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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