Ain’t Failed Me Yet

My view in the morning
My view in the morning
My other view in the morning

This time of year, the first thing I do every morning is start two fires. Unless it’s well below zero, we let both fires go cold every night, mostly because we don’t like sleeping in a warm bedroom, and our bedroom is directly over the bigger of our two wood stoves. And, as you’ve probably heard, heat rises.

First, I start a fire in the cookstove and get my coffee going. Then I bop on over to the living room, tripping over a cat or two on my way, and get the big stove going. I love both of our stoves. The cookstove is a Heartland Sweetheart; I bought it used off a fellow in southern New Hampshire who was entirely skeptical that I was actually going to cook on the thing. “Really?” he kept saying, as we loaded it into the back of our Subaru (no small feat, that). “Really?” I guess the stove had been in the house when he bought it, and he’d never so much as fired it. From the looks of it, neither had the previous owner. Funny aside: I remember how I’d carefully planned the stove pick up around a reading I had down that way, and how clever I felt about all this (me being not much of a careful planner). Crikey, even Penny was impressed. Except when I showed up for the reading, all smug and bouncy in precise disproportion to the ass end of the Subaru, which was dragging something fierce, I learned I was exactly 24-hours early.

Our bigger, primary heating stove is a Vermont Elm. I bought it used, too, off a dude who restores them in these parts. I cannot overstate just how awesome this stove is. It has a 24″-long firebox which is…. get this, round. You know, like a chunk of wood that hasn’t been split. Even better, the door opening is round. This means I can generally manage to load the handful of firewood lengths that thwart my best intentions with the splitting maul, something that was not true of our previous stove, an otherwise decent little Jotul with a typical square door opening. Both Penny and I are pretty handy with a maul, and I’m not above employing our “redneck wood splitter” (this would be our chainsaw, used in a with-the-grain ripping fashion, a manner in which chainsaws are not designed to be used and I therefore cannot recommend). But it sure is nice to know that I can just let the more stubborn pieces stay whole, and still be able to cram them into the Elm. I also like the Elm ’cause it’s stone-simple: No catalytic converter to replace, no complicated damper system, no nothing, really, but that beautiful round opening and a delightful habit of putting out some serious heat.

We actually put a fair bit more wood through the Sweetheart, than the Elm. That’s because we actually cook on it (really!), because it heats a portion of our water, and because the kitchen is Grand Central Station of our humble home. Right now there are two 5-gallon pots of chicken stock simmering on the cookstove, a pair of Rye’s gloves drying on the warming shelf, and a tea kettle boiling away. This morning, I cooked eggs and sausage atop it, and come lunch, we’ll fry up a mess o’ pork chops and ‘taters. What’s for dinner? It’s anyone’s guess, really, but I know where it’ll be cooked.

We love cooking on wood. It demands a level of engagement with the process and the food itself that simply can’t be replicated when all you gotta do is twist a dial. Cooking on a wood stove means you’re constantly moving things around, finding the sweet spot where the heat of the stovetop matches the task at hand. It means you’re frequently filling the firebox: Slim sticks of paper birch to get ‘er roaring real quick; a thick slab or two of sugar maple to mellow her out a bit. The only downside of putting so much wood through the cookstove is that we gotta put up a lot of cookstove wood. Because the firebox is fairly small, our cookstove wood can’t be much over 16″ long, and about 5″ in diameter. I bet it takes literally twice as long to put up a cord of cookstove wood, than it does to put up a cord for the Elm. Actually, I bet it’s more than twice as long. Sure, it’s the same total volume of wood, but it’s a hell of a lot more splitting and bucking and throwing and stacking. Still and all. I’ll take it.

With the exception of our aforementioned redneck wood splitter, we split all our wood by hand, maybe six cords each year. This is not because we have some philosophical aversion to combustion power, but because splitting wood on a cold winter’s day is pretty much the pinnacle of good, clean country livin’. It’s the sort of repetitive, not-too-demanding physical labor that allows one to drift off into the far recesses of the mind or, if you’re splitting with Penny, chat about what trees should be planted when the ground thaws, or simply work together in amiable silence. Here’s a small piece of unasked-for advice: Don’t ever dismiss the soft pleasure of amiable silence. Sometimes I think you can communicate more by shutting your mouth for a while, than by giving voice to all the words in the world.

I’ve also come to think of splitting wood by hand as a litmus test: If I can at least manage this, then I can probably manage whatever else this place is likely throw at me. It’s pretty simple test, I grant you, and doesn’t exactly account for all the possible contingencies of this life.

I’ll tell you what, though: It ain’t failed me yet.

28 thoughts on “Ain’t Failed Me Yet”

  1. The photo of the circular firebox of your Elm heating stove mysteriously suggests an image of an Elm tree seen through a porthole!?! Wood heats you three times over: when you cut & split, when you stack, and when you sit in amiable silence and burn it. Great post. THANKS!

  2. My favorite poem about Amiable Silence (the author of which I cannot remember):

    It isn’t that we talk so much.
    Sometimes the evening through
    You do not say a word to me,
    I do not speak to you.
    You sit beside your reading lamp,
    I like my easy chair,
    And it is joy enough, for me,
    To know that you are there.

  3. Sweet!
    If all goes well we’ll be installing our woodfed kitchenfurnace coming spring or summer. It’s already waiting down at the shed.
    Only problem is that we have to haul it up a pretty steep and uneven slope about 25 meters long, round the house over a gravelpath, which is uphill too, up 4 steps, into the hall, around the corner into the kitchen. And the thing weighs close to 200kg at least….
    It’ll take a bit of planning and a lot of musclepower to get it done.

  4. You got a cookstove in a Subaru??? I’m blown away. Either it’s a little cookstove or you’ve got some bodacious Subaru! With unbelievable suspension. Crikey! I wish we had a cookstove. Our electric stove doesn’t work well and it costs money. Our utilities are paid since that is part of our compensation as caretakers on this ranch but a cookstove would be so much nicer. We have tons of blue oak to stoke it with. We do have a heating woodstove. I get it about the amiable silence.

  5. Ben, thank you for speaking at the NOFA-NH conference last weekend. I have an Elm as well – nice to see another one!

  6. Hey Ben
    From the documentary “Kingdom of Survival”
    If you haven’t already, one you will want to watch.

  7. On the amiable silence topic, I’ve been marinating on the idea thanks to my current read, “Buddha.” One of the protagonist’s teachers works in silence. Once I read the passage I began to realize how important I think this is. And then, you know, I start to see examples everywhere. As always I enjoy your stories thought many times they are so far from my reality – I’ve never even see a wood cook stove.

  8. My husband built a rocket stove outdoors this summer and we have so enjoyed cooking on it and having a good use for all the little twigs my sons love to collect. Just like growing your own food, providing the fuel for your comfort or nourishment is so satisfying – much more so than paying a utility company! Thanks for another great story.

  9. I cook on a wood stove every winter – far too hot here in Australia in the summer – and I love it. There’s something about the slower cooking, the heat radiating out from the stove, the simple act of putting wood in the fire box that is so grounding.

  10. I SO get the amiable silence quote. I only wish at least one of the occupants of our busy house did. Oh well. I’d love to see a picture of your amazing cook stove. My husband would come unglued if I said I wanted one, but I’d like to admire yours. We have two wood stoves, both Vermont Castings, that we love like brothers.

  11. Am I mistaken in thinking that burning wood for heat and cooking is less polluting than conventional fuels? Understand that wood will emit the same amount of CO2 whether it is burned or left to decay in the forest. Most of the wood I collect is from dozer piles that are to be burned anyway, and the ashes go on the garden. There are other good uses for the ashes also.

    1. My husband did some reading on this subject. If the wood is burned properly (needs to be nice hot coals although still holding together if that makes sense) before banking the stove/heater down and enjoying the slower burn. The hot burn to begin with means the gases coming off the wood are also burned up and when it gets to the charcoal stage there’s less gas coming off and hence less pollution. I get the concept although I know I’m not explaining it well. Rocket stoves and tile stoves I believe have the most complete burn and there is little “emmissions” from them.
      We have a Thermalux (Aussie brand) Gourmet cooker which is a heater glorified with an oven under the woodbox and a top that can be used for cooking.

      1. I can personally attest to the little to no “emissions” from rocket stoves. Once it gets going, there is absolutely no smoke coming from the top. All you see are the “heat waves” but it isn’t even hot and you can put your hand right over the chimney. As I mentioned above, we love our handmade one and the Deadwood stove we purchased, too.

      2. Too much to comment on here but there is a lot of info on the internet (of course) particularly at http://www.permies.com (videos, etc.) Like anything, there are a lot of ways to do it and you’re best to just try and see what works for your needs. Have fun!

  12. Hey rabidlittlehippy from rabidoldhippy
    Tell me more about your Thermolux, ash removal, firebox capacity and just overall satisfaction. Think it is just what I’m looking for. Have you or your hubby read “Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann? Good read!!! Let’s leave coal underground, high sulfer content, Major problem when burned. Natural gas needs to stay there too. Amen to burning wood efficiently. How does the Thermolux perform in that respect? Also plan to build a rocket stove and do more canning outdoors. Think it would work great for boiling water bath canning. What do you think ncfarmchick?

    1. Haven’t canned on a rocket stove yet but, in theory I think it could work and that is the kind of thing we’d like to do with it (things that make the house hot or stinky like cooking lots of fish.) I will have to let the internet Gods help me by doing a search for that specific task as we are the only people we know with a rocket stove. You’ve got me thinking….thanks!
      PS – Sorry we are hijacking your blog, Ben! It’s turning into a bit of a forum:)

  13. M R
    It is oxydation, carbon atoms will pick up two oxygen atoms when exposed to each other. This occurs faster or slower depending on temperature. Solids and liquids must become gases for this to occur. The smaller the pieces of wood the more area for this gasification (think that is a term) to happen and more area for air i.e. oxygen to find the carbon in the wood. Just mainly a speed thing. Small quick fire, split wood, long lasting slow fire don’t split. Other things in play such as type of wood, carbon content, oils or resins in the wood, increase or decrease of air supply etc. Am no scientist so corrections welcome….

    1. yeah, what NN is saying is that it dries quicker. And smaller wedges are a hell of a lot easier to carry/stack/load than big rounds. So there’s that.

  14. I build a new home recently and installed a Heartland Sweetheart wood cook stove. I’m just learning to cook on it this winter, and I absolutely love the process. As someone mentioned earlier it is grounding. I haven’t quite learned how to bank the fire for the night. The stove seems to gobble up the wood very quickly. I need to learn to control the bell damper system more efficiently. Any suggestions? I love the amiable silence quote. Listening to the sounds of the forest while splitting wood or gardening is very humbling. MountainRose

  15. I was reading this entry, I kept saying “log splitter, log splitter, log splitter”. And by the time I got to the end, you following my instructions. You are a smart man!!!

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