Warm memories of life in a wood-heated home

Written by Jayson Jacoby December 07, 2012 08:37 am

My thoughts, in this season of the early dusk and the occasional arctic front, turn inevitably to the unique warmth of a woodstove.

This must take the form of nostalgia, unfortunately, as I don’t own such an appliance.

(I’m also lacking in cordwood, kindling, matches and other combustible essentials.) 

I am left then to bask in the accumulated but faded heat of memory rather than the tangible and current sort, which, alas, is the only kind that matters when you’ve just come in from shoveling out the driveway.

The temperature inside my home is regulated by burning kilowatts rather than tamarack.

This staves off frostbite and keeps the pipes from icing up but is otherwise unsatisfying.

The ducts which convey the electric furnace’s BTUs around the house sometimes crackle and pop, a racket which tends to frighten a 5-year-old girl who needs little prompting to get out of her bed at night anyway.

A woodstove, by contrast, exhales its heat silently but for the occasional muffled pop of a knot.

More vitally, the combustion of wood produces a smoky aroma that pleases my nostrils as much as a mug of hot cocoa simmering on the kitchen stove does, or a pumpkin pie browning in the oven.

I recall with unusual clarity going with my dad to pick up our woodstove. He installed it the family room that was part of the addition to our home built in, I’m pretty sure, 1976, so I must have been 5 or 6.

I spent the vast majority of my time either in the family room or in the adjacent bedroom, so the woodstove figures prominently in my memories.

I remember how safe I felt, lying in my bed in the black of night, listening to the familiar squeak of the stove’s black iron handle as my dad opened the door and shoved in another chunk of fir or oak to keep the blaze going until morning.

The stove also helped me to understand and to appreciate the value of work.

My older brother and I went often with Dad to cut firewood. We stayed clear while he ran the chain saw and then we chucked the stovelengths into the back of our mid-1960s teal blue Ford pickup or, in later years, a trailer towed by a 1971 Chevy Blazer painted an alarming shade of yellow. A whole flock of canaries could have roosted on that rig’s hood and you’d not likely have noticed.

We’d unload the wood in the driveway and then haul it by wheelbarrow to the woodpile around back.

We tried, as boys in general will do, and brothers in particular, to enliven this drudgery by making it into a competition of sorts.

Each of us strived to stack as many pieces as possible into the wheelbarrow (we took turns manhandling the unwieldy thing). This was, it seems to me now, a mental exercise as well as a physical one, as we applied rudimentary engineering skills to figuring out how to wedge in the maximum number of chunks without overbalancing the load.

Being then, as now, both clumsy and mechanically inept, I tipped the wheelbarrow plenty of times, strewing wood across the lawn and, occasionally, crashing into the fragile stems of my mom’s hydrangeas.

It was gratifying work, though.

(Especially if mom didn’t find out about the hydrangeas.)

And although we must have put up some wood during summer, which is the favored season for that task, my memories insist on the setting of a damp, chilly evening in autumn, the multi-colored leaves of our sweetgum thick on the ground.

(Damp and chilly is about the only kind of autumn evening you get in Stayton, the town east of Salem where I grew up.)

Usually the stove would be going while we were toiling, and so we could smell the fragrant smoke as we went back and forth between the driveway and the woodpile, our shoes gradually becoming soaked from scuffing through the grass.

And then, when the last load had been stacked, and the driveway swept clear of bark, we would go inside and absorb the good heat along with supper.

Despite the absence of a stove in my home today, I have revived a vestige of this tradition by way of helping my father-in-law, Howard Britton, gather his winter’s supply of cordwood.

There is too a symmetry between our families, in the matter of interior heating, that amuses me.

Although my parents don’t have a woodstove in their home in Salem, they maintain a perpetual feud about the indoor temperature.

My dad, perhaps still influenced by his many years of stoking the stove, prefers a more tropical atmosphere (albeit without so much humidity), whereas my mom tends to keep windows open an inch or two even when it’s below freezing outside.

At the Brittons’, Howard is renowned for replicating a July afternoon no matter how far the temperature plummets outdoors.

The running joke is that the challenge in their home isn’t to stay warm, but rather to stay awake amid the somnolent heat wafting from the wood-burning furnace in the basement.

Anyhow I sometimes think, during this annual autumnal bout of reminiscing, that I ought to at least price out putting in a woodstove, figure whether it would pencil before I’m too decrepit to deal even with a stick of kindling.

The radiant, organic heat of a good rick of lodgepole pine beats the antiseptic, nose-desiccating warmth of an electric furnace all to heck.

Besides which, when you’ve got a good blaze going you can relax on the sofa, look at your thumbnail that went black after you bashed it with the splitting maul, and appreciate that something pleasant came from the pain and the temporary blemish.