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To Build a Fire

I raise the 12-pound triangular piece of metal high over my head and then swing it down hard through an arc defined by the length of my arms and the pull of gravity. As the metal meets the chunk of red oak, the force of the blow is resolved with a dry popping sound as the wood gives way, splits and shoots off in opposite directions, perpendicular to the plane of my ax head. As October cools toward November, I begin to disassemble cords of renewable energy stacked in my backyard and get my woodstove stoking.

Iím always a little hesitant when I first pick up my Monster Maul at the start of a new heating season. I got the mutant ax soon after I began burning wood. I had used a normal-looking ax and wedges before picking up one of the monsters, which looks like a large wedge welded to a steel handle and painted fluorescent orange. It weighs a bit more than your standard ax, but it packs an amazing force for wood splitting.

After Iíve split a few pieces, I get back into the simple rhythm and observations of the process. I soon slide into a somewhat smooth swing that brings my oversized splitter popping through thick wood. Iím applying my biological energy through the swing of the Monster Maul to split the wood (biomass) that will, in turn, provide me with energy to heat my house.

But before I take a swing, I look at the grains of the wood to see if I can detect any points that look particularly vulnerable to splitting. As I raise the fluorescent ax above my head, I keep my eye on the point Iíve decided to strike. The more I focus on the place I want to hit, the better I get at hitting it. It becomes almost a form of meditation. I also burn up about 23 calories a minute and get some decent exercise along the way.

Iíve been heating my home with wood for more than 20 years. I generally burn about three cords of the renewable resource each cold season, accounting for most of the heat I use in my home. A high-efficiency natural-gas boiler and a system of water-filled radiators is my ďbackupĒ heating system. Heating accounts for about 35 percent of the energy used annually in the average American home.

The first stove I put in my house was a sheet-metal affair. It got hot fast and cold even faster. It also didnít burn very cleanly, particularly when I fed it poorly seasoned fuel. A black sooty smoke headed skyward from my tall brick chimney. Creosote, a black glazing that is a dangerous and flammable byproduct of inefficient wood burning, built up in my chimney. My chimney sweep warned me that I needed to clean up my act. A lot of the potential heat in the wood I burned was being lost, and research was being published documenting the pollution associated with stove smoke.

Back about seven years ago, I replaced my old stove with one that was both more efficient and more ecologically benign. It is a low-emission stove that is able to circulate and burn combustible gases released by burning wood. Little smoke now rises from my chimney. In my stoveís door is a window through which I can watch not only how the wood is burning, but also this secondary combustion. The burning of these gases takes place through two pipes with holes along their length that run across the top of the stoveís firebox. The pipes mix heated air with the gases, which then burn in a number of small flames that emerge and converge from their holes. This additional burning process substantially reduces the pollution released and the creosote deposited in my chimney, while increasing the heat produced.

Burning well-seasoned wood also helps to minimize the pollution released by a wood stove. About half of the weight of a green piece of freshly cut wood is water. Green wood smolders and smokes, providing plenty of pollution and little heat. Seasoning the wood can reduce the water content to about 20 percent of the woodís weight, and make it far easier and cleaner to burn.

All the wood I now burn has been split and stacked for at least a year. I am just about to receive a load of wood that will be stacked for the 2003-04 heating season. The wood I burned during the last heating season cost about $330. As I work my way through cords of seasoned wood, there are some pieces that need the further attention of my maul. I toss these into a pile for future splitting, and usually burn them at the end of the heating season or the beginning of the next one. The wood I am splitting was leftover from last winterís stack.

I make at least two different types of fires to heat my well-weatherized home. Currently, I am starting fires dependent upon how cold it gets. These are quick fires, made from smaller pieces of wood that are loosely stacked in the stove. These fires take the chill off and may go through the night and then be allowed to burn out. As the cold weather sets in, I will start to make more substantial fires that involve larger pieces of wood that more densely fill the stoveís firebox and can keep things warm for eight hours or more without refueling. I compost all ash.

As I swing my Monster Maul, I think about the benefits of heating with wood, and how I like seeing the energy Iím using instead of just getting a utility bill in the mail. This year, I have been particularly struck by the thought that I donít have to threaten any Middle Eastern countries with war in order to secure future supplies of this renewable, locally grown energy resource.

óTom Nattell


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