The second week of running my new-to-me woodstove after years of intermittent installation is quiet. After starting the coffee maker I inspect the remains of last night’s fire and find a small pile of coal with glowing specks covered in ash. A younger me would have spent half an hour trying to get the stove going without a match, felt the need to prove my fire tending skill. Fifty two year old me throws a piece of paper in the coal and rests easy on the knowledge that this fire will be quick. Twenty-five-year-old me might only have had six pieces of paper and and three matches in the house while now I have two days of fire starter and a basket of matches. As our skills decline we get better at planning.
My earliest memory of fire making is watching my Grandfather start the fire in the old style stoves in Upstate New York that were unchanged from the early twentieth century designs of his childhood. They were simple unsealed metal boxes that would glow dull red in the dark mornings and would burn out some time in the night. A patient and methodical man born in poverty he was able to start a fire without paper and would spend time making kindling smaller than pencil and build neat cabins above the cold ashes of last night’s fire. I am more of a pile maker than a cabin builder myself, but the basics are still the same- smaller to larger, faster burning spruce under over slower burning hardwoods. The old style stoves could heat a room quickly but went out just as fast and combined with poor insulation and leaky wood windows could make for chilly mornings. My Grandfather growing up poor in Missouri undoubtedly had decades to perfect his wood stove techniques.
Here we have a furnace that will quietly kick when the fire cools and walls with insulation and windows that seal, which coupled with our mild climate makes fire keeping less urgent. Still I try and build the fire up in the evenings. The new heat source, like all major change, has caused alterations to the ecosystem. despite my best efforts the heat does not travel well through the house and while the living room is warmer the bedrooms are colder; a side effect of the sprawled nature of ranch house design. This has caused a lot more activity in the living room as the teens come out of their dens to soak up the warmth by the fire. The middle son has learned to stoke the fire. It has also some rather hygge moments of gathering around the warm glow in the evening. The cats have all pretty much melted and the eldest feline has claimed the closest cushion to the heat and spends most of each day there.
This new addition means we now have the ability to produce heat without power, which can be unreliable in winter here with the long sparsely populated road with equally long driveways under trees that shed branches in out biennial heavy snow, called “Oregon cement” by skiers. The last such outage we were the last house in the country to regain power- ten cold, waterless days powering the house in a generator and space heaters. The stove was here but not completed and I admit looked at it squatting unhelpfully on the hearth extension with more than a little ire, but woodstoves are dangerous if not installed correctly and I preferred feeding a generator to worrying about carbon monoxide poisoning the air or a chimney fire burning the house.
I am a moderately skilled rough carpenter but have not done much work with iron or stone, and more issues arose and a work away delayed it another ten months before the last inspection and permit issuance was complete the week before Christmas. Now in the near-freezing pre dawn to be warm by my own hand is deeply satisfying; with a stove I installed with wood that I split and seasoned over the years of waiting rest quietly in behind the barn. It is not done entirely by me for I neither made the stove nor cut the stone behind and below it. The metal barrier to fireplace was made by a blacksmith in town and a chimneysweep checked my work before another person from the county measured the number of inches of stone around it and gave verified my installation. It was work guided by me, and I have made my mark upon this place with iron and stone that may outlast me.
The Willamette fog lays heavy on the silent fields as the pipe rattles and expands in the heat of the new wood. My daughter say she will get up at seven and is now asleep still at eight. It is a dark morning at the end of the darkest year I can recall. I am thankful we are safe and warm, and mindful that many families are not safe, not warm and more than three hundred thousand of us shall never join family again in living rooms of all kinds in this country and all joy is tempered with sadness these days. Having talked, donated, voted and prayed for change I can only thing left to do is tend the fire and await spring.
May you reading this have a warm and safe winter. May we all have a better year and many more to come, remember that we are not three hundred million islands of self but one nation, not one hundred and ninety five countries but one planet and act accordingly in the future so that the many dead are not forgotten but live on in better choices by the living in the future. I pray that the mourning find peace and the homeless shelter, the hungry food and the weary rest. Lastly I hope we can return to meeting, to casual touch and warm embraces this year and never forget how much they make our lives full and meaningful.