I’m reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Like other classic nature writings such as Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and An Unspoken Hunger by Terry Tempest Williams, Leopold combines exquisite detail of his corner of the natural world with an urgent appeal for protecting that world—if it’s not already too late.
First published in 1949, Sand County is arranged by months; the February chapter is particularly apt for Stonebridge these days:
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.
To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.”
Here on the Front Range, winter has finally caught up with us. We had snow on New Year’s Eve and now a second storm is falling. Here in the house, though, we’re warmed by a woodfire, one provided by nature and by John with his chainsaw and his willingness to go outside first thing in the morning for wood.
About 12 years ago, our hot water heating system went on the blink. We were using the woodstove pretty regularly already because we liked the heat it gave; when the furnace went out, we decided to go all the way with wood.
Or almost all the way. The ceiling-high windows on the south side of the farmhouse provide passive solar heat and we have a couple space heaters for when we’re in our studies or to warm the bathroom. Primarily, though, the woodstove does the job.
Each year since we let the furnace go, we’ve made some improvements. Because the farmhouse is old (100 years old this year!), we had extra insulation blown into the walls. What a difference that made, mostly to keep in the heat from the woodstove rather than lose it out the wood walls.
We built a wood hut to keep the logs dry and handy outside the back door. Designed by our friend Jon with a scavenged satellite dish for a roof, it makes trips to the woodpile much more pleasant, even in the snow.
We’ve lined and improved the old chimney and this year we had it professionally cleaned. We also bought, at our friend Peter’s advice, a colored temperature gauge so we could monitor the optimum flame. Yellow is too low; red is too high. We like to keep it “in the mustard,” we say, where the wood burns most efficiently.
But the biggest improvement is the wood itself. The three irrigation ditches at Stonebridge are lined with trees. For years we burned cottonwood, since it was the most ubiquitous, but that wood burns like toilet paper—lots of ash, not much heat.
Now we’re burning willow, apple, and Russian olive, the latter a weed tree that John has sworn to rid from our land.
I’m glad John doesn’t mind swinging an axe as he’s “let[ting] his mind work the while.” And I’m glad to hear the “thump” in the woodbox in the morning as he drops a load of dry logs for the first fire of the day. It’s good to know where our heat comes from, as well as our food. Leopold would approve.