Burning the Midnight Oil

We burn wood.   We burn lots of wood.  Probably all told, between the sugaring operation and our heating and hot water needs, about twenty cords of wood a year go into the basement or wood shed and don’t come out again.

Before we burned wood, we burned oil.  We live in a big, leaky brick house in the cold Northeast, and in the colder winters we’d burn almost three thousand gallons of oil a year.  That’s 69 barrels of oil we’d burn in a year (according to several sources, Americans on average consume about 24 barrels a year), not counting the rest of our considerable carbon footprint with our cars, electrical needs and fondness for fresh vegetables in February.  It’s also $8000-9000 a year, depending on the price of oil.  Then there’s the fact that oil doesn’t get produced around here.  There is no local benefit to buying it, save from the oil company, and the cost of getting it to us is huge, economically, socially and environmentally.

About 8 years ago during an excessively greedy gouging by oil speculators, we took a look at our oil bill, the number of gallons we seemed to be draining down a never ending hole, and the constantly cold house despite our efforts, and then we looked out our window, and finally saw oil in the form of ash and oak growing up all around us.  So we bought and installed a TARM woodboiler.  And we haven’t looked back since.

In general society’s increasingly distant relationship with the origin of our basic needs such as heat, food, water and shelter has lead us to believe and operate in simple models of black and white good versus evil products; tag lines such as “gluten free” leading an ignorant public to believe in a product’s inherent goodness, somehow glossing over the fact that only a relatively small portion (1%) of the population actually requires gluten free products in order to battle celiac disease.  (The rest of us can eat the naturally occurring protein with no problem. )  The tag extends to items such as corn flakes and rice cereal, which though technically true, are misleading in that neither rice nor corn ever contain gluten in the first place.  And so the public becomes fixated on a phrase to tell them what is right and what is wrong, when really they need to have a clear idea of what their goal is–and then–however slowly, move towards that goal.

Take the apparent controversy of burning wood in fireplaces, for instance.

To be fair, we think the author meant to confine her story to the use of fireplaces in urban or suburban settings, and not to imply that burning a renewable resource such as wood to heat one’s house was always and always wrong, environmentally unfriendly and automatically bad for one’s health.  And we tend to agree that using a fireplace in Tribeca is not only a ridiculous mis-use of resources but logistically awkward.  But unfortunately the author goes on to implicate woodstoves in the country as part of the problem, without really realizing that woodstoves and fireplaces work in fundamentally different ways and that when you are not connected to the urban steam pipe you have limited choices on how to heat your living space.

Also, we don’t care how many “country homes’ you own.  Unless you are doing more than visiting or retiring here, you don’t live in the country and you don’t have any expertise in it.   The very fact that you feel you have to justify your heat source by saying the trees you cut and split were dying anyway marks you as an outsider who doesn’t understand the balance of the ecosystem you have taken away from.  What makes you think the downed trees in your forest weren’t doing anything?  What about the porcupines who won’t have anything to hibernate in now that you’ve cleaned up?  What about the bugs, worms and lichen who would have enjoyed a few thousand meals off of the log you burned?  Where do you think new soil comes from?  We take from the land knowing that something will miss it.  There’s no excuse for it.  It just is. We will always leave an imprint on the land just by living, that is the nature of life.  The trick is to try and not take too much.

As for the potentially dangerous side effects of wood smoke, we rather think that the particulates from wood smoke are the least of any New Yorker’s breathing worries, and that any city dweller who might become allergic to a certain smoky particulate was probably already compromised by their chosen environment anyway.  So it isn’t really relevant.  But just to be clear, while fireplaces might place into the atmosphere a larger amount of particulates which may or may not be carcinogenic but have been with the human race for thousands, if not millions, of years, the newer woodstoves and wood boilers place virtually nothing into the atmosphere. 

The unfortunate part about this article is that it came from the New York Times, a normally respectable organization, and was picked up by numerous other media outlets within twelve hours.  The average college educated American will skim the news and pick up this important but mis-represented fact:  burning wood is bad.  Since the average college educated American has been found not to have picked up basic critical thinking skills in their very expensive four year education, they will not read the entire article or question its foundation, but will carry this along in their heads as fact.  Unfortunately they will then be faced with Gulf Oil spills, sky-rocketing gas prices, an increasingly cranky climate, and high unemployment, and they won’t be able to figure out how to pay their heating bills or why it’s always cold and raining, and if they turn to the New York Times for information they’ll only get more yokel-local missives from the Big Apple and fireplace woes in Tribeca which have nought to do with the rest of the country. 

We however, will be increasingly busy cutting and splitting wood for our various operations.  Heating with wood doesn’t make sense for everyone; especially not a high-rise dweller in a bustling metropolis.  But it does make sense when you’re sitting on top of your heat source.  And since we’re going to make an impact on our world anyway, we’d rather it be a local one and not exported to Iraq.  It just makes more sense, Times or no Times.

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Nor’Easter in the Nor’East

To read our local news, you’d think it never snows here, or that the entire storm took us by surprise (“Transportation Workers Prepare for Storm“), although given that New York City apparently forgot all about these occasional but common snow dollops in the last snow storm, maybe we need to reassure our out of state refugees that indeed, we are ready for snow, and in actual fact our transportation workers are salivating right now because they can make an entire year’s wage in overtime with storms like these. 

Last year around this time I’d been eyeing the radar of a large storm which was going to hit us the next day and was making careful arrangements to my schedule to work from home, when my boss called me into her office and berated me for “anticipating the storm.”  Never having been reprimanded for being proactive before, I was shocked.  We beat the bush for a little while until it was finally revealed that her issue was not that I had anticipated the storm, been proactive, and decided I was probably going to work from home the next day, but that I had communicated my intention to some of my colleagues whom she could not trust to work from home, and she worried that they would try to do the same.  Basically, her personnel issue wsa the reason that I should not communicate future plans to my colleagues.  Looking back on it, this was the beginning of the end for me.

In contrast, I spent a good deal of time yesterday agonizing over today’s storm, because it was supposed to be my first day at work, with all the first impressions and uncertainties and false starts that implies, and I didn’t know  how to approach the fact that I would either be late or not show up at all, when the president of the college solved the problem for me and closed the college.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen.  On inclement weather days, it is no longer my responsibility to weigh risking life and limb over the possibility that my electricity might go out.  I now work for a place that closes in the event of a snow storm!  The day before it happens!  My old boss would faint.

Six Impossible Things Before Supper

Although it ended up being painful to my former place of employment as my former colleague had chosen the first two weeks of the year to take his vacation, I ended my gig on Monday and will be free until next Wednesday, when I begin working a day job again. 

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the LLARCS abhor inactivity, so naturally we plunged right into the next fear-inducing projects: creating a bedroom for Bundle o’ Joy II, and putting up the mainline in preparation for this year’s sugaring operation.

Here in sugaring country you might travel down any main or back road and notice black water pipe and a series of smaller bluish or clear plastic tubing snaking through the woods and hung half way up trees, and you either wondered vaguely why someone had left their garden hoses wrapped around trees or you decided it was a random act and avoided the topic altogether, until by chance you met someone who sugars and realized that buckets are romantic but not at all in vogue.  When you get into larger production you need a way to efficiently move sap from tree to evaporator, and you can either do it with buckets, horses and a lot of hauling, or rely on gravity and physics and plastic, or, even more modern and efficient, you can attach a vaccuum to the end of your tubing and suck the lifeblood out of the trees, in which case you aren’t relying on gravity but you are relying on electricity.  We’ve opted for the gravity-fed method, which involves littering our woods with permanent installations of black water pipe and plastic sap tubing, as well as an 1100 gallon storage tank to hold it all in.

We helped a friend string mainline last year, so we cashed in the favor and had him come out to show us how to even get started.  In the book, your mainline is straight and tight and slopes perfectly downhill and yet is always accessible (i.e. is not ten feet over your head).  In reality the woods are full of dips and hummocks, large rocks and trees blocking your line of sight, and it becomes somewhat of an act of faith to translate what the book tells you is correct into what reality is showing you.  Still, we pressed on, and at the end of the day we had one fairly professional looking mainline installation, although we did end up bowing to reality and also to a gas powered pump since it turned out there was no way to gravity feed all the way to where we had originally envisioned our storage tank.

The next day, we went out armed with the knowledge that mainlines are not completely impossible to install, but minus our mentor, and immediately ran into an issue with the 12 gauge wire which was the first step.  Somehow during the night it had, like Christmas lights or balls or string, tangled itself into an impossible mess, even though on the surface it still looked tightly coiled.   Seasoned sugarers know this is an issue and maple producers capitalize on it by selling a wire spool for a ridiculous amount of money.  But we were stubborn, so we ended up unraveling the stupid thing by hand, which took an hour and alot of running back and forth down our private road.  Fortunately the snow isn’t too deep yet. 

Finally the wire was up but we were running out of time, rushing to put the pipe up.  To hold the pipe in place there are such things as “mainline tensioners” which resemble chinese finger torture things we all had as children, and which we can never remember the name of and keep referring to as Chinese Finger Torture Things, which we finally shortened to CFTTs, and which we didn’t have anyway so we ended up using pipe fittings, which were a great idea except as I was pulling on one end in the darkening day, the other end popped free.  Three hundred feet of rapidly coiling water pipe started to hurl towards me, but fortunately was foiled by the trees, hummocks and dips mentioned earlier.

So:  As of now we have one completely installed and one half-installed mainline with no laterals (the smaller sap tubing which will actually connect to the maples), and as with all projects  here at Swamp Yankee Wannabes we’ll plug along until it is done and make it up as we go along.  If we actually get a working system before the sap starts to flow, we’ll have earned ourselves our syrup this year.

Swamp Yankee in the New Year

Most years we sort of float on in to the next year with nothing to show for it and nothing entirely remarkable to say about the year that has past, but this year of 2010 seemed to be full of itself.  It was the first year we truly felt like farmers, for instance, with all the back-breaking, unromantic, dirty crap that implies as well as the first swelling of a bank account and the fact that we are still eating fresh carrots this late in January.  It was the last year we’d be using our little 2 by 4 evaporator pan-and-oil-barrel setup, although that is actually yet to be fully seen through.  It was the first year we tried our hand at selling chickens and produce, and it was the last year we’d be pulling the buds off the blueberries.  It saw the arrival of another Swamp Yankee, turning us from LARC and LARCS to LLARCS.  It saw the death of a dear friend and a loyal dog.  And finally it saw the end of one job, although it won’t officially be able to claim the start of another.

All in all, a topsy turvy year, 2010 was.

Normally the even years are my better years, or maybe it’s just my bias towards even numbers which has always made it seem so.  But I’m hoping that 2011 will be one of those years that just slips by and doesn’t comment much upon my life.  I like memorable moments but I don’t need them all at once. 

“May your life be interesting” as the old curse goes.  May our lives here at LLARCS be unremarkable–possibly downright boring– this year.

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