Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Wood and oil: Things you purchase, just to burn

The first installment of firewood arrived at the end of May. My fun day off activities centered around getting it stacked in shelter so that I can call for the next load as soon as possible, before the price goes up again. It's a tedious chore, but it's part of the price of freedom from fossil fuel dependency.

This year, the direct link between fossil fuel prices and firewood prices has been highlighted. My wood supplier called to say that she had some stuff I could get now that was already expensive, but that any later loads would be subject to price increases because of the soaring cost of the petroleum distillates used in the trucks, heavy equipment, and chainsaws of the cutters and transporters of the "renewable resource" from the forest. This first batch reflected a 20 percent jump in the per-cord price over what I'd been paying for the past three years. The greener wood to follow will be worse.

This house started out as something not as rustic as a cabin, as quaint as a cottage, or as rudimentary as a hut. It was a square little box with walls a little too thin for the climate, but an interior volume about like a large packing crate, so it heated readily from a wood stove plunked in the center of its large open space that was kitchen at one end and living room at the other. We later moved the hot iron box to the basement, after we added a proper chimney and cut a hatch to make a ladder to that lower level.

The basic shelter evolved into something much larger. The newer parts are better insulated, but taller, so they're nowhere near as easy to heat. I spend a lot of time colder, wearing more layers indoors, than I did when I lived in the little box. The little old place didn't have enough room for studio space and an occasional guest. The bigger house evolved to make room for a cohabitant and a music school.

Way back in the mid 1970s I looked to a future of scarce and expensive petroleum and decided to limit my dependence as much as I could. I believed -- and still do -- that we can find a balance between the convenience and economic advantages of some degree of mass production and a cooperative energy grid, and a well-protected environment doing its job to support all life. So I didn't become a full homesteading hermit.

Back when gasoline and heating oil seemed like the primary expenses and pollutants that consumers had any choice about, riding a bike and heating with wood seemed like good strategies. And the bike remains unassailably virtuous. Any number really can play, and the world only gets better as the number of riders -- particularly transportational riders -- increases. The wood stove not so much. This adds to the toil of stacking the expensive chunks of tree, as I think about the evils of my carbon emissions and contributions to atmospheric particulates. I'll have to be even colder and wear more layers through the long gray months.

The design of the house lends itself to a seasonal division. I could shut off the tall back part, and barely heat it, only enough to keep the plumbing from freezing, or even drain that section, and live only in the low part. The tall part is actually helpful in the summer, because I can send heat up and out through the upper windows, drawing in cool air when it's available through the lower ones. It justifies its continued existence.

I'd go solar if I could, but I can't afford the initial investment. So I have to rely on small fires and heavy sweaters. I've been incredibly and undeservedly lucky in sidestepping some expenses for a number of years, but now some older bits of infrastructure look like they're crumbling. And the car is succumbing to its 19 years of New England road salt. So now I have to find something less decrepit, when we should all be weaning ourselves off of our default vehicles. It's hard to get enthused about going into debt for the rest of my life to pay for a vehicle that should have been phased out decades ago. Everyone has been focused on the price of gasoline and paid no attention to the cost of it.

Faced with winters that could bring only cold darkness or could bury us in feet of snow, I can't live without a motor vehicle as long as I live here. I'd be willing to try, but my winter job depends on our mobile society as it exists. I need other people to be able to drive to get here. Without winter tourism, I don't know what would keep the economy going until spring. Locals have a long history of catering to visitors and travelers to bring in extra cash. By the late 20th Century it was a primary source of income for a lot of them.

Loggers do a lot of work in winter, when wet areas are frozen solid, but there's only so many trees at any given time. Cut 'em all down now and you have to find something else to do for 30-50 years while you build up a new crop.

Back when New England was nearly deforested, more people farmed, but the soil was full of rocks, and the growing season was short. The soil is still full of rocks, and the growing season is still short. The air may warm, but the sun only shines for the same length of time that it always did. In mountainous terrain, cold dark hollows are cold dark hollows. Removal of trees only mildly enhances the exposure to sunlight. And the soil will still be uncooperative.

In my own little clearing, the sandy soil makes its way to the top, displacing organic matter. Some areas seem to grow grass and plants better than others, but those are mostly places I would prefer less lush, like the driveway. We've experimented with gardens a few times, but we'd need to push the trees back much further, and work constantly to maintain a good growing medium. It's made more sense to support local farms than to try to establish our own.

When the propane company finally sent out its budget plan for the coming season, the price of that had jumped 50 percent. Fifty percent. Half again as much every month to fill the tank. I've tended to reduce my usage year by year, but the cobbled-together heating system in the house depends on the propane heater to maintain a baseline. That baseline just dropped by about eight degrees. It's going to be a cold, dark winter.

What the hey. I moved here because I liked winter camping. Then I hardly camped because I didn't really have to, once I lived within easy day-trip range of all the fun stuff. And that's when I thought I could afford to do things for fun. Looks like I'll be living in a winter hut by default. On the plus side, the cellist will be safely lodged at her school-year job well south of here, except for her brief visits home.

The wood dealer hasn't come through with a price for the second installment of firewood. If the price stays high, I may be back to scavenging dead stuff from the forest and picking up scraps that fall along the roads. That was the basis for the humorous name for "the estate" when it was a tiny box in a patch of forest: Scavengewood. Now it's more like the drafty castle of broke nobility once the sun slides southward and leaves the northern hemisphere to pay is orbital dues to the implacable cold of the universe.