Chop Wood, Carry Water

Firewood: Heats you twice. Or more.
Firewood: Heats you twice. Or more.

Buying that first wood stove in 1975 was a pragmatic decision–an option we really could not refuse.

Fuel oil was 17 cents a gallon. Our first monthly bill in the old house on Withers Road in Wytheville was 300-something dollars when I made $10k.

I awoke in the middle of a winter’s night to hear that ancient furnace gargling mildly-warm water from the basement into the massive cast iron radiators. I Imagined dollar bills floating like feathers out into the night through the sieve of a house to warm the town folk.

A young father and new homeowner, naive city boy, was compelled to take action! [Part 1 and 2 of the long form of this tale told in 2003]

We bought a Fisher Stove. Ann and I cut down-and-dead wood by permit with a bow saw. We returned from the national forest with the back of the Datsun hatchback sitting hard down on the shocks with a full 30th of a cord that only took us four hours to cut, load and get home. Not a model of efficiency, that.

The next year, I owned my first Stihl chainsaw and a red Chevy Luv truck. That year we began a lifetime of gathering our lives into two hemispheres: gardening May to October; and gathering firewood and tending the stove September to May.

The point is that we are living the two-regime existence still, even after we should maybe have given up wood heat for something safer, cleaner and far easier than what we have to do to stay warm even in our mid-sixties.

But contrary to the popular way of thinking, the path of most efficient human effort is not always the best.

On one side of the balance, the homeowner tweaks a dial on the wall reflexively once or twice a day. The source of warmth is a knob in the hall. Period.

On the other, the homeowner either buys or (as I did for decades) cuts three to six cords of wood for every heating season. Then for every cut piece…

Pick it up in the field and carry it to the truck.

Unload the piece of poplar from the truck to the stacks near the house.

Carry each piece of heavy, splintery oak from the stacks to the wood ring on the back porch.

Load each piece of dogwood from the porch finally into the stove. Watch it flicker and dance through the glass door.

Two or three times a week, clean the dusty sooty cremations from the stove and kindle the fire right back again.

Holding your heat in your hands, cradling it in your arms is good, to feel the heft of summer sun–organic, fragrant, coarse and of a kind you know: locust, cherry, ash or beech.

And of a place. To know which hillside where this piece or that once lived, to hold that fact in your memory as you move the same piece again and again, closer and closer towards the stove door is to remember that because this tree prospered here, you can too. A life for a life.

Chop wood, carry water: mindful heating warms you over and over and over.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred, I would not trade our wood stoves for anything! We have one small cast iron parlor stove and a large cook stove that are our only means of heat. True, we do not have the winters here on the Bayou that you do there but still that heat feels mighty nice! Cutting firewood is a chore, indeed, but on the plus side, we can always cook on our stove if there is a power outage. Mark and I have often discussed installing some other heating system but have always returned to our trusted friends, the wood stoves. Love reading of your adventures!

  2. Been there, done that! (And we really did enjoy it at the time). But we put in geothermal at the new house when we retired and it’s magic – and no fuel to buy!