15 March 2006

Burning Wood

I have been thinking a lot about wood lately. First there was a post from Verlyn Klinkenborg in which he talked about some of the ambivalence that he feels about burning wood. Then we were visiting our friends Ian and Dianna, and she mentioned that someone had been horrified that anyone in this neck of the woods was using wood - that electric baseboard heating was the only environmentally sound way to heat one's home insofar as all of the electricity in British Columbia derives from hydroelectric power. Hmmm. If this is the case, should I be thinking seriously about powering down my wood stove?

No, I think not. And here is why.

First there is the question of particulate matter. Admittedly, my wood stove emits various nasty molecules into the air, and certainly more than a hydroelectric plant. However, I minimize this by burning it with the air intake fully open. My wood burns a bit faster, but the burn is much much cleaner - I can tell because there is no residue building up on the window of my stove, and my flue remains clean as a whistle. This burning strategy ends up causing the house to be a bit warm for an hour or so, and then as we let the fire burn down, it gets a bit cool. We deal with this by putting on a sweater. It works. So on the particulate matter measure, a point for the hydroelectric strategy.

Then there is the issue of greenhouse gases. Again, burning wood releases greenhouse gases. But allowing a dead tree to rot in the woods releases precisely the same amount of greenhouse gas as burning it. Since the wood that I burn is all from deadfall, my woodstove doesn't change the environment a bit. Moreover, a fact sheet from Charles Darwin University in Australia states the case quite clearly: "While the carbon contained in fossil fuels has been stored in the earth for hundreds of millions of years and is now being rapidly released over mere decades, this is not the case with plants. When plants are burned as fuel, their carbon is recycled back into the atmosphere at roughly the same rate at which it was removed, and thus makes no net contribution to the pool of carbon dioxide in the air." Woodstove and hydroelectric dam are even on this one.

Wood is a local product. I buy my wood every year or two from a guy that I know personally. He lives pretty modestly and the couple of hundred dollars that I spend on wood each year goes a long way to putting food on the table of his family. The electricity that comes through the wires is produced by a large and faceless utility. I have nothing against this company, as it does provide a meaningful service. It just represents one more highly impersonal transaction. Chalk up a point for the woodstove.

Finally, there is the meaning of the woodstove in my life. Historically, humans have used fire both for heating and cooking, and consequently the hearth has prominet role as the center of the home. There exists even a series of regular rhythms that the fireplace requires - the seasonal preparation of the wood; starting the fire first thing in the morning; tending the fire as the day progresses; even not lighting the fire as the weather warms in the spring. All of these rhythms put me in touch with my surroundings in a very intimate fashion. And then there is the unqualified joy that comes from sitting near a fire, seeing it burn, and knowing that somehow, in the midst of the chaos out there, all is right with the world. Because mastering fire represents one of the essential adaptations that distinguishes humans from all other species on this planet, it seems to evoke some ancient memory which is comforting like no other. Needless to say, the electric baseboard heater falls far short on this measure. A large and important point awarded to the woodstove.

In Carl Elliot's book Better than Well, he describes philosopher Albert Borgmann's use of the evolution of heating as the classic example of the distinction between a 'thing' and a 'device'. [The words thing and device are not as important as the distinction, so bear with me here.] Borgmann describes how the hearth was once the central focus of the household, but was gradually replaced by a variety of 'central heating devices' with the aim being to heat the house in the most efficient manner possible. The advance in technology completely satisfies the physical need, but increasingly leaves us disconnected from the natural world. I am no Luddite, but somehow it seems important that we maintain some connections to our shared past. I will draw my own personal line at my woodstove.