They say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.
I was wearing bad clothes.
Bare feet sheathed only in Ugg slippers. Lightweight polyester-cotton blend long johns two sizes too short. An eleven year old City Sports t-shirt, faded from long-ago beach trips and more recent haying expeditions. Unbuttoned beige-colored Patagonia chore coat with a pair of yellow cowhide driving gloves sprouting uselessly from the pocket. Four day layer of facial stubble. Trusty red plaid Mackinaw cap.
I looked like a hobo. A very cold hobo. A very cold hobo that was no match for the elements.
Still there was a savage, exotic beauty to the scene. The barnyard was dead silent. Overnight lows had reached seven below with windchills another twenty degrees beyond that. A persistent gusting southwest wind stirred fresh snow into driving forty-five-degree sheets of silvery grey static.
In spring milder versions of that same wind signal time to plant tomatoes, tune the equipment, and shear the sheep. Summer winds bring the rain that quenches the thirsty pastures, offering damp, sweet respite from the furious heat and hungry mosquitoes. Then the beloved golden-crisp autumn winds gently suggest that it might well be a good time to stack the last of the firewood, haul the cattle to the butcher, press and sauce the apples, and get some pumpkin pies in the oven.
But the frighteningly efficient wee hour February winds say something very different. Somewhere along the well-worn and snowpacked track between home and woodshed they howled a much simpler and more direct instruction. Get back inside with that firewood, Boy, before you freeze to death.
And so I did. I went inside, raked the overnight coals and placed several hunks of seasoned white oak in the box. I watched the soft grey wisps of smoke gently spill up around the wood and into the flue. It is, in my opinion, the most underrated perk of wood heat. The anticipation. Those few short moments, waiting for the coals to do what coals since the beginning of man have always done. Eventually the box will practically burst into flames, but not right away.
It gives you a chance to catch your thoughts.
I thought about the office. Because it’s that time of year when, in the spirit of breaking the ice, it’s almost obligatory to begin a conference call by decrying the nasty weather. But man has devised clever ways around conference call cold. It can generally be cured with the flip of a switch. Fire up the German-engineered remote start. Boot up the heated leather seat. Crank up the thermostat. Book a last-minute Caribbean cruise. Just put it on the Amex.
But every last BTU of the deep, earthy wood heat I was about to experience had already been earned. We made payment long ago on those late autumn afternoons we spent limbing and bucking the twisted piles deep in the wooded groves. And another on those blistering July afternoons, as we patiently split and stacked the rounds, hands bulging with blisters, bodies dripping with perspiration, lips thirsting for another glass of ice-cold lemonade.
There is a certain consciousness to wood heat. A reminder of man’s small place in this large, untamed world. That even the smallest of luxuries comes at a price. That nothing is free. That few things worth getting come with a coupon.
And so I sat back in the big green chair, watching the plume of smoke grow larger. The kitchen clock read 6:04. It would be another hour before the kids started filtering downstairs. But for the hissing crescendo of oak logs about to spontaneously combust there wasn’t a sound in the house.
Then it happened. Those blessed first flames. Then those precious accompanying waves of heat. I watched transfixed as the near-silent flickering gradually give way to a roaring, blazing fire.
Finally I felt warm.
I also felt a lot of other things. Wonder. Comfort. Gratitude.
I felt alive.