April 2011

The fuel on the hill

By David Feela

I owned a wood stove once. Actually, the stove owned me. It consumed every stick I fed into it, then it stared longingly out toward the trees.

We were young, deciding to change our little threeroom house over to wood heat, green as the trees we foolishly hauled in from the country. It didn’t take long to learn that where there’s smoke there’s not necessarily fire.

More often, though, as our experiences smoldered, I grew less enchanted with my wood-burning chores, staying in bed as long as I could, buried to our noses under a mountain of blankets and quilts. When I finally couldn’t avoid the inevitable, I’d slip into my union suit, intending to lay a rip-roaring fire in record time and rush back to the coals of my dreams while the house warmed itself to a more hospitable temperature. From the tropical island of our bed, we’d listen to the clanking racket cold iron makes when it’s startled to life by a fitful passion of flame.

Of course, things rarely go according to plan, especially when dealing with wood stoves. More often than not the ash tin brims and needs emptying. Then the can where the ashes get emptied brims too, and it needs to be emptied. Or the convenient stack of wood I thought I’d left just outside the door gets hauled away by the wood elves, prompting a major expedition through the snow to the woodshed.

You’d think we were cold all the time, but no, our place was the only house in our neighborhood where the doors stayed propped open on the coldest nights. Even the dog crawled outside for relief, preferring the temperate glow of the moon and stars.

I can’t forget the fire behind the chimney wall that provided us with one more reason to reconsider our roles as primitive fire-builders. Why I climbed to the roof to smother the chimney I’ll never understand, because instead of taking away the fire’s oxygen and quickly extinguishing our danger, I prompted the entire house to fill with smoke. My wife roused a neighbor and together they choked and gasped while pulling down the chimney wall with a couple crowbars. They may have saved the house, but I knew for the first time that evening that the wood stove was on its way out.

We hauled wood for another year, learning to count our months by the cord. Eventually we had wood delivered, but we were never delivered from the labor of wood. I hauled my wood twice, as stove-length pieces and as ash. Once each month on Sunday morning I religiously scraped our chimney clean. I singed my eyebrows, we both burned holes in our favorite sleeves.

We scrubbed and repainted the ceilings each spring, trying to restore them to their former purity. Sharpening blades, filing saw teeth, replacing axe handles, pulling, sputtering, and choking the daylights out of more than a few chainsaws, we came to dread even the philosophical sound a tree makes when it falls in the woods. With our luck, it always landed directly on another beautiful autumn weekend.

Aldo Leopold wrote that splitting good oak gives one “a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the weekend in town astride a radiator” and I know he’s right. Judging by the cloud of wood smoke that hovers over my little town, there are still a lot of wood-burners out there. When the air gets too thick to breathe, maybe we can burn it.

Our wood stove moved in with a mountain man who appreciates its appetite for attention. I’ve wooed a propane model fireplace where a chorus line of tiny blue flames dances whenever the thermostat says it’s time. We like the new stove’s simplicity, the opportunity to put another metaphoric log on the fire by twisting a dial. Who knows what will become of the time we’ve saved? Maybe I’ll write a book. And if that doesn’t work out, I’ll have the effort to pass along for starting fires.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.