One thing I learned early, seemingly by osmosis, was how to lay a fire and have it burn cleanly, with a minimum of smoke. I could differentiate between tinder and kindling and biscuit wood and logs before the age of five, and came close to burning the house down on two occasions by conducting experiments in the back yard. (In other words, I also learned how NOT to lay a fire.)
In learning how to lay a fire correctly, and during the punishments I received after laying fires incorrectly, I caught tidbits of advice that likely were hundreds of years old, dating back to when white men were the minority in New England.
I had five male ancestors aboard the Mayflower, (four Pilgrims, and a member of the crew who decided to stay). That is a fairly good percentage, considering there were only 102 people who came, and only 52 survived the first winter. Many of the skills they brought from Europe were useless in the harsher environment of New England, and were it not for the help of Squanto, (an Indian who had actually lived in London and spoke English well), they likely would have perished. Among many other things, they learned how to lay a fire and have it burn cleanly.
One important reason for a smokeless fire was that the Indians had various feuds going on, despite the fact a pandemic had horribly reduced the local population by some 90%. Because of these feuds it was unwise to let anyone know where your camp was. A smokey fire would let a foe far away see exactly where you were camped.
(The very first treaty the Pilgrims made, with the Indians who helped them, included a clause which stated the Pilgrims would side with those Indians, in any war with neighbors. So it is wrong to say Europeans brought war to New England.)
In any case, in four years it will be 400 years since that group landed, and can you guess how many Americans can now find a person who was on the Mayflower in their family tree? Estimates range between 20 and 30 million, (of all races). It just goes to show you how a small group of determined people, willing to sacrifice everything for the Almighty, can have enormous repercussions.
Of course, by the time I was a young boy all sorts of decadence had crept in, and much of the fierce determination that the Pilgrims (and the following flood of Puritans) called everyday, natural, normal and even habitual, was deemed laughable. However odd echoes came to me down through the long hallways of time, and one of these was that a cleanly burning fire hid the location of your camp from your enemies.
I think I was around five or six when I learned this. It is an odd thing to be learning, in 1958 or 1959, when the greatest threat was A-bombs falling from the sky. A cleanly burning campfire offers little protection, in such cases. All the same, I learned how to make a fire burn cleanly.
One thing you learn during this education is that smoke is basically fire which hasn’t ignited. A cleanly burning fire is a fire which ignites all it’s smoke.
Smoke can therefore be seen as a waste of potential fire. Any smoke going up your chimney is fire that could have heated your home, but instead is being wasted. Because wasting anything was an anathema to my Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors, their frugality demanded fires burn cleanly. (Even 150 years later Benjamin Franklin was inventing an afterburner for chimneys, on the second floors of houses, to burn the smoke from the downstairs fire.)
Lastly, any smoke that rises up your chimney will only remain gaseous at high temperatures. As it cools it condenses to liquid tars and then solidifies to creosote. Where this is most likely to happen is where the inner wall of the chimney goes from warm, inside the house, to cold, where it pokes up into the bitter blasts of winter gales.
At that point, where the inner wall of a chimney turns from warm to cold, deposits of creosote can build a sort of collar of glassy black shapes, sometimes strange and intricately formed, ever inward, slowly choking the amount of smoke that can rise up the chimney. This greatly increases the danger of a chimney fire, (where the creosote catches fire inside the chimney) and also can make the stove smoke inside the house, but the worst sin of a clogged chimney is that it reduces the fire’s “draw”, which makes it harder for the fire to burn cleanly and efficiently. It becomes a vicious cycle; the more the chimney is clogged the worse the fire’s draw is, which makes the fire smoke more, which clogs the chimney more.
As I said, I learned all this stuff by a sort of osmosis as I grew up, even though for most of my youth my parents were very wealthy, and I lived in an affluent suburb. Early on I think I just owned the super-sensitivity of the very young, and was hearing Puritan echoes my parents didn’t even know they were transmitting, and then later on I think I was catching some of their anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear war. They had the urge to be self-sufficient when the bomb fell and the deliveries stopped. They built a coal-bin beside the back door and filled it with coal, (in case we couldn’t get heating oil), and had a large garden in the back yard, and cabinets with stores of vegetables in glass canning jars my mother filled, and they even planned a bomb shelter in the basement (but never built it). (I found this all very exciting and could hardly wait for the war to start.)
My mother even went so far as to have the three big chimneys of the rambling, three-story Victorian mansion swept, because they likely hadn’t been swept once, since the house was built after the Civil War, (because its original wealthy owners used it as a summer house (it had no insulation) in “the Weston hills”, and went trotting twenty-five miles back to Boston when the weather grew wintry.) I recall my fascination over the fact that the sweep’s modern (for 1961) equipment included a vacuum cleaner to suck cinders up the chimney as they swept, and it was so powerful it practically moved the furniture in the rooms below.
Then we abruptly we were poor, as my parents separated and went through a fight about money that basically ruined them both, but made psychiatrists and lawyers fatter. During that time I cut wood with my older brother in the yard, in an attempt to lower the heating bills by heating the huge home with wood. It was a hopeless situation, and I suppose I should have been embarrassed about what the neighbors might have been saying about us, but I actually thought it was sort of neat to chop wood and have fires blazing in all our fireplaces. As I split wood I sung lumberjack songs in the shrill voice of an eleven-year-old.
Then my mother remarried and we were rich again, and heating with wood should have become a thing of the past, but it didn’t. I was not as wealthy as my father or stepfather, and was in fact very downwardly mobile. Also the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970’s made heating-with-wood a topic all young liberals became conversant in, and, because I was so downwardly mobile, I tended to be the guy who stacked it, and occasionally even the fellow who cut it.
I continued downward because, as a young artist, it was my duty to scorn materialism, put art first, and never work a Real Job unless I absolutely had to, but perhaps I took this to an excess even for an artist. I felt the more I suffered the richer I’d someday be, and horrified friends and family by sleeping in my car in the winter, and living in campgrounds during the summer. Of course living in campgrounds furthered my education, concerning heating and cooking with wood, though being so impoverished never did make me rich. It also made me a bad prospect, as a husband, and, because I had no stomach for one-night-stands, I became a lonely man, who sat around campgrounds reading and scribbling, awaiting the day my genius would be discovered and I’d become fabulously wealthy.
Because I read so much I learned something disconcerting. Some very good artists were never “discovered” until after they died. I was willing to suffer a lot for art, but dying seemed like going a bit too far for me. (I wished someone had made this clause in the unwritten-contract-of-art clearer, back in the beginning.) I found my mind was starting to cast about, looking for alternatives.
All alternatives seemed a bit like selling-out, but I gritted my teeth and started working more Real Jobs; I figured that as long as they were not repulsive jobs, (such as being a lawyer or politician or climate scientist), I wouldn’t be immediately struck dead by lightning.
My art did suffer when I had less time to spend on it, but I figured it served the World right. If the World was too stupid to recognize what a genius I was, then the world would get what it paid for: Lots of clean dishes and clean stables and clean bathrooms and clean canneries and clean so on and so forth.
Though I never completely quit on my art I did become practical and pragmatic to a degree where a woman mistook me for a sensible man, and before I knew what hit me I found myself married to a woman who already had three small children, and we promptly made two more. She was also a genius, but the world was too stupid to recognize it, so we made a perfect pair, because we were perfectly impractical and perfectly broke. This was fine during the rosy days of summer, but when we faced our first winter it quickly became apparent we could not afford the necessary propane to fuel the old, roaring heater in the field-stone cellar of our 250-year-old house.
Fortunately the government offered something called “heating assistance” for imbeciles like us, so I set off one day to get myself some of the free heating. I figured I’d just sign some paper and that would be that, but I had no idea of the capacity of bureaucrats to rustle papers like crazy and accomplish nothing.
It is over a quarter century ago and my memory is dim regarding many details, but I recall I wasted at least an entire day, and perhaps two weeks, becoming increasingly exasperated and disgusted.
One requirement sent me around and around in circles, and the requirement was to have my employer verify that my stated income was correct. When I informed them I was a handyman who did odd jobs, they stated my customers were my employers and that I should go to each and every customer and get a signed statement. This was a lot of people, some of whom likely had moved or wouldn’t even remember me.
I can’t remember how I hurtled this obstacle, but fear I was less than what bureaucrats would have deemed “correct”. I decided I was my own boss, and employer, and made up some name for myself like “Handy Man Incorporated”, and wrote and signed a statement affirming that I did work for that entity. Bingo. I satisfied the bureaucrats, and received my free money, but after all the effort I had to put in, the “heating assistance” hardly seemed free. Nor was it all that much money. It was enough money to buy enough propane to heat my home for around ten days in January.
At this point, being a genius, I did a bit of counting on my fingers, and compared the time it took to to get that propane with how much firewood I could have cut in the same amount of time. I had spent roughly two weeks on and off sitting outside offices, only to be told to go sit outside other offices, and the result had been ten days worth of heat. If I had spent those two weeks cutting wood I could have gathered at least 14 pick-up truck loads, and heated my home for the entire winter. Then, at that point, I had decide something: Which was better: To be a welfare-dependent, or to be self-reliant.
(I think one thing that helped me decide was to look around at the others waiting outside offices as I waited, and to realize many were old and infirm, while I was hale and hearty. They couldn’t go out and gather wood, while I not only could, but also found cutting wood fun. I felt a sense of shame, but by that point I’d spent so much time in those blasted offices I wasn’t going to quit.)
In any case, while I indeed was a welfare-dependent for ten days during the first winter I was married, I was self-reliant the rest of the time, and I must confess I found that being self-reliant was much more fun, and easier, and that it involved more fresh air and exercise, and that lastly it was much better for my sense of self-esteem, than having anything to do with blasted bureaucrats and their blasted offices.
That began a love-affair with gathering my own fuel that lasted a quarter century. The old, clunky propane furnace in my house broke down, and I simply never had the time nor money to repair it. Repairing that furnace was always on my “list”, but towards the bottom, and never worked its way to the top, because any time it threatened to rise like cream some other thing would shove it back down to bottom of the list. And you would be amazed how often the new thing on my “list” involved free firewood.
Of course, there is really no such thing as “free” firewood. You must always lift the logs, and that is work. However some people pay to go to gyms to lift weights, but I often got paid for lifting my weights. For example, a person might not like how shabby the woods behind their house looked, and might hire me to remove all the dead wood and tidy up the trees, and I’d bring home several truckloads of free heat, and charge them for it. (One lady even paid me to remove a woodpile from her lawn, when she moved into a new house; the birch was indeed quite rotten, but the oak was hard and dry as a bone; It was a great deal for me; I charged a hundred to bring home two hundred dollars worth of prime oak firewood.)
People always wondered how I could raise five children on such a low income without resorting to welfare. It helps if the cost of heating your home through a freezing cold, New Hampshire winter is basically zero, (though it likely cost me a couple hundred to buy gas and bar-oil for my chain saws, and a file to sharpen the blades, and for chainsaw repairs.) It also helps if you spend so much time outside that your health is excellent and you never have to pay for doctors, or for work-outs in gyms. It is ironic that I have known bureaucrats who made ten times as much as me at better-paying jobs in offices, with good pensions (I have none), who grew so fat and flabby that they never collected their pensions.
Another irony involves the iron of wood stoves. I eventually had four in my house (and three in my yard) because they went out of fashion, and, because I was strong, I could be paid to haul them out of people’s houses. I never bought a stove, but did sell many over at the scrap-metal-place, and made some side-money, back when scrap-metal prices were high.
A few years ago it began to occur to me that maybe I should get the propane furnace in my house fixed, because I was approaching my sixtieth birthday and hauling wood and iron wood stoves wasn’t getting any easier. I got a friend, who happened to be in the business of repairing and installing propane heaters, to come by my house, and, when he saw my propane furnace, he had a good laugh. It was hopelessly out of date, and barely 50% efficient, which meant that 50% of the heat it produced went up the chimney. Times had changed, my friend stated, and he then attempted to seduce me into buying some modern gadget that was so amazingly efficient that it didn’t even need a chimney. Instead the modern propane gadget had a “vent”, where the air going-out warmed the air coming-in, so that, by the time the air exited the side of your house, it was below room temperature, and only puffed a little steam, on days when it was very cold.
Now, because I am old and conservative and don’t hold with newfangled gadgetry, I expressed my doubts. There was no way, you probably think, I’d ever spend the money for a new furnace. But I did. Why? Because it made sense. I think even Ben Franklin would have bought that furnace, (but maybe not, because he would have had a hard time locating propane).
So now, as I get old, I can just sit by a floor register and enjoy the heat rising up, and skip all the work of hauling wood. But do I? No. Not yet. For there is no comparison between sitting by a floor register and sitting by a wood stove.
(Hopefully, when I get too old to haul wood, someone will love me enough to do the lugging for me.)
In any case, that is pretty much the end of my story, concerning my love of burning wood, and also concerning the sense of self-reliance that comes from burning wood. In fact, now that I have lived so long, I see something astounding. In some cases I have grown the very two-foot-thick logs I chainsaw up for firewood. How? Because when I first set foot on what became the “family-farm” in 1968 the oaks were only acorns, and now they are pasture-oaks nearly fifty years old, which have been nourished by plenty of manure. What could be more self-reliant than to actually grow your own heat?
Now let me get all conservative on you, and tell you that there are some who do not approve of such self-reliance. Instead they approve of welfare-dependence. Their very livelihood depends on it.
For example, some bureaucrats became aware that people like I was, a quarter century ago, had very bad experiences in their heating-assistance offices, and wasted so much time becoming welfare-dependent that they decided, as I decided, that it simply wasn’t worth it. This was a bad thing for them, because they, as public servants, need a subservient public, and every self-reliant citizen puts them one step closer to being out of a job. Therefore, to avoid the experience I went through, they invented a new job, the “Heating Assistance Facilitator”. This person is educated in colleges to make sure a person like I once was, walking into their office, never walks out in disgust and learns to be self-sufficient. To keep this from happening, the “Heating Assistance Facilitator” takes the novice by the hand and guides him through the steps necessary to become a welfare dependent, and a drain upon society.
(This is not to say such a facilitator isn’t valuable and pleasing to God, when a frail old person wanders into the Heating Assistance Office, but when someone who is perfectly able walks in, any help they offer turns ability into inability.)
In MOGO, (IE My Old, Grouchy Opinion), bureaucracy would be better served by simplifying, so that they didn’t need a “Heating Assistance Facilitator” in the first place. I think it downright cruel to take the generous nature of the young, and to put that eager, bright-eyed willingness-to-be-helpful into some musty bureaucratic niche designed to further and increase the pathos of people sitting around in offices accomplishing nothing. Rather than sitting around in an office, that young, generous person would be better off outside gathering wood, lugging it into an elder’s abode, and keeping the oldster’s wood stove cherry-red in January.
Sadly, the woods around here are increasingly littered with fallen trees which, in the old days, would not have been wasted. Even only 25 years ago there was such a thing as “wood poachers”, who might steal a dead tree from your back yard when you were away at work. Now people are more interested in pellet stoves, if they think of wood at all, as a source of heat.
In MOGO, the osmosis that taught me the value of wood has failed, even in my own family. My own children don’t seem to understand that living in New England at this time, with so much dead wood laying about, enables one to achieve “energy independence.” There is no need for Arab Oil, or Wind Turbines, or Solar Panels, (for at least as long as it would take to clean up the dead wood laying in the woods. All that wood currently does is to create an increasing forest-fire danger). (Also rotting wood can create methane, which I have been told is a worse greenhouse-gas than CO2.)
But perhaps the osmosis has not completely failed. Perhaps it has to some degree manifested in the lone case of one daughter, who is a genius, just like I and her mother were geniuses. She did catch our impracticality, without us needing to teach it. She is educated to an excess, when it comes to knowing how to keep your body fit in a gym, and what diet is best for your body. (When she was young she wouldn’t touch the kale I grew in my garden, but last summer I couldn’t grow enough.) However when it comes to wood stoves, I was a complete failure to transfer my knowledge.
I can’t see how this happens. You’d think that growing up in a house heated by four wood stoves would have allowed her the time to watch me, but I guess I should have included her more, as I worked.
This fall she and her boyfriend moved into the loft of a converted barn heated by a wood stove, and, as her boyfriend was from Brazil and knew nothing about bitter cold and heating with wood, she hinted she could use some advice. I practically fell over on my face. (Why? Because, [like me], my daughter is such an insufferable genius that she never requires another’s advice.) However I managed to avoid standing with my jaw dropped to the floor, and instead casually inquired, (as if her asking-for-advice wasn’t an earth-shaking event), what she needed to know. She said her wood-stove no longer was working as well as it had. I said I’d drop by and take a gander at it.
When I opened the door of the wood stove the first thing I noticed was that there was hardly any room to put any wood in. The ashes were nearly up to the roof of the stove. In fact, how they managed to fit any wood in at all was beyond me.
I am obviously a failure. I neglected to teach my daughter that at some point you need to remove ashes. To hide my shame, I had to find some way to be very casual about teaching her, at this late date. “Hmm…” I said, “Looks like a mistake many make. Not many understand fires can have too many ashes…” Then I quickly changed the subject to how much I like ashes, for not only are they great for my garden, but can be used for making soap….and so on.
Removing the ashes was going to present us with a problem, because as soon as the door was opened to see the ashes the stove belched smoke, and it was obvious very little smoke was going up the chimney. The flue was obstructed, due to smokey fires building up creosote. The chimney needed to be swept.
Fortunately the weather was mild, for December, so they could let the fire die down, (though we couldn’t afford to wait for it to go all the way out). I obtained a brush from a friend:
The bush is made of stiff strands of steel, and you screw it onto a four-foot wand, which you screw on to a second wand, and then to a third wand, [and even a fourth, if necessary], and then you plunge the wand up and down the chimney to clear the creosote from the chimney’s liner.
I had my own ladder, but next I had to decide where to position the ladder to work on the chimney. I decided the best place would be the second-story porch:
At age 63, I may be getting a bit old for this nonsense, but I also enjoy it more, for I know my days of teetering on rooftops are numbered. I got up on that roof, and rammed the bush up and down the chimney, and knocked all sorts of stuff loose, but it basically fell and then got caught by stuff further down the chimney. As I plunged the brush up and down, increasingly further down the chimney, I could feel it was getting harder and harder to make headway. Finally I could push no further. I had the sick feeling that rather than cleaning the flue, I had totally blocked the flue.
I didn’t want to act out my feelings, for that would have involved running around in circles screaming. The young boyfriend from Brazil was watching, and it would have been a discredit to America and Americans to utterly freak. Instead I remained calm and pretended the disaster was quite normal and natural, as I climbed down the ladder, went into the barn, and saw the smoke was pouring from every chink and orifice of the stove. What to do? I opened all the doors and windows. Then I removed the stove pipe from the brick chimney by the wall, and clawed out a five-gallon bucket’s worth of cinders, with smoke slowly oozing from the stove pipe. I could feel the chimney was still obstructed above where I could reach, so, still calmly whistling between clenched teeth, I went out and back up the ladder and rammed the brush back down the chimney, only to find the brush could not break through the obstruction that my sweeping had created.
Bleep. What to do now?
What I did was to unscrew the brush and just poke the pole down the chimney. That pole was pointed enough to puncture the obstruction, and I could feel, as I continued to poke, the obstruction was crumbling and falling away. Then I calmly went back down the ladder and removed another five gallon pail of glassy creosote clumps, put the stovepipe back into the wall, and the stove no longer leaked a bit of smoke. The draw was excellent and there was enough room to put wood in. I was a hero.
Unfortunately my daughter had to leave for work, earlier, and wasn’t there to recognize my genius and heroism, but fortunately her Brazilian boyfriend was there, and wonderfully appreciative. He is still mastering his English, but I had fun communicating. Apparently in Brazil not many old men rush up and down ladders whistling through their teeth, and therefore he thought I was special. He also became very intent and strove very hard to comprehend when I tried to convey that if a fire burned cleanly there would be no further problems with creosote build-up in the flue.
Of course, explaining that smoke liquefies to tar and then solidifies to creosote is hard enough with people who have spoken English from birth. Many just don’t get it that the crud in their chimney is basically smoke, and smoke is basically fire that never caught:
Explaining it to a fellow from Brazil who’s English is improving is harder, but the fellow was obviously impressed by my eccentric behavior, and asked questions, which not many fellow American do, (as they prefer to back out of the room anxiously nodding when I get manic and enthusiastic). And amazingly, the fellow seemed to suddenly grasp what I was driving at.
I’m not sure what I did that made my point. I did put the creosote pictured above into the stove to show him it was smoke that could fiercely burn, given a chance, but he looked perplexed by that demonstration. Instead it was when I pointed at a thermometer and said that below a certain temperature the creosote would form in the chimney, and above it wouldn’t, and above-that-above the chimney might burn like the clump of creosote in the fire, that suddenly he got it. Such a dawning broke on his face! It made me understand why some might want to be teachers.
The pity is that the American government doesn’t get what the guy from Brazil got, about cleanly-burning wood fires. Instead the EPA basically wants to have the power to intimidate people who burn wood with the threat of jail time, if they don’t burn wood correctly, and their chimney’s smoke too much. Their sternness seems aimed at discouraging wood-burning altogether, and socially their effort is like killing a mosquito on your nose with a hammer.
In MOGO, the government’s bluster towards folk who burn wood in Alaska proves they don’t really want to teach, (as I taught the young man from Brazil), the art of being self-reliant and efficient. Instead they want to make people more and more welfare-dependent, as this makes government more and more important.
This is not acceptable, if we are truly a Land Of The Free, where people who yearn for freedom flee to. We are not a land that wants people dependent. We are a land that wants people free.
Our president-elect has stated he wants to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but I think we need to “sweep the flue”.
You see, much of the false logic and even false science of liberalism is built upon the sound premise of generosity. Generosity is beautiful and good, but it needs a certain spark, or it is like smoke that never lights, and instead clogs the chimney until even a fire below is impossible.
Shakespeare wrote of the hazards of generosity when he wrote “Timons of Athens,” however Timons is, in modern political nomenclature, what is dubbed a “useful idiot”.
The real danger we face involves those who, unlike Timons, are not willing to give to the point where they lose, but rather seek to use “giving” as an excuse to gain. Where Timons gave because his naive heart was generous to a fault, people like the Clintons create their “generous” foundations for political purposes, (to bribe and to accept bribes). In other words to “gain”, (even to the degree of grotesquely offending the very definition of charity, when millions suffered in Haiti).
It seems we should understand, as a people, that the word “generosity” does not involve any material gain for the giver. It is a vile joke to say you “give”, when you wind up richer after you have given, especially when the poor wind up poorer.
The true gain of generosity occurs when the poor wind up richer. To see that smacks of satisfaction. And that only occurs when the poor who are welfare-dependent wind up self-reliant.
When generosity works like that, smoke bursts into flame, and nothing but heat rushes up the chimney, and we can enjoy a warm hearth without worry about the flue.