with stew and beer at the kitchen table. On the worst days, they can involve a trip to the ER. Just ask my father.

• That penetrating heat: When you come in wet from a winter storm, wood heat pushes through your clothes and warms you from the inside out. You know you like it.

• Giving heat: A small load of dried firewood makes a nice, homemade gift.

• The best-laid plans: Laying in cordwood for a coming cold season teaches us to plan ahead. Split wood must season and dry, or it’s both unburnable and produces dangerous amounts of creosote. While the buds are budding, the family that heats with wood is thinking about the first snow.

• Knowing the woods: I just wouldn’t know our land as well as I do if I didn’t prowl it with cutting in mind. I see things I’d never witness, like the day I tapped a standing ash to see how dead it was and looked up to watch it waver. Instead, a flying squirrel leapt from a hollow place at the top. It glided for 20 or so feet and ran off. I left its home alone.

• Our emergency heat: More than once, when the kids were young and the power went out, we all slept on the floor of the kitchen under the glow of oil lamps, huddled by the heat of the woodstove.

That stove carries, in raised letters in Norwegian, a poem attributed to Fredrik Nygaard. I once found a translation and treasure it. I salute the Jotul stove company for finding a place for literature on so utilitarian a device:

“I rake my fire / Late in the evening / When the day is over / God let my fire / Never burn out.”

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