Before fossil fuels, mankind lived very close to the edge. This was especially true of people who lived in the north and faced winters that could kill. Of course, southern peoples faced their own dangers, which could also kill. In fact, saying “especially northern peoples” likely makes me a sort of racist. So be it. I am of the north, and have a sort of grandfatherly fondness towards anyone so foolish as to live up at latitudes where you can freeze your tush off for a quarter, and sometimes half, of every year. What knuckleheads we are! But one can’t help but be fond of their own family, even if it makes one prone to nepotism.
Anyone stupid enough to live in the north must be smart in other respects, because cold does kill. Also famine kills, and famine, (brought on because one has been a “grasshopper” and not an “ant”), is closely associated with fever. Cold and hungry people have little resistance to disease. During the various Irish famines, statistics show few died from starvation itself, but rather from a whole slew of associated illnesses. In like manner, when a Native American prophet (called different names by different tribes) went to visit the North Wind, Fever and Famine were a couple of ugly attendants (witches?) of the North Wind, sitting and cackling outside the doorway to the North Wind’s wigwam.
When the climate shifts dramatically colder, as it has been prone to do, northern people have seen terrible decreases in their populations. Events such as the Little Ice Age resulted in crop failures, in which case even those who worked like “ants” had as little as “grasshoppers” when the weather got abruptly cold earlier than usual in the fall. Then as much as 20%, or even 50%, of a local population could die. This caused desperation, but also an ingenuity appeared in terms of trying new foods. A couple of common “famine foods” it is good to know about are the inner bark of trees (especially elms and pines) and lichens.
Ordinarily such foods were abandoned as soon as times improved, but sometimes people remembered odd benefits such foods had, and continued using them, (albeit on a limited basis.) For example, powdered slippery-elm bark turns out to be a good food for those with delicate stomachs. Pine bark is a good wintertime source of vitamin C, if you live far from orange groves. And willow bark contains what pharmacists call “aspirin”. In fact the value of bark was so recognized that some Finns carefully saved the bark of trees they cut, even if current situations didn’t warrant it. They fed the preserved bark to livestock if the future held a good harvest. However the Finns had experienced some awful famines, and saved bark on general principles, to “play it safe.” If the harvest failed, they had the bark to fall back on.
Such foods require skill, to be edible. There is a certain local lichen in New England which can kill you if you eat it raw, for it will cause diarrhea nearly as bad as cholera’s. However if you “toast” the same lichen by a fire (it is the lichen which is like big, flat, rubbery, dark-green scales on the sides of rocks, looking more like some sort of seaweed than like ordinary lichen,) then you will wind up with green, crispy stuff you can crumble into a flour that keeps you alive.
In like manner, pine bark must be properly prepared. I lack such skill. My attempt to make pine-bread produced a horrible poison which tasted like gasoline. However Native American women were much smarter than me and made a bread that was apparently quite tasty. In certain high-altitude parts of New England growing corn became impossible for the Algonquin, because the Little Ice Age shortened the growing season, and whole tribes became so focused on gathering bark that the first Europeans described entire groves of white pines standing stripped of their bark. The rivals to these Algonquin were Iroquois who could just barely manage to grow corn, most years, because they lived at a lower altitude, and they were scornful of people who ate bark. They called them “tree eaters”, from which we get the noble and respected word, “Adirondack.”
The Iroquois may have had a point, in mocking people who live where you can’t grow corn, but I am from the north, and my nepotism causes me to admire people like myself, who live where you can freeze your tush off. Why? Because we figure out how to live where others can’t.
The current policy of “green” energy-thinkers seems to want to kill a lot of people. By snatching away fossil fuels, they are removing the benefits fossil fuels made possible. But they do not provide a way to go back to the way it was before.
For example, before there were mills there were woman working at home at spinning wheels. But now, if we close down the mills, women can’t go back to spinning wheels. Heck, if you handed many a woman a needle nowadays she’d be in danger of poking her eye out.
In like manner, before there were huge combines harvesting vast acreages there were men walking over single acres wielding scythes, cutting grain by hand. Any chance of modern computer geeks doing that? I don’t think so. Most haven’t a clue where food comes from, and gag a little when you show them bright orange carrots come from filthy, wormy dirt, and practically upchuck if they see smooth, white eggs come from a chicken’s filthier butt. Any chance such uneducated “educated” men can swiftly get back to the manly art of providing for the family by providing the food? Forgive me, but I have my doubts.
Basically we live in a society where most can’t grow their own food, build their own shelters, spin their own clothing, or even raise their own children. This has created a blissfully ignorant intelligentsia which can come up with socially suicidal ideas like “The Green New Deal”. And now they are about to see just how idiotic their idealism is. They have created a situation where many could freeze and starve.
My only hope is that there are some who, like me, saw the idiocy of the intelligentsia fifty years ago. I was partially seduced by smooth talkers twice my age, (“LSD will expand your mind”), but when push came to shove I rejected the seductions of spiritual con-artists, and preferred a more Truth-based, (and therefore in some ways archaic), vision of what Truth was.
And what was that Truth? It was respect for the food I ate, the clothing I wore, the roof that sheltered me, and the warmth that allowed me to avoid freezing.
It’s amazing how forgetful people can be, and how they forget to count their blessings. When they put on a cotton shirt, do they thank the one who grew the cotton, or the person who spun the fabric? Usually not. When they eat a ham sandwich do they thank the one who grew the bread, or raised the pig, or smoked the ham, or baked the bread (not to mention all those we should be thanking for mayonnaise)? Usually not. And when they walk to a wall and twirl a little dial and expect to be warm?
Sadly, that little dial has no power to warm you. You can click it five, ten, fifty, five hundred times, and your house may just get colder.
So who has the power?
Currently those who have power are idealistic idiots. I very much fear we are about to see them learn the hard way that they are idiots. The sad thing is that it is we too will suffer, if we rely on idiots.
Me? I don’t. Not that I didn’t rely on idiots when young, but they betrayed my trust. But….not that I could trust myself, either. I saw I was an idiot as well. I was especially an idiot to trust idiots. So who could I trust? Basically it came down to “In God We Trust”, but as a teenager I couldn’t honestly say I believed in God. Therefore it was distilled into, “In Truth I Trust.”
Truth is not all that highly regarded, currently, which is why mainstream media and quasi-mainstream-media make millions with “Fake News”. They pretend to be “both sides” of an issue but actually represent one side of a propaganda that is false. They have been false about Global Warming, false about corona virus vaccines, false about Trump, false about Biden, and in fact there is very little they have been truthful about. In fact, if God is Truth, and the mainstream media is not truth, then in some ways that makes the media the “Antichrist”.
There is a section of the Bible where a seer named Daniel got to peek into the future, and saw stuff so upsetting that he wound up sick in bed for around a week. Not that Daniel didn’t see that God and the good guys won in the end, but there was a time (or times) before the end when evil had great power. Perhaps Daniel got glimpses of Hitler, and Stalin, or other despots who despised the godly, such as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who made it politically correct to slaughter pigs on the alter of the holy temple in Jerusalem. And of course (then as now) there are those who “go along to get along”. There were Jewish priests who basically were saying slaughtering pigs on the alter respected cultural diversity. Of course, they used different words back then, but they were amenable to evil, even when a Jew named Jesus appeared. There are always people who behave like complete morons in the name of “political correctness”, and who are responsible for giving correctness a bad name. They are why people detest priests and religion. It’s not God’s fault. Don’t blame Truth for the chicanery of liars.
If you are a stickler for Truth you can find yourself in positions where you are not “politically correct”, and frustrate friends by “failing to take advantage of opportunities offered.” As a young poet I perhaps could have made good money by writing rhymes that sold Chocolate Sugar Bombs breakfast cereal, but I simply couldn’t join an industry that rotted children’s teeth and caused their metabolisms to go haywire. I also could have been successful if I slept with a creepy old publisher. But I was virtuous and my reward was to sleep in my car. (Look back to old posts on this site for the tales of my trials.) But my point is that, if you are a stickler for Truth, you can wind up sleeping in a car in a campground in the autumn, and you then need to face the fact the weather is getting darn cold. You would resort to using your car’s heater if you could, but that involves gasoline, and your car’s tank is near empty and you haven’t got a job. How, then, do you stay warm?
You do what even Neanderthal knew how to do. You build a fire. But this involves gathering fuel. Where does one find fuel in a campground? Well, the first place to look is in the campfire-hearths of other sites, after other campers have departed. Every morning sees a great exodus of campers from campgrounds, and after such people left, and before newcomers arrived, a great poet (yours truly) once could be seen wandering about the campground gathering unused and half-burned logs.
And when there was no such fuel available? Then one must be a true Neanderthal, and go into the sagebrush, or wander the dry gulches and gullies of desert waterways, and collect what the Great Spirit has provided. Then, when the twilight fades and the desert heat switches so dramatically to cold, you warm in the orange light of a crackling fire. And then you notice something odd. The light does not attract moths. It attracts tourists, who gather by your fire and are delighted to share a beer with a genuine starving artist, and to talk with someone who knows how to talk. Some evenings I had the sense that I, little old me, a broke bum sleeping in his car, was a high point of other’s dreary vacations. Why? Because, after dreary tourist trap after dreary tourist trap, they stumbled upon a garrulous fellow who yammered away about what was beautiful and rich, with delight and humor. And why was it as warming as the fire? Because it was Truth.
Not that those trials were not trials, at the time, but now I can look back and call them the best of times. I was a bachelor. I was free of a wife, free of kids and, (eventually), grand-kids. I was free! Free! Free! But God knows the Truth about such freedom. I was haunted by a thing called “Lonely.”
Then I married a woman with three small kids, and sure didn’t need to worry about the thing called “Lonely” any more. But I did need to worry about keeping the bunch of us warm. I had my doubts about the ability of a mad poet like myself to be a good father and keep children warm. Temperatures can get very cold in New Hampshire. You can expect below zero spells every winter (minus seventeen Celsius) and I have seen numerous day-breaks below minus twenty (minus twenty-nine Celsius).
To make matters worse, the woman I married insisted we move into an abode with “charm”. She did not want to move into a tight, modern place with insulation so complete that it pops your ears when you slam the front door. Instead she desired one of the oldest cottages in town, built when insulation was unheard of. As we went upstairs I saw the nails sticking down from the ceiling, and knew darn well they got frosty in December. I tried to talk my wife out of bringing children into such a place, but she could only see the “charm” of antiquity. For a mad poet I became surprisingly practical, and pointed out “charm” can mean “drafty”, but I was romantic enough to believe women know more about “home” than men, and therefore, if she wanted to live in a 250-year-old place which should be condemned, so be it. But I, as the man, should keep the place warm, despite the fact the place was as drafty as…as…the army in Vietnam.
It seemed impossible. The place once was heated by coal, but the coal furnace in the basement had been replaced by a roaring, rattling propane furnace. It was only an “improvement” because propane made no ashes and didn’t require shoveling and was incredibly cheap. But the furnace had an efficiency rating of less than 50%. It wasted so much heat it required a chimney to vent all the wasted heat through the roof. Yet the place also had three wood stoves, to “supplement” the furnace.
The first thing I became aware of was that I couldn’t afford the propane. I might set the heat at fifty and leave home with my three new children left behind bundled in wool, but they knew how to adjust the thermostat, and when I returned the kids would be running about in their underwear and the heat would be set at eighty. When I checked the propane tank I saw this single, innocent transgression had used up half the tank. Besides the house we likely were warming half the neighborhood. As my lawn-mowing business made no money when grass stopped growing, I was hard pressed to even make enough money for food, let alone filling a propane tank once a week, even back when prices were low.
At this point I was told I might qualify for government “heating assistance”. It sounded like free heat, so I went to the office. The visit was a bit embarrassing, because the other people in the waiting room were elderly and frail, or else gaunt mothers with clinging kids. The mothers were, if not widows, abandoned by their men. And there I was, a musclebound poet, glowing with health. What the heck was I doing there?
I did qualify, because I had three kids and my income was low and my wife was pregnant. But filling out the forms became absolutely absurd. I had to provide paper proof my income was low. For most this involves getting a single form from a single minimum-wage-paying boss, stating they had laid the person off, but I worked no such minimum-wage job. I was instead a local handyman, hustling about town mowing lawns, but also doing a slew of other little jobs.To feed three kids, I had to work for roughly seventeen bosses. What the bureaucrats demanded was that I go to all seventeen and get them to sign statements that they had laid me off.
The amazing thing was that I actually complied with the demands of the bureaucrats. I went to all seventeen people and confronted them with the fact that they had “laid me off.” It was in some ways fun. (I prefer sipping a coffee with people and chatting, to actually working.) But it did occur to me that the “heating assistance” I was going to get would only buy enough propane to last about three weeks in January. (In fact it lasted less, because the kids kept cranking up the thermostat when I wasn’t home.)
Then it occurred to me that all the time I was spending getting “heating assistance” was time I could have been spending doing what I had once done, staying warm in a campground. I could have spent the time gathering firewood. So I began gathering firewood. At times, I blush to confess, I took advantage of ignorant people, and charged them for gathering firewood from their property, calling it “a clean up” or “landscaping.” And then?
And then…year after year passed, and we never used that propane furnace again. It broke, and I never fixed it. I planned to update, and get a better furnace, but was so busy with three, and then four, and then five children, that I never got around to it. It was easier to burn wood, which was all about and often free. Only when I hit age sixty did I get around to pausing, and concluding wood involved work, and I was getting old, and it might be nice to just twirl a dial if I wanted the house warmer in a blizzard, rather than going out into the swirling snow for an armload of wood.
And so it was we at long last purchased a wonderful new furnace that hardly made any noise, and rather than working at 50% efficiency worked at nearly 90% efficiency, so it didn’t need a brick chimney, but rather a slender, plastic “waste gas” pipe.
I thought my wife would approve of this concession to old age, because firewood involves a lot of dirt and dead leaves coming into the house along with the firewood, with even bugs and spiders hitching a ride. Then there are ashes which must come out. She’d put up with a quarter century of my messiness. Propane avoids that. However propane heat also involves a faceless register on the floor exhaling heat, which has no “charm”. And my wife likes to charm and gather people, for reasons which don’t make a lick of sense to a banker, but make sense if you care about a thing called, “home.” Despite the fact she could just turn up the propane heat, she preferred the wood stove. It had “ambience”, which is another word for “charm”. (If you want the honest truth, I think the source of “ambience” was actually her fresh baked cookies, and one must concede an overworked oven does make a chilly, winter house warmer.)
In any case, what this all means is that I am a man pushing seventy, yet still dealing with firewood. I huff and puff over single logs which I once could have flipped with my little finger. I am not aging gracefully, resent my own weakness, embarrass myself when no one witnesses, and my ego is constantly punctured, but…I keep the home fires burning.
One gratifying thing about being an old anachronism is that I am able to scoff at others for caring about oil, propane, wind-power or solar heat. I don’t let people forget the one time we had a terrible ice-storm and went ten days without power. We, in our drafty old house, were warm with our wood-stoves, which also provided us with hot water and cooked stews and even melted pails of snow to flush the toilets with. We didn’t have leave town and move in with relatives like some more “modern” people did, nor did we experience water damage from frozen pipes.
When I belabor this topic, ranting about how helpless “modern” people are, listeners tend to roll their eyes, or they did so until Fraudulent Biden set out to destroy all domestic production of fossil fuels. People up north tried not to panic, but there seemed a chance, just a chance, that the Green New Deal would be like an ice storm, and there might again be frozen pipes and water damage in modern houses.
Even before last winter was over I was taking steps to make sure we were ready to use wood, if there was no propane, this winter. I wanted to buy the wood before the prices went through the roof. The prior winter I sawed and split my own wood, and had arrived at the conclusion that I’m getting too old and slow. I managed to save a lot of money, but only just barely. So this year, older and weaker, I couldn’t be such a tightwad and had to spend actual money on wood.
I went to an old-timer who sells wood. His family has been around town for centuries, and he is the last of them. Hills and brooks and a road is named after his family, but he has no son. He is a vast repository of knowledge that soon will be lost, so I always try to make purchasing wood an occasion to gab with him. On this occasion he invited me to see his new gizmo.
Unlike me, he does not cut wood and split it the way we did it back in 1988. He has, over the years, had all sorts of machinery built to simplify the process, and to reduce the manpower involved. His latest contraption cost a pretty penny (and definitely utilized the power of fossil fuels), but it could easily cut and split a cord of wood in half an hour. (A “cord” is a woodpile four feet wide, four feet tall, and eight feet long.)
Proudly he showed me how the gizmo worked. He drove his lumber truck up to the gizmo and used the truck’s “arm” (a sort of small crane) to pinch, lift, and swing thirty-foot-long logs from the truck to the gizmo and lay them in a enormous tray. Once he had ten logs in the tray he clambered down from the truck and into a cozy, climate-controlled cabin with big windows, and turned his gizmo on. A huge circular blade hummed, and could cut through a log eighteen inches across in two seconds. (It would take me at least a minute with my sharpest chainsaw.) Then that log, precisely measured, fell into a holder and a wedge shaped like the symbol for number (or tic-tack-toe) crunched into the log and split it into nine pieces of firewood. (It would take me eight swings of a spitting maul to reduce the same log to nine pieces, and every swing would need to be perfect.) The nine pieces of wood then plopped down onto a conveyor belt which lifted them up and dumped them into a dump truck. It was amazing: Zip, crunch, nine pieces of wood; zip, crunch, nine pieces of wood; zip, crunch, nine pieces of wood. And the fellow doing all this work wasn’t even breaking a sweat. He just sat in a cabin and worked levers. I decided the old fellow was aging a lot more gracefully than I was.
Because I’d ordered early and the wood was green I got a decent deal. Six cord for $2000.00. Basically I paid this winter’s heating bills all at once, last summer. It took two dump-truck deliveries, which annoyed me slightly, for I wanted four cord at my house and only two at my Childcare, but his driver delivered three and three. That meant I’d have to transport a cord from the Childcare to my house in my jeep. That sounded like a lot of huffing and puffing to me. But I loaded the jeep (roughly eight Jeep-loads make a cord.)
And drove to my house and lugged wood up the steps to stack it on the front porch. Where once I’d dashed up and down those steps, I now paused at the top after each load, serenely gazing over the landscape (to hide the fact I was huffing and puffing). (Note teal propane tank by steps, full of propane, and yellow snow shovel next to it; I’m ready for the hounds of winter.)
I did my best to pace myself. Though I placed my order in April the wood hadn’t arrived until August. One load a day seemed about right. A load lasts only a couple of days when the weather is fiercely cold, but it was far from cold in August. At first we used no wood at all, and then a Jeep-load lasted a week when the mornings first grew nippy. The porch was soon full and I didn’t need to lug wood every day. But there still was the stacking of the rest of the woodpiles, and there were two whole dump-truck loads to stack. (I had to stack it because wood doesn’t dry well if left in the heap the dump-truck deposits, especially when the trees cover the pile with fallen leaves which then are drenched by rain.) I needed to get cracking, but procrastinated due to other chores, until winter did what it always does: Freaks me out with a dusting of early snow. Snow before Thanksgiving always melts away, but it never fails to jolt me into motion.
It was at this time I began to feel I had bitten off more than I could chew. The incremental weakening caused by aging sneaks up on you. It made me angry in a way. A man likes to be able to respond to an emergency, but I was getting so slow I felt like an obstacle, an old geezer just getting in the way. Not that anyone was so rude as to say such a thing; I just muttered it to myself. I wasn’t keeping up with a schedule I had in my head.
Then Thanksgiving came, and a sudden small swarm of children and grandchildren appeared and in an amazing 90 minutes stacked the entire three cords of wood.
I was out there helping, constructing the cribbed lower corner near the steps, but I didn’t even need to lean over for logs. They were handed to me. Meanwhile everyone else rushed about, throwing logs into the front bucket of a small (fossil fueled) front-end-loader, driving them down to the woodpile, and stacking them up. (The measured pile actually added up to 3 and a half cords; my old friend had given me a good deal).
As I watched all the man-power (and woman power) in action I found myself thinking back 34 years, to a day in 1988 when my stepmother had rubbed my fur the wrong way, by asking me to bring wood upstairs to her stove in a way I found bossy and presumptuous. (I was busy writing a poem at the time.) I put my ire to good use, dashing up and down the stairs and bringing up three times the wood she needed, stamping and clunking wood down loudly and concluding with a curt, “There! Happy now?” She pouted back at me, (as we were involved in a war wherein we each tried to make the other feel more guilty), but we were distracted by my father, who wore a look of real appreciation and simply exclaimed, “Isn’t strength a most wonderful thing!?”
I felt a little sheepish, for I was 35 and strong as a horse, and when he was 35 he lost his strength all at once due to polio. But he wasn’t trying to “out-guilt” me. He really did appreciate what he had lost.
And now its 34 years later all of a sudden, and my turn to really appreciate what I have lost. But I have a feeling other people are going to really appreciate fossil fuels, once they’re lost, as well.
And so….the invisible war proceeds.