This winter was our first Central European rather than Hunan-Chinese winter (for my wife; for me, the first in a while), with temperatures not only going down to around freezing, but down to -20C, but with heating.
(Hunan is one of China’s provinces south of the Yangtze, thus subtropical, thus getting no heating installed in the apartments.)

The contrast made the heating come to prominence as both necessity and quite a luxury, and working on the ecology of happiness and writing here made such everyday action – turning on central heating, heating with the woodstove – receive all the more attention.

It is this which has led me to the observation that the tools we constantly use, and the habits that are created by and with their use, are of tremendous influence – and all the more so because they disappear into the background.

Here’s how it is:

Central heating is comfortable and convenient.
It is also, once you stop to think about it, amazingly dependent on certain conditions, and therefore really fickle.
Yes, when it all works as it should, you just set up the timer as you want it, et voilá, heated rooms.
It takes the gas that the boiler uses to get hot water, the electricity to run the whole system that controls it all, though – and that’s just after all the materials have been used to produce the equipment and after it’s all been set up.

The convenience also makes it only too easy to just heat every room, and heat them all to a temperature that makes it unnecessary to dress in clothing appropriate for the season. The skill and attention required is close to nil: how much do you need to know to turn something on?

Heating up the woodstove also requires you to have one, first of all, and then to have wood, and to know how to handle it all – but trees and the tools to chop them, as well as the knowledge of how to make and handle it all, are rather less fickle than “more developed” technology.
Admittedly, I’ve seen enough people fire up such a stove using a ton of paper and thinking they are doing good because it did start burning, and the creativity and knowledge that goes into constructing and setting up different kinds of stoves is even more underrated than the skill it takes to heat with it.

It is a knowledge of technology and technique that’s been around for centuries, however, and that a child can learn.

Starting fire in the stove

Making the kindling, chopping the wood, building the firewood up in the oven so that it catches nicely, without a need for paper to use as kindling, without a need to even blow and fan the flames, perhaps … it’s all a more resilient, skill-building, and connecting activity. The stove I have in my living room may be relatively new, or it could be a hundred years old – and if need be, I could even cook on it.

Preparing the wood, doing all that has to be done – of course it requires time, but it also builds a relationship and shows the activity and personal influence that living really is, even in these times of consumerist activity and attitude making it look as if life were nothing but a series of commercial transactions in which we had just about no influence and power.

I’d had the idea of this post running around my head for a long time, and a Facebook status update by Chelsea Green Publishing I just saw today made it finally move to pixels…

Chelsea Green Publishing

“My woodstove is my sanctuary lamp. As it burns, it symbolizes the presence of the life force of nature keeping my family alive through the cold death of winter, keeping us safe – or as safe as life can be, despite civilization’s determination to destroy itself. By keeping my sanctuary lamp burning, I celebrate the possibility of everlasting life right here on earth.” Gene Logsdon:

A Sanctuary of Trees by Gene Logsdon – Chelsea Green [this link changed to point to]

A philosophical look at woodlands, forest gardening, and what humans can learn from wood.

Now, not everyone could heat, let alone cook, on a woodstove, and the pollution would get us right back to Victorian London’s “fog.” (In fact, the smoke from wood, or often enough dung, cooking fires is one of the greatest health threats affecting the lives of many of the world’s poor people -and one that could be mitigated.)

Around here, though, seeing stacks of firewood around many houses is a sign that we are not only dependent on the industrial machinery, but could still draw on at least some of the older ways that have been more dependent on nature’s bounty, but also rather more resilient, working with nature’s ways. (The very word “sustainability” – or at least it’s German antecedent “Nachhaltigkeit” – in fact came from the context of forestry.)

It’s an observation, reading ever more about the potential for a collapse of civilization, that gives me at least some hope in these blingy but darkening times.

Stacked firewood on back road