After a cold blast between Christmas and New Year’s, January has been gentle. Plenty of thaws and only a couple of light snows. Oddly, this has not made me happy. Instead I’ve become aware how dull midwinter is.
Last year there were too many calamities and disasters to attend to, for me to notice how dull it was. That is one good thing about storms and frozen pipes. However this winter, though it started out like that, became merciful. It seems almost an oxymoron to speak of a “generous January”, for January’s the high tide of starkness, or perhaps low tide of bleakness. No sap stirs.
Perhaps the boredom began because the thaws melted the little snow we had at my Childcare, and wreaked the snowmen, and spoiled the start to an igloo we planned to make ten stories tall, and even erased the fun of tracking animals in the snow. In any case, the tricks we’d devised (to avoid seeing how bleak and stark January is) simply didn’t work anymore, and one couldn’t help but look around and just think, “Yuk.”
Of course this presents me with an immediate challenge. If God is in everything then there must be a poem in every thing. Could I find a sonnet in anything so incredibly drab and dull?
It seems there comes a time every winter When monotony triumphs. Sing an ode To the sheer dullness, Oh my soul! In her Majestic way Nature mines a rich lode Of gray, so lands and skies slump to the edge As silver with no shine. The world's pewter. Brown leaves are ashy, and even the sedge Has gone gray. Snows fell, but the thaws neuter The bridal veil, and trails become trackless, And, even outdoors, cabin-fever's blindness Sees nothing of interest. Confess, Oh my soul, that you doubt life holds kindness. Strangely, when you moan this midwinter mood You mouth manna which is poetry's food.
There. Did it. To me even a poor poem seems to be at least an effort at enlightenment.
To me making such an effort seems important, as the media and most politicians seem to be working very hard at being unenlightened. I don’t need to go into details about their dishonesty, hypocrisy, and unabashed lust and greed. They are the January of our age, and to witness their monotonous gray one only needs to turn on the news.
For my mental health I often turn off the news, and withdraw to my time machine, and travel back to the time of the true Enlightenment. Then I sit back and watch the Founding Fathers of our nation. They too were up against powers of gray, but rather than beaten down they uplifted.
It’s obvious why the denizens of the Swamp loathe them and want to discredit them, and it’s even sort of funny when Founding Fathers are described as rich, old slave-owners in white wigs. They were basically kids, up against the most powerful tyrant then alive. Jefferson was the “old man”, at age thirty-two, and Madison was only twenty-five, and Monroe was eighteen. If captured they could have been summarily hung or beheaded, for treason. Monroe nearly bled to death from the wounds he received in the Battle of Trenton, after crossing the Delaware with Washington on Christmas morning, 1776. Life was not roses for those men. Jefferson packed up books and important documents and rode away from his house exactly five minutes before the British cavalry arrived, hunting for his traitorous hide.
What impresses me about the Founding Fathers is their ability to be high minded even when up against the low minded. Jefferson and Adams were not brought down to the dirt by the fact King George wanted them dead. Rather they spoke of poetic stuff like “Liberty.”
Jefferson especially seems in some ways like an absent-minded-professor, wandering with his mind in the clouds through an earthquake, hardly aware of what makes others scream. But it wasn’t that he was unaware of the unpleasant details; it was that he thought beyond those details.
Jefferson dreamed up many excellent ideas he was never paid a nickle for, nor did he even dream of charging for such thought. Ought one receive royalties for writing the Declaration of Independence? Jefferson didn’t seem to think so, but was troubled by the fact he was in debt. He was a man of the enlightenment enough to take steps to make his plantation more profitable, perhaps shifting crops from tobacco to wheat or starting a nail-making industry, and he did see profits increase, but then his mind would go wandering off to some other project, such as starting the University of Virginia, which he made little money from, and while his mind was off in other areas he would fail to notice a dramatic downturn in the price of nails which made his nail-making industry less profitable. By the end of his life he was a man who had done a lot of good and had amassed a lot of debt. By his death he was, in modern terms, five million dollars in debt. This makes him very different from Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth is currently 125 million.
Perhaps that is why the so-called “Swamp” seems to hate the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers truly served, while a modern politician only serves themself.
Be that as it may, I doubt I’ll get anyone to loan me five million dollars, so there seems little chance I can wind up so deeply in debt, as fun as it might be to do so. (Of course, with the Swamp printing money it doesn’t have, the National Debt has reached a point where I think my household owes a million dollars, so perhaps I will reach a debt of five million, after all.) But I tend to prefer a more pragmatic existence where I pay my bills. And therefore my mind often wanders off to the doings of Ben Franklin. He was very pragmatic, in his own enlightened way.
Not that Franklin didn’t think about high minded things like Liberty, and even fool around with unknown powers such as electricity, but he also pondered about very down-to-earth subjects such as how to heat a home. The “Franklin Stove” is one result of such pragmatism; it was far superior to a colonial fireplace, when it came to delivering the heat of burned wood to the house, rather than seeing it rush up the chimney and be wasted.
However his thinking didn’t stop there, and that is where I start to feel I can join him in his enlightenment. Like me, when he watched his fire burn, his mind went wandering and wondering, just like mine does.
One true conclusion he arrived at was that smoke was actually fire-that-hadn’t-caught. It was a wasted chance to heat the home, escaping up the chimney. He then dreamed up the idea of “afterburners”, or “scrubbers”, 200 years before people worried about smoke polluting the environment. He felt that nothing but steam and perhaps a trace of ash should exit a chimney, and every bit of smoke should be burned within the house, warming the house.
What he then did was to go upstairs and knock a hole in his chimney, stick in a grate, and enclose the hole with a metal door. The next time he had a fire downstairs he scooped up a shovelful of red hot wood coals, took them upstairs, and laid them on the grate. Then he likely shut the door almost all the way, but kept it open just a crack, to see what happened when the smoke passed through the red hot coals. Apparently the smoke did ignite, passing through the coals. The wasted smoke was no longer wasted.
However then, Ben being Ben, his pragmatic side kicked in, and he likely did some sort of “cost analysis”, and decided all the work wasn’t worth it. (If it had been worth it, every chimney in Philadelphia likely would have had a Franklin Gizmo in the flue.) Instead it seems Franklin focused on burning the smoke in the stove even before it started up the chimney.
And that is where Franklin’s thinking, 250 years later, splices into mine. Why? Because I too have had to focus on unburnt smoke going up my stovepipes and chimney. Why? Because such smoke can build up on the inside of a chimney as deposits of creosote, which does two bad things. First, it can block the flue to a degree where the stoves smoke, and second, if the creosote ignites the resultant chimney fire can burn the entire house down.
This might seem a good reason to heat with electricity, but the problem is that such electric heating is prohibitively expensive. Propane was affordable when Donald Trump was president, but Fraudulent Biden’s anti-fossil-fuel agenda has made propane prohibitively expensive as well. Therefore I have resorted to wood, which we have an abundance of in my area, although heating with wood involves a lot of work, which is why people gave it up for fossil fuels.
Besides lugging the wood from the woodpile to the stoves, which I tell myself keeps me in shape, (cursing softly under my breath), one must also care for the flues, which is downright dangerous for an old codger like me. However a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, even if elderly. Anyway, I have to live up to my grandfather, who cracked a vertebrae falling out of an apple tree he was pruning at age 86. (My grandmother was so mad she sold his ladder before he got home from the hospital.)
Therefore, due to Fraudulent Biden, I’ve been doddering about up on ladders and atop the peak of the roof, with chimney sweep brushes and heavy sections of stove pipe, making sure my flues are safe. I never even once fell and cracked a vertebrae, so I guess you could say I got away with it, this year. So far we have saved quite a bit of money, by burning wood. FJB
However this has gotten me interested in the creosote I collect when I clean the flues. I say collect, because I do not throw it away, which I suppose more normal people would do. Instead I find myself remembering Benjamin Franklin, and see the creosote as unburnt smoke, which should have been burned and should have heated the home. Could it not be used as fuel?
Besides reminding me of Benjamin Franklin, the creosote I collected also reminded me of a Mark-Twain-like humorist who wrote very popular cartoons for newspapers until just before I was born. Named E G Webster, on Thursdays he often wrote cartoons which seemed to apply to my interest in creosote.
Now my wife and I tend to vary, in terms of what we think is important, but we agree a warm stove is a nice thing to have in cold weather. However the ashes it produces, plus the spiders, centipedes and pill bugs that come in with the wood, do not fit my wife’s idea of a cozy hearth. In fact, back when propane was affordable, I thought she’d be glad to be done with the wood stoves altogether. To my surprise she didn’t like warm floor registers as much as warm stoves, so we didn’t quit wood altogether. But she does like the area around the stove kept clean, while I tend to turn it into a Ben Franklin laboratory. Not that I have any test tubes, but I do have ongoing experiments.
One experiment involves avoiding creosote building up in the stove pipe or chimney, (so I don’t have to dodder about on the peak of a roof at my advanced age). To achieve this aim it is best to have a blazing fire. However Nature conspires against this aim, by driving rain or snow into sheltered woodpiles, whereupon even dry wood behaves like a sponge, and becomes sodden stuff difficult to light, and very liable to just sit and smolder, producing lots of smoke but little heat or fire, and clogging your chimney with its smoke.
My way of avoiding a smoldering fire, and achieving a hot fire, largely involves bringing the firewood inside and heaping it high by the stove, so that it dries out before it goes into the stove. But I don’t always keep up with this task, and sometimes must bring in wet, snow-covered wood from the porch, and put it right into the fire, in which case the fire needs some help. The help tends to be stashes of various sorts of kindling which produce a brief blaze beneath the wet logs, which I hope gets the sodden wood to quit smoldering and start blazing. Birch bark is best, (but if you have used up every scrap of kindling you have, corn chips are a good, greasy emergency-substitute).
I take this job seriously, and have been at it for over thirty years, so you’d think I’d have it down and there would never be problems, but often my wife thinks other things are more important than stacking wood by a wood stove, or collections of twigs and birch bark or splinters of firewood. For example, a wedding, or funeral, or sick mother with two sick children. Or countless other things. In any case with attention diverted both fires dwindle down to embers, and the heat in the house drops down dangerously close to 49 degrees, whereupon the propane heat kicks on and we must pay through the nose. For another example, we come home late and just want to go to bed, and I throw wood on the fires but don’t shut down the draft enough, and by morning the fire has only a few coals left.
I have managed to keep the fires going , because I like to be able to tell people, “We’ve only had one fire this winter. We lit it in October.”
However there have been times when the wood is wet and the embers are few and I have only a little birch bark, when the fires definitely haven’t leapt to life, but have smoldered. It was when faced with such situations that I began to play around with creosote as kindling.
I had it in pails and paper sacks, and basically divided into two sorts. The first was from the stove pipe above hotter fires, and was thin flakes of gray.
And the second was much blacker, and from a stove closed down much as weather warmed in the spring, from fires that smoldered a lot:
As I began experimenting I was somewhat surprised my wife didn’t criticize all the bags of black and brown crud around her hearth, but actually demonstrated a keen interest, by asking the exact question I was asking: “Won’t that stuff just evaporate, go up to the chimney, condense, and block it all over again?” I could only answer, “I intend to find out.”
I then found out creosote is pretty wonderful stuff. For one thing, it burns without producing ashes. I guess it is like candle wax. The grey stuff hardly burned, and simply turned to red coals that shrank until they vanished, but seemed to put out more heat than wood coals did. However the blacker stuff was amazing. Likely because it was created by cooler fires, is seemed to possess more “volatiles”, and blazed like crazy for a while before becoming red coals that shrank to nothing without producing ash.
The trick seemed to be to gather together a little bed of wood coals, and then just put a crumb of the black creosote on top. It would melt, start to bubble, and then leap into flame, and then you could add more crumbs. The fire you then created had uncanny ability to dry sodden wood and turn a smoldering fire into a blazing one. I surmise creosote burns hotter than wood does, perhaps even nearing the heat of a coal fire. If I put a big chunk in, the size of the one in the picture above, the fire became wonderfully hot wonderfully fast. This is important to me, first thing in the morning, because then my primary interest is in sipping coffee, and not fussing with fires.
A problem then arose. The fires I was creating were so wonderfully hot I would never again clot a chimney so badly, and would never again create such wonderful creosote. I should treasure my limited supply. Therefore I kept my black creosote in a special bucket, and had the inferior grey stuff in a bag, among other collections of different grades of inferior sorts of kindling and bark. The area around the stove grew a bit cluttered, but I was defeating the drabness of January with the enlightenment of Ben Franklin, whereupon H.T. Webster struck again:
My wife swept in and tidied up. All my various samples of creosote got dumped into single bucket, and all the carefully sorted types of kindling got shoved into the woodpile with the drying firewood.
Two thoughts crossed my mind.
The first was, “Benjamin Franklin never had to deal with this crap!”
The second was, “The place does look better.”
And January is not so dull after all.