The Subject is Wood

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  • The subject is wood, a material I have used to heat my home for the past fifteen years. I know it’s more work to burn wood, but I like the exercise. It makes more sense to burn calories splitting and hauling hardwood than running in front of a television set on a treadmill at the health spa. I enjoy the fresh air; I even enjoy bugging the kids to get them to help stack. Once they get past the whining about the disruption to their electronic entertainment, it is surprising how quickly they become human beings. I like the warmth. I like the flicker and glow of embers, I like the freedom from the whir of an electric motor that blows hot air (complete with ail sort and manner of dust, mites, and hairballs) from a hole in the floor.
    Sometimes, when I am stacking wood so that a summer’s worth of sunshine can make it a cleaner, hotter fuel, I think of those super tankers carrying immense cargoes of black gold from the ancient forests of the Middle East. I think of the wells that Saddam set afire, and the noxious roar of the jet engines of the warplanes we used to assure our access to cheap oil. My wood comes from hills that I can see. It’s delivered by a guy named Paul who cuts it with his chainsaw, then loads it in his one ton pick-up. We talk about the weather, the conditions in the woods and the burning characteristics of different species. We finish by bantering about whether he s delivered a large cord a medium or a small. I can t imagine having the same conversation with the man who delivers oil or propane.

    The wood burner perhaps more than anyone appreciates what powerfully concentrated stuff oil is. I know the impact of one summer of sunlight on my woodpile. Think of the immense quantity of natural energy required to make a fuel as compact as oil. No wonder we have been so beguiled that we have plunged in a dependency habit that is hard to kick But oil we are learning. has its’ negative side effects just like any narcotic. We know the supply is finite so we have to dole it out like the precious commodity that it is. We also know that burning oil (and wood) has an environmental impact to which we need to be sensitive. In today s world even something as simple as burning a stick of wood touches on so many diverse and complex issues that coming to a clear uncomplicated answer can he next to impossible.
    So now I burn my wood in a clean burning stove. Theoretically I should be able to go back to feeling good about wood but life is never that simple. On the positive side of the ledger comes the information that wood burning, in combination with responsible reforestation, actually helps the environment by reversing the green house effect. The oxidation of biomass, whether on the forest floor or in a stove, releases the same amount of carbon to the atmosphere. It makes more sense for wood to be heating my home than contributing to the black skies over Yellowstone.

    It’s nice to have a choice, and since I have to keep warm, I’m choosing to burn wood. I keep returning to the fact that humans nave been burning oil for about fifty years and wood for tens of thousands of years. Many of our current problems , from a planetary perspective, have come during the age of oil. Many of our current economic woes can similarly be placed at the doorsteps of the sheiks, oil men and politicians who have led the greedy charge into energy dependence. And, of course, we can blame ourselves too. When we were told to believe that there was an infinite supply of clean and cheap energy, we should have known there is no such thing as a free lunch. Our task now is to properly manage the Black Magic before its all gone, and so are we! Wood can give us a renewable alternative, and when used in combination with responsible replanting, can reverse the harmful effects of our romance with oil.

    Stephen Morris