Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Burning Things

I get a kick out of burning wood. I like the way it warms our house, cooks our food, and brightens our walls. I especially like burning the scraps and rubbish left from building our house and restoring the property, like the way it makes our 5 acres tidier and safer to walk around.

Sally has just reminded me that when I fish, I take pains to use every part of the fish I catch and kill. “Like an Indian,” she says. The same goes for wood. The wood from clearing the land of “weed trees.” The wood from pruning the fruit and nut and olive trees and grape vines back to health. The wood scraps left by the Brandinis in rubbish piles around the house. And the worm eaten scrap ends of the beams, runners, shutters and sills from the old capanna (sharecropper’s shack). I respect it all like an Indian does a deer.

From the end of one of the old cypress beams, I used a puny crosscut saw to hand-cut the 4 massive legs that now hold up our rustic-elegant travertine dinning table.

From the ceiling and floor runners (corrente) I fashioned the outside dining table that now sits under the cane and castagna (chestnut) I pegged and lashed together into our shade-giving pergola. Two shutters perched on ancient hand made bricks serve as our front and back porch benches. With what’s left after that, I plan to make end tables, bookshelves, and other useful things. But from the rotten saw ends and worm eaten bits left over from this constructive recycling I am staying warm and heating a kettle for a cup of delicious Pu-er tea.

Carbon footprint? One way or the other this wood already has one. Left to rot or buried in a dump, it would give up its stored carbon as methane, a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So burning it efficiently is the lesser of evils, especially when it saves us from burning propane fossil fuel delivered by a gas powered delivery truck, or from heating with electricity generated by a coal-fired power plant.

Air Pollution? Except for a small puff when I light it, there is no smoke visible from our insulated copper chimney. All the big carbon molecules are broken down into simple water and CO2.

Efficiency? The wood I am burning right now has warmed me thrice: Once when I labored to gather it, once when I cut and stacked it, and now as it dances with flame. Its smoke is sweet from plant sugars, salty from my sweat, and complex from the alchemy of the hearth. Till now, besides the sun through our windows, our super efficient Morso 6140 exhaust gas recycling wood stove has been our only source of heat. Only today, after returning to our shuttered house after a week away at Paris Photo, have I turned on the riscaldamento sottopavimento (under floor heating system) to help bring things up to speed. Ours runs on solar heated water and a tiny bit of propane when that is not enough. Usually it is. The rest of the time we only use it to keep the house at a baseline temperature and top off what we need with wood. In this way, in our small house, which is no more than we need, we use no more space, electricity, gas, or water than necessary. And in this way, we are leaving the faintest outline of a footprint rimmed with carbon.

Another thing I like: kindling fires with drafts of what I write.