Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burning Sunshine

Okay, having said that I’m not a HUGE fan of HD Thoreau, allow me to quote him yet one more time. I think I shall have to actually READ Walden soon. I will admit that my earlier complaint about HDT is because most of what I have read of his is merely quotes. I have some suspicion that if I actually engaged him in toto of his major works, I might be otherwise disposed toward him.

I once dabbled in Civil Disobedience, and was nonplussed. I did read the entire volume of his Maine Woods and found it interesting as an historical account of the Maine what was, but not particularly significant beyond that.

But here, I find Thoreau using words that speak powerfully to me. I read this, and I think, “I could get along just fine with Henry. Just fine.”

It is remarkable what a value is still put upon wood even in this age and in this new country, a value more permanent and universal than that of gold. After all our discoveries and inventions no man will go by a pile of wood. It is as precious to us as it was to our Saxon and Norman ancestors. Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice- once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.*

I actually went searching for this particular passage, which I knew to be one of his, because I have lately noted that his sense of a man’s feeling toward his woodpile correspond closely with mind. I can’t explain it really, but I find great satisfaction and contentment in the act of merely standing to gaze upon my growing wood pile. This is not to mention that pleasure of actually making it grow by cutting, splitting and stacking the wood, nor the delight of planning how to obtain more of it, and determining how best to store it and manage it.

I hope that you note that the pile has grown some since I last posted a photo of it. Please note that. It will make me feel good, like when you say nice things about my kids.

Often, as I have been working on my woodpile, my thoughts have wandered along that lines of what I am really doing with this stuff. In essence I am processing sunshine that has been captured and stored in an organic battery called a tree. The leaves of the tree utilize the energy flowing from the sun, and through a complex chemical process we all study in school, captures that energy within the bonds of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen forming the sugar molecule. Some of those sugar molecules are further treated by flipping around a few hydrogen bonds to create cellulose, which forms the structure of the plant cell wall. Cellulose doesn't taste very good, and we can't digest it to release the energy INSIDE our bodies, as we can with say, maple syrup. But but it still contains a whole lot of stored energy, and with the right apparatus, we can release that energy OUTSIDE our bodies to keep us warm on cold days. The simplest apparatus, of course is a bow drill and a bit of tinder. But since I want to keep the fire INSIDE the house, but not burn it down, this will require something more sophisticated. In addition, I would like to burn it with a certain degree of efficiency so as to wring out as many BTUs as possible for each ounce of wood, and that will require a properly designed, installed and maintained wood stove. I look forward to putting in my first load of wood, firing it up, and feeling that stored up sunshine warming my bones again. Though the snow may drift deep and the frigid winds howl on the long dark nights of midwinter, yet I will bask in my own little tropical oasis, powered by the sun.

Here in the Northeast, most folks heat their house with Heating Oil. It's actually diesel fuel with a special dye and a few additional conditioners. The dye is so that it can be taxed differently from diesel fuel for vehicles, and the conditioners are there so it will work properly in a furnace as opposed to a motor. I just filled the oil tank that runs my furnace. Since I belong to an energy discount coop, it only cost $500 (about $3.12 per gallon at this time). It was already 1/3 full. If I was paying market price, that would have run me over $650 (about $4.15 per gallon). In the depths of winter, I will run through a tank in 3-5 weeks. I recently calculated that if I paid full market price, and heated only with heating oil, I would spend approximately $4800 this year to heat my house. 

Of course, this is still heating with the sun. It's just that that particular sunshine is much much older, and significantly more expensive at this moment in history. And, of course, the connection between me and the billion year old sunshine that is sucked out of the rocks is much weaker than the connection between me and the sunshine from trees grown down the street. If I had an oil well in my backyard, I might feel differently.

Yes. I do indeed feel affection for my woodpile. The more chips, the better.

*From Walden by Henry David Thoreau


Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

I have a gift for you that I meant to give you this Sunday. Reading this post reminded me. (Hint.Hint) So I will put it in my Sunday School bag so i don't forget it!

Anonymous said...

In my early twenties, HDT was an inspiration. Now in my fourties, knowing I am part of what he calls the mass of men living lives of quiet desperation- meaning I have actual responsibilities- makes me like him a lot less.


PS- I too love a good wood pile. Mine is very low. I envy yours.

The Scylding said...

Wow - heating is expensive there! Last year, with a old medium efficiency furnace (natural gas - forced air), My equalised payment (that is, same payment throughout the year) for heating my 2100 sq ft home, as well as my hot water, in Central Saskatchewan (it stays constantly below freezing from late November to early March), was $172 / month, or just over $2000 a year. It will go up by about 20% this year, but I have also managed to install a high efficiency furnace since then (cost $3600, but get $1000 rebate back ftom the government).

I had no idea heating in NH was this expensive!

Not that that is the main thrust of your post, but I was just amazed!

Marilyn Pavlovsky said...

Just curious as to what your Burning Sunshine term referred to. I am assuming you are talking about fuel, etc. The reason for my question is I was searching the net for my newly published book called BURNING SUNSHINE. It is a historical fiction book and I am just interested in any other references to the words BURNING SUNSHINE - Thank you

Dubbahdee said...

That's great. I remember watching the John Wayne movie "The Cowboys" and there's a line in there where John Wayne says, "Let's go boys. We're burnin' daylight."

I was actually referring to the fact that all trees are made of what is essentially solar energy stored as cellulose and fructose. The process of photosynthesis uses the suns energy to combine and refigure the Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen from air and water and create the cellulose that makes up the cellular structure. We burn it, and the potential energy locked up in the chemistry is released as heat energy.

Of course, if we are burning oil or coal or any fossil fuel, we are still burning stored sunshine. It's just that it's been in storage for a couple million years longer.

I'm guessing your book follows a different line. ;-)

Thanks for your comment.

Marilyn Pavlovsky said...

Yes, my book does follow a different line. It is about a woman who always told her family to get up, You're Burning Sunshine. A lot of people say Burning Daylight meaning the same thing. Your reference to Burning Sunshine is quite interesting as well. Thanks for letting me know about it.