My time for amassing firewood ran out long before my enthusiasm for cutting it. Autumn became a flurry of activities and cutting firewood gave way to more urgent winterization tasks.
Then it snowed. Summer was over. The first snowfall is one of my favorite days. I dedicated a long afternoon to watching the chickadees. Call it reverence or call it an old coot staring out the window. I’m happy with either definition.
The first days of winter are delicious and bittersweet; the harvest is done and the fevered rush to store acorns becomes an instant moot point. The beauty and grandeur of snow brings a stark brilliant clarity to the forests. Deer hunting improves with visible tracks. Bass boats are stowed and ignored and snowmobiles are readied and coveted (I own neither). Those who can afford it shift to preserving their better cars and drafting “winter beaters” into service. Tourists are long gone and the hectic hours of the summer give way to a well earned period of hibernation. Yet the hard part of the year is coming. If I ever go bankrupt it won’t be on a sunny August afternoon. Folks in the milder climes will never know this seasonal cycle. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My favorite fall ritual is to read aloud To Build A Fire. This bores my wife and creeps out my kid. So be it. It’s short and they humor me, then we light the fire. Jack London knows the score. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his none too subtle story I’ll provide a synopsis:
“When it’s extremely cold, you should be smart. Old people know not to mess with the elements. Dogs know it too. Young men don’t. Blow it and you die. ” Adaptive Curmudgeon’s Review of To Build A Fire
After Mr. London’s cheery send off we kept the fire going and it wasn’t a big deal. The shocking thing about winter is that we can survive and even thrive in it. I dragged my feet and we went a few more months without a furnace.
Eventually, because I could avoid it no longer, I had a furnace installed. This was a very good thing but I felt oddly let down. I’d always intended to replace the dead one but I wanted something more awesome than a duplicate of what broke; a soulless box that emits tepid heat and fuel bills. You don’t always get what you want. (Even if you blow a 50 amp fuse.) Our new generic off the shelf moderately efficient appliance performs with all the excitement of a toaster.
On the other hand I can now let the fire go out without worrying; which is nice. Plus two sources of heat are always better than one. Also the new furnace set on low (keeping it’s use to a minimum) coupled with wood heat evens out the comfort in the house better than either alone. To my eternal delight Visa didn’t get a red cent out of me.
I expected a new furnace to heat better than our decrepit one but it is neither better nor worse. It’s a little quieter but the old one wasn’t noticeably loud. The biggest improvement was the $20 programmable thermostat I installed. I was disappointed but maybe I’d been letting “excellent and theoretical” be the enemy of the “good enough and done”? Intellectually I know it was stupid to have gone so long into a second winter without a backup heat source but I’d enjoyed the challenge.
With a stroke of symmetry the new furnace went “on-line” almost one year to the day after the old one died. I never even bought more fuel, I just hooked it up to the tank and started consuming unused fuel left from last year. Of course, the wood stove is still providing 90% of our heat. Time to reflect on lessons learned:
- I’ve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we could go without fossil fuel heat. (We do use some electric but it’s minimal.) We can be and have been self reliant. It is a fact.
- I learned that #1 isn’t the endless slog of misery that folks tend to imagine.
- I learned that nobody but my wife (who is a saint) believes me. Folks weaned on modern technology just can’t get their heads around a redneck with a chainsaw supplanting all powerful Exxon. They have a little voice in the back of their head that tells them that morons like me cannot be right and earnest looking strangers with lab coats and salesmen with good hair know better. How many marketers have worked for how long to create this flaccid compliance?
- I learned that the lack of a heat bill makes a difference to the household bottom line. A big one. I’d gone one full year without paying a single penny for fuel of any type. I’d spent a little on bar oil, saw gas, gloves, and minor tools but that’s peanuts. How many of us are stumbling though life without realizing how much we’re spending on necessities that aren’t strictly necessary?
- I learned that huge savings could be diffuse and subtle. If you weren’t paying attention you’d scarcely notice it. I can’t point to a big ticket result. I just have a few extra bucks in my pocket for life’s other priorities. This brightened my outlook more than I’d expected.
The most important note is #5. It boils down to two Curmudgeonly Gems of Insight that you can count on:
“Savings, even very significant savings, spread over time will melt into the background. You’ll still get the benefit but you don’t find a pile of cash on the kitchen table.”
“When savings, especially significant savings, melt into the background, your financial horizon gradually grows brighter. If the source doesn’t jump out at you (and it won’t) you might not notice it. It looks a lot like good fortune and happenstance. It isn’t. You earned it.”
That last concept is something I can’t quite communicate. It’s significant but hard to see. We all have a financial sword of Damocles over our head. Mine is a little less threatening after a year of savings. I feel like I stuck to a diet and came out healthier. It means more than you’d think. I didn’t do any extraordinary budgeting so it’s probably mostly a matter of not feeling so strapped when I spring for pizza or when the car needs a minor repair. It’s a measure of freedom. Freedom is good for you.
It’s -8 degrees out. Only a desperate man or a fanatic would be cutting wood now and my tractor would wallow in the drifts anyway. But I recently managed to score four cords of raw logs at a discount and the pile is waiting for me. As soon as spring arrives I’ll start cutting it up…I’ve probably put on weight without my chainsaw based exercise regime and will be happy to get back to it. Good thing next winter is just around the corner.