Off Grid on Goose Creek

Down the road towards spring ~ artlike image by Fred
Down the road towards spring ~ artlike image by Fred

Even into the third month of round-the-clock wood fires in the stove, it gets no easier to hoist yourself out of bed in the mornings to feed it. Some are harder than others. I vote for yesterday as this year’s prize winner. So far.

The prolonged very-cold does not suit the energy personality of this 140-year-old house. She treats us well into the twenties, the teens if there’s no wind. Below that, there’s no love.

Here, after weeks of below-freezing days and below-zero nights, the old gal begins to suffer hypothermia, the normal heat retention and circulation pattern diseased by tiny cracks and chinks. The stove’s continuous gasping for replacement air pulls arctic cold in faster than the throbbing heart can radiate body heat into her living spaces where we sit huddled and blue.

At four a.m. I reluctantly heaved off of me every blanket and quilt and comforter we own. I would have stayed in bed, not to sleep but to avoid morning shock. The cast-iron tyrant was unforgiving of my hibernation hopes; she demanded a feeding. Meals come close together less pipes freeze or wives whine when it is this cold for this long.

The percolator made encouraging groans. I squinted at the indoor-outdoor thermometer next to the kitchen sink (water trickling constantly for a week): minus 6 outside, 57 inside. For the next twenty minutes, my hands mindlessly did what they do to gather wood, matches, and a pine cone or two and start fires in both stoves. I can do it in my sleep. In fact, I think I did yesterday.

At last, chores done, I assumed the morning position, monitor, keyboard, mouse and microphone just so, and began brainstorming on some upcoming projects. I was really making progress when the lights went out.

I poured another cup before the percolator went cold, and aimed my flashlight towards the window: -8 now the thermometer said, the coldest so far this winter.

And long story short, it was 12 hours before the power came back on in time that we didn’t have to eat supper by candle light. But we could have. And, as often is the case with such “emergencies” we were reminded of how dependent we are on the life force of electricity and also, how in our particular situation, we can still go on without it. For a while.

Yes, we have a generator, and it’s true it has never been called to service in this kind of situation. Partly, that is because our outages ha been brief enough not to threaten the freezer contents (or cold enough outside that we have a substitute freezer), but mostly because neglected small engines do not like me and I fear rejection.

After momma-bear finally emerged, I held a match to the top of its cylindrical wick of the shaded kerosene lamp I fetched from the back room. It cheered up the room considerably.

We re-heated the coffee in a pot on the gas stove, and Ann seared the meat for the 32-bean soup that would simmer on the wood stove all day.

After sun-up I hauled wood, the pile I showed you a while back now covered in goose feathers–three inches of the driest snow I think I’ve ever known. She ministered to chickens, and Gandy had a playmate come over in the afternoon, his master also without power and bored.

Water saved in milk jugs we used as labeled–for drinking or flushing–and good thing we had them stored in the basement since the creek’s water is inaccessible under a good six inches of solid ice. We’ve used a sledge hammer before but I think I remember we were younger then.

On the loveseat, the warmest place in the house,  stove in front and the afternoon sun off my shoulder, I spent a couple of hours reading with the dog curled up against me. She and I took turns solo-dozing, and then did a duet for a half hour.

Last night, I did some serious anxt-ing over being behind from having “lost” yesterday.

But some things were found, too. Good books, warm granny quilts, hot chocolate and tea, the absent hum of the engines of home economics, and time slowed down to a crawl by an Earth now slowly tilting back towards bud and bloom, green and growing.

To everything there is a season. I, personally, would welcome the one now distantly waiting in the wings.

Share this with your friends!

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. What a gorgeously written piece! I can imagine the whole thing, having been through three weeks of the ice storm of ’98. I was lucky enough to be able to go to one sister’s and the other one went up north to my mother’s where they are fully equipped with the wood-burning stove and can survive sans electricity for a good while.

  2. Aggh, wordpress ate my comment! Maybe it is in your spam folder –was not logged in. Have tried to get it back but it seems lost in the ether. I had written a long remembrance of a house we lived in years ago, and finding a letter behind one of the mantels written half in ink, half in pencil because apparently the writers’ ink pot had frozen overnight. If you don’t find it I’ll try to reconstruct it another day. Stay warm and cozy with your lovely wood fires! Frankly I miss them rather a lot.

  3. Propertia, do send if you find the lost then found then lost writing fragment.

    I commented on Facebook that I am almost convinced to pick back up the “Floyd County Almanac” I started last winter that would be/have been a good part from these celebratory narratives of the everyday.

  4. Beautiful post and a vivid reminder of why I left the country and don’t plan to return – despite the momentary charm such events produce. My older self prefers heat in the bone chilling days we’ve experienced this season.

  5. When I saw Doug’s report of power outages in Check I figured you had gone dark for the day.

    It was a power outage on the coldest day of our winter a few years back that helped convince me that our old farmhouse with it’s electric everything wasn’t a great idea. An impossible house to insulate, it just let the warmth flow right out. I cannot imagine what minus digits feel like. The coldest I have ever experienced was a 3 degree day in Denver a few years back.

    Stay warm Fred.

  6. Ah, Fred. A most wonderful piece of writing that conjures up sublime memories of my late husband and me sitting in front of the wood stove during a prolonged, ice storm induced power outage of 20+ years ago. But alas, age and single status has changed things to some extent. Still here but with LP gas backups in the form of a generator and gas logs. And the “just in case everything fails” store of several days worth of wood for the basement wood stove, filled water buckets for toilet flushing, filled water jugs fit for human consumption, and insulation to wrap the freezer. There are trade offs when living where we do but I’ll take the hoot of the owls and howling of distance coyotes to city sirens any day.

  7. I look forward to power outages in the warmer weather, not so much in winter as I don’t have back up heat. There’s something really novel and special about a day without electrical noises and artificial lighting.

  8. I loved the art, I assume it’s an altered photo. My husband has tried to figure out how to do that with the app called Brush, but he gave up too quickly before he got anywhere.

  9. Loved the essay, Fred! We too heat with wood, but a newer, tighter house and backup gas furnace. It is good that you remind us that progress is not always making headway on our latest project…sometimes it is simply getting through the day and meeting our basic needs…like a nap with the dog. Thanks.

  10. This must have been painful to live and work to write but sitting by my sputtering fire tonight, as another storm blows in from the west here in Michigan, it was delightful to read.

    Spring is coming. I can’t see her or hear her, but she’s coming sure as the eternal promises if God.