Last Fall we installed a wood stove in our home, and turned off the furnace. Yesterday, we lit it again, and broke out the long merino underwear. Both will remain in more or less steady use through May. Honestly, we missed the pleasures of the stove even in July.
This stove, about 500 pounds of handsome soapstone and iron, has completed our acclimation to Portland’s colder three seasons since we moved here from a balmy San Francisco microclimate in 2004.
Before the stove, in this drafty old house with loads of single-pane on the south, we spent the gray months in a tightwad dilemma of whether to run the thermostat high to hold the chill at bay, or low to feed a faltering conceit of hardy frugality. Even run high, blowing warm air all over the house offered only thin comfort. No more.
What does this have to do with biking? We can’t really tell where biking stops and the rest of life begins, but this connection to everyday biking feels as natural as that to, say, backyard chickens or slow food or knitting or beards. It’s just another thread of the Portlander good-life conspiracy.
Riding every day year-round means exposure to extremes: beautiful, bracing, invigorating, enervating, excruciating, sometimes all at the same time. Coming in from even a few miles of cold wet riding — the CSA pickup or Costco run, the soccer practice or swim lesson, the dinner-at-friends, the commute — often means coming in with a chill, or damp from rain and sweat, or both. And for banishing a chill, and drying out clothes, and brightening your insides, nothing beats the gentle, penetrating radiance of a heavy stone stove. The room we have it in — formerly almost unused — has become a living working hearth, the center of the household, where everybody wants to be. A dutch oven sits atop with soup or stew. Pillows and chairs and board games ring the wool rug in front, while coats and boots and slippers toast in the corner.
With forced air central heat, we tended to hunker down in the tepid drafts, layering on the wool, and avoiding the shock of opening a door. The uniformity of central thermostatic heating makes it unpleasant to engage and adapt bodily to the reality outside, isolating too completely from the season. In this respect it is akin to cars, whose mass, noise, speed, and enclosure deny their operators real presence in the places they pass through.
In contrast, using the stove instead of a central furnace builds cold tolerance and hardiness, making outdoor errands afoot or awheel that much less forbidding. With the stove, unless fired full tilt, all the far corners of the house aren’t a whole lot warmer than outside. The bathrooms are often in the 40s; the kitchen not much warmer. The bedrooms: better be under heavy bedding with your love or a sack of marbles heated on the stove. During last winter’s freak Portland “snowpocalypse,” there was often ice glazing the far windows. None of this is miserable, though, because your comings and goings through these cold spaces end back at the stove, where you can be barefoot and sweating if you like. It’s like an open-air hot tub, a sensual delight. This constant exposure to wide temperature swings takes the sting out of Portland’s chill. Within a month of firing it up, in the mornings we’d marvel at how comfortable we felt working in the 50F kitchen in pajamas as the stove came back up to heat.
Riding your bike, growing and cooking your food, and heating your home with wood alike affirm that daily life processes of moving, eating and dwelling are best embraced actively and deliberately instead of by motor proxy or automated abstraction. We laid in our heat in June, seasoned it, and will mete it out mindfully piece by fragrant piece in hundreds of slippered trips to the woodshed over the coming months. Sure it’s romantic, but utterly appropriate, practical, and sufficient, like getting around by bike in Portland.
While we’re more comfortable than ever, we’re bringing far less total heat into our home than before; the average temperature is way down. Since wood heat, BTU for BTU, is comparable in cost to natural gas currently, this means we save money. Secondarily, the cold kitchen means the refrigerator doesn’t work as hard; our bills for both gas and electricity plummeted last winter. Wood is a local, renewable resource, nearly carbon neutral over a cycle of decades assuming rational management (big assumption, unfortunately). Both the state of Oregon and the US government offer substantial tax breaks for installing high efficiency, EPA-approved biomass heating systems like this.
Local bikey blogger Jeremy Towsey-French began sharing his similar home heating project near the same time we installed our stove. Clever Cycles partner family the Mullins leapt with us, too; we share wood delivery now. So did local bike messenger Joel Metz: soapstone as well. So did my parents on the east coast: same model as Joel. It’s as if an odorless smoke signal to get wood stoves went up within our circle near and far, without any of us talking about it directly.