Sara Millhouse

When I was a little girl, my family heated with a big woodstove: I remember curling up in my Papa’s velvety, orange easy chair and letting the waves of heat roll over me. 

I don’t remember the hard work that precipitated that roaring flame, but there’s photo evidence that I helped cut wood, as a very little girl, with a two-man saw that my father swears was a breeze to work—as long as you had patience.

Eventually, my folks grew impatient at spending every weekend from August to November cutting down wood. They grew tired of feeding the stove three times a night, and my mom developed a sensitivity to the particulate matter that comes as an unwelcome byproduct to wood-burning.

I guess we’re bound to end up dating our mothers and fathers, because I am now dating a guy with a woodstove. Last winter was vicious, and I’ll admit that a significant incentive to hang out at his place went along the lines of “since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

I timed last year perfectly: just in time to appreciate the wood stove, but too late in the year to help out. This year, hoping he keeps me around until the spring thaw, I thought I’d better take a few days to help prepare the fuel I was hoping to appreciate throughout the winter.

I’m embarrassed to admit that my untrained arm strength left much to be desired. Within 10 minutes of throwing the first load off the truck, I was breathing heavy, dripping sweat and admitting defeat on the larger chunks—embarrassed to leave them for someone else, but cognizant of my biceps’ limitations.

The next task was getting large chunks of windfall to the splitter. I thought I had learned a lesson the first time I let one get away from me and roll 100 feet to the bottom of a deep ravine, but my second miscalculation resulted in some rather unprofessional word choices.

About halfway up the hill with my second runaway log, I finally started to understand the real cost of energy. The real cost of this wood heat was my sweat, my now-shaky muscles, my time and the calories I’d put into my body. It was also the cost of this dense oak and all the nutrients and sunlight it consumed.

This year, gasoline prices are lower than they’ve been in years. Fuel oil looks to be far more reasonable than last year’s astronomical prices. It’s easy to think that we’re back on energy easy street, at least until the next crisis.

But energy is never free: anything we use to create heat, light or power has a cost, whether that means our labor, the money earned through our labor, the risks of extraction or generation or the dwindling of finite resources.  Sweating out part of the cost of heating a home reminded me to carefully consider the costs and benefits of other energy use, of turning on a light or driving to Dubuque or falling asleep with the TV on.

I’m not making an argument for or against fossil fuels or tidewater power generation or wood-burning stoves. But then, I’m reminded of the droll wisdom of almost every wood-cutting expedition: “The thing about wood, it heats you before it even gets in the house. It heats you up when you cut it, when you haul it, when you split it, when you stack it. By the time it goes in the stove, it’s heating you for about the fifth time.”

By that measure, the steam that rose from my ears when that log rolled away from me was just another form of energy efficiency.