Body Buzz: Burning Wood, A Labor of Luxury
Picture robots playing soccer in a Japanese shopping mall, a three-year-old wearing a virtual reality helmet, a real-time in-ear language translator, synthesized meat. All of that is real today. Now picture Norway’s government giving a cast-iron wood burning stove manufacturer financial support to develop a clean-burning unit capable of helping the nation eradicate its fossil fuel consumption. These are two very different visions for the future of technology: the former completely novel and optimistic about human ingenuity; the latter improving on age-old tech with a suspicious eye toward our futuristic endeavors.
Somewhat unexpectedly, these two essentially different versions of the future are breezily compatible (at least until the robots take over). I regularly listen to a real-time news broadcast that’s travelled via satellite down to a local cable service, then across our home’s wireless network to a super-computer in my flannel-shirt pocket, all while wielding my axe in battle against a gnarly maple log. No cognitive dissonance whatsoever. What is confusing about this scenario, however, is that I find the orbiting digital communications network a mundane while chopping wood feels special. I believe this has to do with the intangibility of our digital networks and the ultra-real sensations of trying to pry apart a sugar maple. Also, everyone has a smartphone streaming endless bit of this-n-that, but not everyone heats with wood—or stacks five cords in a woodshed they built themselves, or owns a passive, non-catalytic, dual-combustion, particulate-reducing, Jøtul wood burning stove.
I’m kind of obsessed with our Jøtul stove. Mostly it’s just a pleasure to use, but in the back of my mind I am aware of its contribution to environmental recovery and sustainability. Though it’s the daily joys that keep people using them, for many it’s the environmental benefits that inspire initial adoption of wood burning stoves.
Let’s first dispel the latest arm-chair environmentalist cause: wood fire fine particulate emissions. Indeed, burning open fires at home is both a heat-suck (literally up the chimney) and a considerable pollutant. It’s bad enough that London’s mayor proposed a ban on wood fires in September 2017. This is where that Norwegian non-catalytic, dual-combustion technology comes in. Simply put, these stoves burn smoke (left over fine wood particles) during the second combustion and convert it to heat. There are three major benefits to this second combustion: 1) it reduces pollution by a huge margin, bringing wood stoves within Norway’s ultra-strict emissions standards; 2) it makes the most of your wood-stash, significantly slowing down annual consumption; 3) the second combustion creates mesmerizingly beautiful ghost-flames in the top of the stove—more relaxing than gazing at a fish tank, I swear. I’ll also add that achieving a clean burn, as an everyday goal, gets you thinking about both your wood quality and your burn technique, driving your clean-burn skills upward fire by fire.
But you’re burning trees, dude! I know, I know. It’s hard to get our heads around the idea that cutting and burning oxygen-producing trees can be even remotely environmentally sound. Historically, this is true. England, for example, totally destroyed vast forests heating and polluting London over the centuries (yeah, the mayor’s ban feels a few hundred years late). But it’s also true that humans heated with wood (and some bits of surface coal) for millennia prior to mechanized mining of fossil fuels. Here’s a short history of human heating: humans figure out how to control fire; wood is abundant and burns controllably; wood burning evolves along with our species; suddenly we start mining and burning fossil fuels; as a result, we now face climate change and scratch our heads about the whole heating/energy endeavor.
So let’s look at wood burning in the present. When managed properly, heating with wood can approach carbon neutrality. Assuming a reasonably sized home with robust insulation, as little as an acre of birch forest can keep that house warm incessantly and cleanly. It will require smart burning and intelligent tree cutting (coppicing is the technique, if you’re feeling Googley). Of course, not everyone has an acre of birch woods or the inclination to manage, cut, and stack that supply (though it’s a common thing for Norwegian retirees to take up). The solution is to purchase wood, and my household has managed to keep the source and delivery radius under two miles. It feels really good to pay cash to a neighbor for a year’s worth of locally-grown, renewable heating fuel.
Those living in city centers will have a wider wood-source radius, but when you compare it to the elaborate processes involved in delivering oil, propane, natural gas (need I mention fracking?), and electricity, heating with local-cut wood seems downright judicious. Not to mention that you’re ditching the middleman, corporations, pro fossil-fuel lobbyists, the Koch brothers, and whatever else goes into producing the various heating fuels that are overstuffing the offshore bank accounts of the 1%. Trust me: our local guy Joe is a humble businessman.
Heating with wood is cheap. Seriously cheap. I can’t generalize, because every home is different, but our current annual heating expenses are less than we’ve paid monthly on other fuel types. And wood prices don’t fluctuate. Damn that US-funded war in Whateverastan that caused your heating bills to suddenly double, or that stealthy legislation that skyrocketed every New Yorker’s electric bill without notice a few years ago. Joe’s prices, in stark contrast, never spike.
I don’t have enough faith in human nature to expect our species to choose wood burning because it will save our environment and ultimately ourselves. This is where the sheer pleasure and beauty of burning wood serves as the primary motive to take it up. I don’t know a single person—or a dog or a cat, for that matter—who doesn’t love to sit next to a fire. It’s deeply engrained in us, I would think even at the genetic level (there’s a legit argument to be made there). Heating with wood is inherently luxurious; it turns every day into a special, hearth-centered occasion. It’s so universally comforting, relaxing, cozy, fun, beautiful, and spell-binding that I can just end this paragraph because I’m confident that you and your pets already agree.
What folks might not realize about being around a fire is that it has health benefits. It’s a known stress and blood-pressure reducer, and it also brings all the house’s species together in a small area, promoting healthy stuff like reading, talking, and just being together. The recent leap in popularity of the Danish concept of hygee (roughly, coziness) is a testament to how much we crave cozy sensations and their benefits today. Hygee is about slowing down, being present, nowness—all of this stuff drives multi-billion dollar industries, from yoga to meditation and so on, but we get it simply by heating our house. I can’t tell you how many friends have sat by our Jøtul and wondered why they don’t heat with wood. A couple of them have since started.
So let’s talk installation. In most locales, building department requirements for wood burning stoves are pretty mellow. It needs to be properly vented, of course, and a 6” stainless steel pipe through a pre-existing chimney is totally acceptable, as are many newly routed pipes through ceilings or walls. You need a hearth of some kind, which protects the floor and surrounding walls, and these can be wonderful opportunities for beautiful stonework, or much simpler installations into a fireplace (we just laid some bluestone slabs into our fireplace and were within compliance instantly). An expert installer is probably the best route, but we were able to do ours ourselves (minus my chickening out on the 40 foot ladder climb after my father called to express his concern about my track record as a risk-taker).
For those bummed to lose their open fireplace (and remember, it pollutes pretty badly and heats negatively), you can simply open the door of your stove and set a screen in place. We’ve done this on those first cool August nights, as our anticipation of Fall’s coziness takes over.
There are many brands out there, but I’d strongly recommend seeking out a Jøtul. They’ve been imported from Norway into Maine for decades, but only recently began to be assembled up there. This is not to say that another brand isn’t going to be solid, but I can personally attest that Jøtul has consistently improved their passive, dual-combustion technology, casting, and enamel finishes to the point of near perfection. Jøtul’s distribution chain is ever-widening, so you’ll likely find a dealer in your area. They can recommend an installer for you.
I can imagine a robot chopping wood, but I don’t like what I see. As long as we carbon-based lifeforms with our narrow ambient temperature tolerances are around, I think wood burning will remain both an anachronistic and a forward-looking way to heat our dwellings. And while all these arguments in favor of wood burning will undergird one’s choice to do so, it is going to be the sheer luxury, joy, and health of it that will keep your home fires lit all winter long.
From watches to whisky, Allen Farmelo’ s writing celebrates luxury as a pathway to health, sustainability, and joy. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in the Hudson Valley with two big orange cats. Learn more at allenfarmelo.com and body-buzz.com.