After two years of contemplating and calculating, day-dreaming and dismissing plans for a wood burning stove, we finally sealed the deal. It was my appeasement, my consolation, over spending way too much money on fixing our house so it wouldn’t collapse around us, after discovering that our contractors of ten years ago built the walls so poorly that they were literally rotting out. As they say in Hebrew: im kvar, az kvar (which roughly translates as: if you are already committing so much time/money/effort/emotion to the project, might as well go all the way).
We justify the expense, if not the indulgence, based on the savings on oil costs it will earn us over 2-3 years. Let me say up front, the jury is still out on that. Not because wood stoves don’t generally live up to their reputation. But in this particular case, in this particular room (a great room with vaulted ceilings and no doors between it and the rest of the house to seal in the heat), the stove may be more of an aesthetic, complementary accessory than a truly functional appliance. Time will tell.
Except during black outs. We bought the stove with a cooktop so that not only will it give us soothing light and provide sufficient warmth in its immediate vicinity, but it will afford us a cooking surface. We have already made eggs on it, in record time!
So I am not at all unhappy with the purchase. The stove and I just have to bond a bit more, and take the time to learn what makes each other tick; and how to encourage the most out of each other. It is like any other relationship. I am looking forward to the exploration.
In the meantime, I am learning collateral lessons, mainly about wood. One of the selling points of the stove is that we imagine we will not need to purchase firewood for several years, for we live on modestly wooded lot. There are old woodpiles scattered here and there around the property, remnants of past downings of trees. And after a storm, there is literally a windfall: dead limbs and branches that the wind kindly trimmed and brought within our reach.
While the woods are mainly tulip poplar, we also have pine and beech, some maple and even a hickory tree. I am eager to learn about the different qualities of wood: when each kind is dry enough for burning; how well they each burn; for how long; their different weights; how easy they are to cut or saw or split. Just as bakers can tap the underside of a loaf of bread and know if it is done; just as an artist can look at their painting and decide it is complete; just as mechanics can listen to engines purr and know they are tuned just right, so I too want to be able to grasp a piece of wood and know what kind of tree it came from, how long it has been curing, and when best to use it in my stove.
When visiting a neighbor of mine for the first time several years ago, I noticed that he had a dining room table and breakfront made by the famed furniture maker, George Nakashima. His work is unmistakable: clean lines, sensuous curved edges, velvety smooth wood.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading a book about Nakashima and his work. What captivated me most was not Nakashima’s design, lovely as it was, but his attitude toward the creative process, and the very wood itself.
He was of samurai lineage, and believed that cutting a tree was like cutting diamonds.
“The tree is given a chance to come forth with its story and, in that dialogue, teaches something to the woodworker,” his daughter, Mira, explains. “Each tree, each part of each tree, has its own particular destiny, its own special yearning to be fulfilled.” While that sentiment may be a bit lofty for a log I am going to burn, it nonetheless conjures up an awareness that this log does have a biography; that it may have laid down its first ring the year I got married or had my youngest child, or the year Bill Clinton was elected president.
This log lived through the same natural and emotional storms I did: the last great Baltimore blizzard and Hurricane Isabel - both in 2003, and personal upheavals not fit for this blog. Unlike wood purchased from jobbers, this wood has shared the same space as me, seen the same things I have, for the last 10 years. And now, it is being prepared to be consumed in the space of a few hours in my new ceramic-covered stove.
There is an intimacy knowing that our existence is intertwined. My growing awareness of this wood, on this lot, opens up a deeper appreciation for the majesty of all nature, its gifts to humankind, and our interdependence. It makes more present, and immediate, the work we do to bring humanity and civilization into sync with nature. And it challenges me to continually wonder: what it will take for us to bring to this laboring world both a saving equilibrium among all its creatures, and sova, a grand and enduring sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that guides all that we do?