Today I sit at the junction of new and old. I write to you, gentle readers, from my cozy bed, snow still crusting the ground outside, the wood stove humming in the corner and the pot of water on top (both as a low-budget humidifier and ambient heat source) simmers as a constant in the background of my life. While this bucolic dream seems to blend the turn of this century with the last, I am also typing away on a brand new chromebook, wearing my favorite insulated leggings (hey lycra, ‘sup gurl), and cursing the most recent notification that my handy dandy iPhone has reached the data limit for the month. My life has become a blend of the very old and the very new, shunning mid-century modern comforts in favor of the bare minimum but with a mandatory wifi signal. In my opinion, this strange juxtaposition has brought me closer to the slow food movement as I see it and as I see it should have been.
We are all familiar with the slow food, local food, and whole food movements. You see the farm profiles in your trendy restaurant menu, the name dropping of farms and farmers at your hoity toity grocery store of choice and those ingredient delivery services to make it easier for the busy modern millennial to feed themselves with things that came from the dirt instead of the DairyMart. People now know what they should be doing but it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to do. You should eat food grown down the road instead of across the world. You should eat food closest to its natural state. You should eat food you cook yourself. But these things can seem so hard when you come home after an hour commute and your pencil skirt is chafing and your new tights gave you a rash and the presentation is tomorrow and you are already over your lunch budget and you left your earbuds on the bus and ALL OF IT SEEMS SO HARD. So relax, I am here to tell you how much harder it could be.
That is who I have become, the girl on your news feed who tells you how much harder your life could be and why you should relish the hard work of getting what you want from scratch. Excuse me while I go grind my own flour and build a clay oven with my bare hands. Just kidding, but not really because I am about to go split some wood. Fire has always been amazing to me. A simple chemical reaction that shows you how much energy really is in the world around us. A piece of wood harbors enough energy to keep you warm through the night and that pizza box you have kicking around can jump-start the process. But all the energy in the wood does not encompass the whole equation. I haul the wood from the wood shed 50 yards away. I split the larger pieces into more manageable chunks in front of the cabin. Our splitting stump got waterlogged in the fall and fell apart so I play the risky game of dulling my ax on the soil every time I sink through the wood grain in that perfect satisfying sweep. I am an amateur for sure. Our woodstove is actually quite small. I have not measured it but I would wager a guess that the chamber is 1 foot across, 18 inches tall and 2 feet deep. We are lucky to have about 2 cords of native wood stacked in the shed for our use. There is a guy a couple miles down the road who has an automatic wood splitter and the way I heard it, he comes through in the spring to help people lay up wood to season for the next winter. He does charge a nominal fee. He also owns a tractor with a wynch and plow attachments, a road grader (whatever that actually is) and literally any other tool you could think of. He is the man of Fleck Rd, come to solve all the world’s problems.
So I fetch the wood. I fetch it about 3 times a day (I can only fetch so much at a time) and every time I fetch it I think maybe this is what they meant by making fetch work. Probably not. Lame joke over. We should definitely invest in a canvas sling to carry wood more easily but as of now it is just me myself and my own two arms. I fill the slightly too decorative wood bucket and start to build the fire in the tiny chamber. We rarely let it go all the way out but when we do have to start from scratch or when we are responsible enough to clean the wood stove I start by putting a couple larger logs in to create a cavity on the floor of the stove. I fill the cavity with kindling and crumpled paper and pack it lightly so there is still room for the fire to breathe. I strike my match and light the middle because as a fish rots from the head, this little log house burns from the inside. When the paper burns away hopefully the flames have matured enough to latch on the the sides of the oak, pine, madrone, or birch I have stuck in there to meet its most useful end. I know, I know, burning pine will clog my chimney and start a fire and blah blah blah I’ll burn to death in my sleep, but hey live a little! No actually this is a real concern, if you have they ability to choose which wood you burn I would recommend using madrone or oak exclusively, they burn pretty clean and they are hardwoods so they burn really slow, giving you more flame per log which is an asset. Buuuut, in this situation beggars can’t be choosers so we work with what was salvaged from the property last year and do what needs to be done.
Now to cook on your wood stove, you will need to wait. SURPRISE. I told you this food would be slow. The wood stove itself needs to heat up and maintain that heat if you have any hope of transferring it to your food enough to get that whole cooked food taste. Because of the small stove in a small space, we rarely have our stove hot enough to sear anything. It would be unbearable inside the cabin to build up the fire that big. When you first start the fire, odds are you will have to leave the door and or vent open for a good bit in the beginning to get those juices flowing. If you close the vents too early, your fire will go out, but keep in mind if you leave all the vents (or in our case the stove door) open all the time, your fire will burn out fast and you will lose a lot of heat into the room that you wanted to be in your food. So we wait. And we watch. And we poke and stoke and blow the fire until it is self-sustained in healthy lazy flames licking the clearly visible logs. It doesn’t need to be raging to make a good thing happen in your cooking pot. In fact if you keep it raging you will burn everything (exception being when you are trying to boil water). So chill. And wait.
With your fire established and your stove hot it is time to do some cooking. Our stove is perfect for those trendy one pot meals because it only fits (you guessed it) one pot! Usually we cook our starch, set it aside in our only two eating bowls, then cook our veggies with seasoning of our choosing then mix it all together and serve. Pretty straight forward, but the results are always so satisfying after the amount of work you put in. You know how everything tastes better when you’re camping? That’s what our whole life is like except we also have a spice rack so things actually taste good too. I am beginning to think the real trail spice is working up your appetite through creative and restrictive cooking methods after a day of physical labor, which happily can be recreated everywhere! But, I won’t bore you with recipes in this post (don’t worry gentle readers, those will be separate posts to be sure).
When you feed the beast all day to heat your house all these steps do condense down into a routine. You know your wood stove’s likes and dislikes, tendencies, and pitfalls so you will be able to shorten the steps I have described considerably in the winter months. As for the summer, just eat a salad. The heat put off by my stove in these sub-freezing days of late is my life and my god. Couple that with the low winter sun keeping our little hollow in almost constant shade and I am happy for any breath of warmth we can keep within these walls. But when we moved in in early September, the late summer heat still settled on us after those watercolor sunsets like an oil slick making its home on top of the cool clear waters of a bay. Our poor little proverbial sea otter selves were almost drowned. In other words, the wood stove was not an option. But as November rolled in, our relationship changed. If it goes out it is as if the life of the house has been sucked up the flue and out the chimney with the last whisp of smoke. Of course the house is colder, but it is also more still. The dancing flames cast their happy crackly orange light off the warm hued wood planked walls of the cabin soaking our whole world in a living warmth that keeps me going through these cold winter months. Since we are as of yet not sure where/what we will be working this season, that wood stove is one of the few things that keeps me on this track at this point in my life. I know what I am doing is right because I can keep my self warm and fed with the power and strength of my own two hands.
Love Poems to a Wood Stove:
Oh Darling, Oh joy, Oh life, how do I love thee? I cannot count the ways.
Actually I can. The ways are 20, and they are all my digits that would fall off without you.
Little box on the hillside
Little yellow box made of cedar not ticky tacky
Little box, within a box
Little fire keeps us sane
The food it cooks, no problem
Why use electricity?
When the wood that grows and falls here
in the stove work just the same.
Dwarf holds heat so long it outlasts the day.
Tiny Iron Giant holds some sway.
Without you we’d still be in the pines,
but the sun would never shine
And we’d lose feeling in our toes and turn gray.