Trial by Fire

Wood stove heating with The Dew Abides
I might be secretly Norwegian.

My sister-in-law likes to say she’s a collard not a marigold, meaning she prefers cold weather over hot. I, on the other hand, am very much a marigold, content to mouth-breathe in a 100-degree greenhouse in the dead of August.

Make no bones about it. I. Hate. Being. Cold.

And yet, I find myself uttering words that, once upon a time, would have been incomprehensible: we stopped using central heat this year.

Let me explain.

Nine months out of the year, our house is the epitome of comfort, thanks to vernacular architecture designed for Georgia heat, like ten-foot ceilings and large double-hung windows. Our summer thermostat is programmed for 82 degrees, and it’s so pleasant, I often need a shawl in the evening.

Unfortunately, those same features work against us when temperatures drop. Despite adding insulation to the walls, windows and attic, we paid hundreds of dollars a month our first winter on the wee homestead, all for the privilege of freezing while the thermostat mocked us with its 70-degree setting.

Over the next couple years, we lowered it to 68 degrees, then to 65, without a noticeable change in our quality of life. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t warm. But we were paying half the price for the same level of discomfort.

At some point, though, it stopped being about the money. We realized every time those heat coils clicked on, a coal-fired power plant spewed filth into the atmosphere, and we wondered if our warmth was worth the air pollution that’s causing a growing number of asthma-related deaths.

Needless to say, we put on a sweater.

Chill, out

Installing a wood stove three seasons ago was a huge improvement, allowing us to take the chill off at night without a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint. But we had to ration its use, at first, because seasoned firewood was scarce*.

Soon we began to find free fuel everywhere**, from fallen limbs on the farms of generous friends to curbside piles of tree trimmings, destined for the city’s inert landfill. With such abundance, we depended more and more on our trusty Jøtul 602.

But with another winter approaching, Brad and I were still frustrated at the shocking number of kilowatt hours required to keep the house a meat-locker-appropriate 65 degrees. We just didn’t know what more we could do, especially now that he works from home during the day, and I would be around, too, on winter break from the farm.

Then I met the off-the-grid doctor who inspired William Powers’ book “Twelve by Twelve“. My surprise at learning she heats her cabin with a few candles prompted her to laugh and say, “No one ever froze to death indoors in North Carolina.” And that’s when it hit me.

No one ever froze to death indoors in Georgia either.

So Brad and I began an experiment. We turned the thermostat down to 60 degrees, ensuring it would only trigger in the case of a Game-of-Thrones-like winter storm. We vowed to heat only using the wood stove or passive methods like hot water bottles. That action changed our lives in ways both banal and extraordinary.

Hot spots

We knew we couldn’t just burn the stove 24/7, or we’d be on a nonstop hamster-wheel of firewood gathering. And we couldn’t start a fire every time we left and came home throughout the day — the little stove is low maintenance, but it does need a log every hour or so to keep from dying. So we’d try to coordinate meetings and errands during one block of time away from the house, and only then start a fire once we were home for good.

It may sound like a hassle, but that planning made us more efficient, so we had more time to play. And there was an unexpected bonus — we learned you spend much more time out in the world when the world inside your home is no longer instantly comfortable at the push of a button.

Instead of squirreling away on the computer in our den, we take the laptop to the Mildred L. Terry Public Library and work under the inspiration of our friend Najee’s mural. Or to the CSU Archives to peruse the bookcases from Carson McCullers’ personal library. Or to one of our three coffeeshops of choice, where they drop a cappuccino as soon as they see us coming. Or to our beloved downtown pub, which has become the “afternoon office.”

It’s hard to believe an action that seemed so limiting has turned into something expansive — socially, intellectually, and creatively.

Was the experiment a success? Well, our kilowatt usage is down by more than a third from this time last year, our power bill is a fraction of its former self, and we’re far more comfortable when we choose to be home.

Looks like this marigold might make it through the winter after all.


*We have since picked up many a useful tip on how to season firewood more quickly from the exquisite “Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way” by Lars Mytting. Seriously, read it. Even if you fall asleep to the sound of traffic, and there’s not a fireplace within a mile of your home. Your inner lumberjack will thank you.

**OK, so maybe we’ve become a weensy-bit obsessed with finding good-quality firewood:

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