When I lived in Vermont we heated the entire house with wood. In the basement we had a wood furnace. It had a steel door that accepted chunks of wood nearly 18 inches in diameter. The firebox was more than four feet deep, which meant that huge amounts of wood could be loaded and left to burn slowly for as long as 24 hours before more wood was needed. In the morning, one reached in with a rake and pulled the glowing ashes forward, threw in more chunks of wood, and set the drafts.
The furnace burned steadily from November until March. At the beginning and end of winter it made too much heat, and we relied on wood stoves. But the furnace had advantages over the stoves. It needed tending only once a day. It was in the basement. No wood had to be brought in or ashes carried out. And it was a willing incinerator for things like disposable diapers, cardboard, and garbage.
Most important was its capacity for huge pieces of wood. Cutting firewood is easier if the wood can be left in large pieces. I cut trees on our own land. Most didn't have to be split at all. We cut them a year in advance, since unsplit wood dries more slowly. Often I cut the trees and dragged them whole to the house for blocking up later. The pieces were hard to lift, but I had adapted a set of ice tongs to the task.
Once the woodshed was full, the idea of conserving heat disappeared. There was no economy to be made. The fire burned at a steady rate, and you couldn't shut it off. There was no thermostat. On warm days in midwinter, we frequently opened the front door. During extreme cold snaps, when the mercury left for Florida (or "two clapboards below zero," as some Vermonters said), the house was toasty warm, almost for free.
Of course it wasn't free, but it seemed so. I cut wood with a friend who had a complement of equipment and whose land bordered mine. We cut in the winter, the best time, when leaves are gone from the maples and the forest floor is dressed with clean white snow. I had a tractor, a Ford 900, which I loved. I really loved it. A childish love, but deep. It was a row-crop tractor, set higher than usual to clear bush crops like beans. It wasn't a common Vermont tractor, since there is little level land in Vermont. But it was great in the woods.
On the rear I had mounted a Farmi winch, bought new, a clever gizmo made in Finland. It had a 60-foot cable with a log grappler, and an ingenious clutch. It was powered by the tractor power take-off, and it rode on the three-point hitch. With it we could pull logs from the depths of the tangled woods to the road, saving ourselves incalculable work. I cut wood with two Jonsereds chain saws, powerful things from Sweden. I even had my own electric chain sharpener. I was the master of this universe. In addition, I had peaveys and axes, chains and hooks, sledges and wedges. I had a trailer and a special logger's helmet. My neighbor had most of the same stuff plus a hydraulic wood splitter, the pice de rsistance.
We long thought that we were heating our houses for free. But one day we figured out that if we had put all the money we'd invested in equipment into a bank CD, and included the taxes on the woodland, we would really be able to heat for free.
Except that it wouldn't seem like it was for free. If you cut your own wood from your own land, it appeared - or seemed to appear - that you'd gotten the fuel for free. And your house was a great deal warmer.
But there was a danger. One day a beech log rolled from a pile and landed on four fingers of my left hand. It took two or three minutes until someone could pry up the log, during which my mind, as Samuel Johnson said, was concentrated wonderfully.
I saw clearly (I cannot overemphasize how clearly) that despite the romance of tractors and winches, despite the glory of productive work on bright winter days and the honorable feeling of providing a natural warmth for home and family, cutting my own wood had its down side.
We did not stop burning wood for heat, but I stopped cutting it. I reduced my capital investment in tree harvesting. I sold everything but the tractor and one of the chain saws, just in case. We bought firewood from professional wood guys who were glad for the business.
That was a while ago. I still love heating with wood. It has a timeless appeal, and a full woodshed makes one welcome the winter. But now I can stop by woods on a snowy evening and ask whose woods these are. And I can answer.
Not mine, by George. Drive on.