When the power went out last week, I felt the temperature dropping inside my house as the hours went by. I knew that if it didn’t come on by morning, I’d have to take my kids to someone else’s house where there was an alternative source of heating. I suddenly felt vulnerable. Here I live in a snowy region of Ontario, Canada, where the winter lasts a good five months, and yet I rely entirely on a gas furnace that relies on an electric thermostat to function.
As I sat shivering, I thought longingly about Raven, the wood-burning cookstove that presides over my childhood home. She (yes, she has a gender, thanks to my mom’s obsession with naming inanimate objects) is an old Findlay Oval stove, with a squat cast iron body and firebox, a large water heater, spacious oven, and tall black stovepipe. A copper rack hangs from the ceiling, where just-washed pots can drip and sizzle themselves dry.
Raven straddles the invisible divide between the kitchen and dining room, but her heat spreads throughout the main floor. Upstairs, on the other hand, it’s so cold that getting out of bed is agonizing torture. Wet boots or snowy mittens placed on the slate floor beneath Raven dry quickly and are toasty warm when you put them on again. There’s usually a pot of beans simmering on the cooktop, or bread in the oven. People gravitate to Raven. Sometimes they’re surprised and delighted to see a functioning cookstove, or else they love having a warm spot to read a book. As the day goes by, however, Raven becomes so hot that we move away to cool off.
I used to resent Raven because my sister and I were responsible for feeding her voracious appetite. It’s said that firewood heats a person four times over – chopping, stacking, hauling, burning – and I know it’s true. I've spent many hours in the bush with my dad, processing fallen logs and brush. Raven consumes wood rapidly, but in return she fills the house with a warm, dry, cozy heat that no electric or gas furnace can possibly replicate.
Now, in my own home, I’ve traded the quaintness of a cookstove for the convenience of instant heat at the touch of a button, but something has been lost in the process. I’ve become disconnected from the source of heat that originally enabled people to survive in cold regions. There is carelessness that comes with not having to carefully dole out firewood. I can crank up the heat without ‘working’ for it (except paying that monthly bill). I am also dependent on a power grid system that’s frequently unreliable. Last week’s outage made me realize that, when the system fails, I’m unable to keep my family warm – and that’s disturbing.
It wouldn’t be sustainable for everyone in cold regions to use wood heat, nor would everyone want to, but it does provide the solid reassurance of self-sufficiency, which many of us lack. Someday I hope to have a Raven of my own, but for now I’ll get my fix while visiting home during the holidays.