Staying Warm

By John Piotti | Jan 16, 2014

We installed a new wood stove in December. (A new stove for us, that is; we bought it used.)

For the past 26 winters, we’ve been living with the old clunker that came with our ancient farmhouse. That stove was ugly, cracked, dangerous, didn’t hold a fire and produced little heat. Other than that, we had few complaints.

Buying a new stove was the next logical step in the home improvements we’ve pursued over the past two years, which also included placing insulation in the wall cavities and replacing leaky windows. In theory, our house can now be warm, even when the temperature is -20 outside.

Of course, the fact that our house can be warm, doesn’t mean that it is. Until the new stove arrived, having an insulated and tighter home didn’t result in higher temperatures, just that the furnace didn’t have to kick on throughout the night to keep the house at forty-five, or, for that matter, during the day to keep the kitchen ell where all the duct work converges at fifty-five.

But the new stove has changed everything. A couple of logs on the fire and we can sit in the ell in comfort without wearing long underwear and thick wool sweaters. It’s amazing!

We lit our first fire in this amazing stove the day our daughter Anna arrived from Bowdoin for Christmas break. I worry that may have been a mistake.

Before arriving home, Anna had been complaining about the oppressive heat of college dorms and classrooms — excessive heat that is provided, no doubt, to prevent coddled students from points south from griping to their tuition-paying parents. Our house — in its old, cold state— may have pushed Anna to long for the warmth of college while home, but I suspect Bowdoin would have still felt way too warm on her return. Now I wonder. I fear that she may be becoming used to heat.

In fact, I worry that the whole family may be going soft.

True, the kitchen ell is the only part of the house that really benefits from the wood stove. Our bedroom, for instance, still hovers in the low fifties throughout winter, and our son John’s bedroom still approaches freezing on some nights. But the fact that one part of the house is generally warm has changed us. We clearly dress lighter. And we now feel awful when we leave home for too long to keep the fire going.

It seems to me that even the cats have been changed by all this warmth. One cat does nothing but sleep — even as mice engage in raucous play under the kitchen sink. Heat is an opiate for that one. The other cat’s behavior has changed in the opposite direction: it’s as if she is on stimulants.

For the past month, that second cat, who is Anna’s cat, has been running about madly, climbing walls, and pouncing unexpectedly. Now, perhaps the warm house is not causing that behavior directly, but I feel there’s a clear link. That’s because, without the new stove, Anna would not be spending as much time in the house during vacation, and it is Anna’s presence, I’m convinced, that has made that cat crazy.

With the old stove — the one we didn’t trust and that didn’t retain much heat — we had a special way to stay modestly warm. We’d place good Maine rocks on top of the stove, where they would heat up. We’d then wrap the hot rocks in towels or folds of our sweaters or bath robes, taking their warmth with us to the kitchen table or to the couch to read a book or watch a movie.

The family had over the years amassed a large number of rocks, all collected during summer sailing trips. Like all families, we bring back souvenirs from our vacations. In our case, they are invariably found items — shells, beach glass, drift wood, various oddities that wash up ashore, and countless rocks.

Every year, it’s the same. We pledge before stepping ashore at the first landfall in our summer cruise that this year we will not be seeking new rocks. Oh maybe, if there is a small one that is extraordinarily smooth or perfectly round or especially colorful, perhaps we’ll collect it; but there will be no wholesale collection. But at some point in every cruise, we abandon this plan and we come home with dozens.

Sometimes we go to amazing lengths. I have hiked miles across rough coastal terrain with a backpack full of fifty pounds of rocky treasures. Once I walked three quarters of the way around a large offshore island — a trip of maybe 8 miles — carrying a wondrous granite orb eleven inches in diameter.

Each of these rocks has a story — though to be honest, we have brought home so many rocks over so many years that many details have been forgotten. But we still remember a lot. We think back on the year we collected all those rocks that looked like speckled eggs, and the time we scoured the shorefront in search of rocks in the shape of U.S. states. (We never got beyond a handful of those.)

The old adage is that wood heats you multiple times — when you cut it, when you split it, when you stack it, and when you burn it. But when your wood heats rocks you collected on Maine islands, you are also warmed by the memories of summers past.

We’ve placed a few of our favorite rocks on the new wood stove, but it’s a nostalgic impulse with no real utility. The rocks sit there untouched because they are no longer needed to keep us warm.

News flash: Anna enters the kitchen where I’m writing, filling the room with her usual bounce-off-the-walls energy. It’s late at night, and the household is about to go to bed, and no one will be home tomorrow, yet Anna pleads: “Daddy, the fire’s going out! Shouldn’t we be worried?!”

No Anna, I’m not that worried. Just warm.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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