Monthly Archives: October 2013

Heating our Home with Local Wood

This morning I stepped outside and almost fell right on my butt. There was a slick layer of ice on the front steps. Ice coated my car windshield as well, necessitating the familiar ritual of windshield scraping. As the day progressed, it warmed up a little, but then an Alberta Clipper crested the Worcester range and Mount Hunger faded and then disappeared behind snow. In Montpelier it is raining – 35 and raining as the sun sets. We’ll get some snow, or else freezing rain, if the storm sticks around a bit.

Most of October experienced well above average temperatures, so the rapid transition to cold and ice feels abrupt. Of course, these cold temperatures are not all that far below average for late October. The heating season is really getting going.

One of the neat things about the house we bought this spring is an old Sam Daniels wood furnace. The furnace sits in the basement and is surrounded by a series of vents and a fan. The fan sporadically turns on when the furnace gets hot and blows the heat through the house. Unfortunately our chimney turned out to need to be rebuilt, but with this being done the furnace is good to go. We also have an oil furnace, but plan to use mainly the wood furnace.

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I think the wood furnace looks like it is making a sad face.

There are lots of advantages to heating with wood in Vermont. The hardwood forests can be harvested sustainably, and firewood is mostly a byproduct of timber harvest anyway, as smaller and crooked logs can’t be turned into lumber. As long as forests are not removed permanently, wood heat does not add any net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, nor is it affected by all the environmental, economical, and political problems associated with obtaining oil. It can be much cheaper than heating oil. If we have a tree blow down, we can burn it. It works when the power goes out, albeit a bit less effectively (the fan of course won’t run). One downside is having to deal with the wood, which can be hard work and isn’t for everyone. As for the actual act of maintaining the fire, that i really enjoy. So far. We’ll see if I still do in March. The other (very minor) downside is I can’t see the fire unless I go down into the basement.

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This is about three cords of wood. We bought six. We have no idea how much we will need, nor how much oil we will end up using (which we will mainly use when we are gone for longer periods of time or during extreme cold).

We have been very safety conscious because we have a friend who had a house fire due to a (very different) wood stove setup. We’ve got a metal lined chimney and the furnace is in the basement surrounded by concrete, far from anything flammable. Unlike the previous owner, apparently, we’ll be cleaning the chimney each year, though apparently the risk of dangerous chimney fires in a metal-lined chimney is low.

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I’ve got a lot to learn about the furnace and wood heating. At first I’d get the basement all smoky each time I lit it, but I learned how to prepare the fire and manipulate the vents to get the fire going without having to open the furnace door after the fire is lit. I’m not sure how hot to get the fire though, as people have told me ‘you can burn this furnace really hot’ but I don’t have any context for that. I’m sure stuffing it full with pine needles and throwing in a match is unwise, but on the other hand I am wondering if my frugal ‘only use three logs at a time, stacked triangularly’ strategy is not the best one here. The fan isn’t turning on much and that may mean the heating is less efficient. I’m not sure if larger or smaller diameter logs are best. The wood itself needed a bit of seasoning when we got it. The warm, dry fall conditions so far have dried it out quite a bit, as evidenced by the ‘checking’ (cracked ends) on the wood. However, I brought some of the wood into the basement too early, and it isn’t as dry. They say burning green wood can get the chimney gunked up, but this definitely isn’t green wood… still I’ve been mostly sticking to the ash, which has a lower moisture content than other hardwoods, for the start of the heating season. I haven’t tried burning any buckthorn wood yet, but I will at some point.

In any event, it will be fun to see how it goes.

Fading Fall Colors Reveal Vermont’s Oaks

Amidst all of Vermont’s beautiful fall foliage, oaks are not often mentioned. They don’t have the vivid fire red of red maple leaves or the shining gold of sugar maple or aspen leaves. Viewed from afar, red oak, Vermont’s most common oak species, is somewhat underwhelming in terms of fall color. Up close, on the other hand, the color of individual leaves can be amazing, but the colors run together from a distance.

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I couldn’t believe that leaf was real! But it was… we saved it and pressed it and while the colors have muted some they are still amazing (the leaf is at least seven inches long).

There is something else special about oak foliage though… oaks, or at least red oak, change color later than other tree species and keep their leaves longer. (Beech, a relative of oak, also doesn’t drop its leaves readily but they are distinguishable from oak from afar).

During this time of year, the red oaks of Montpelier’s Hubbard Park become readily apparent as the leaves blow away from the maples and birches.

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Excuse the silly filter… the light greens and yellows in the background are all oaks, with dark green pines beyond.

Here’s an even more extreme example – look to the ridge in the distance on the right for an area of olive-green…

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This oak grove is visible from the top of Mount Hunger, looking west. This places the oaks on the top and slope of a southwest-facing ridge. Red oak in Vermont tends to favor those sorts of areas because it’s near the limit of its cold tolerance and also likes drier areas – south and southwest facing slopes catch lots of sun and create microclimates that favor oaks.

Looking back at Mount Hunger from the west you can see the oaks, just barely, on the far right of the photo below. You can also see how elevation affects foliage, with the trees higher up having lost their leaves already. The highest areas support spruce and fir which are of course evergreen and thus do not lose their needles.

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These oaks happen to extend down to the trail up the mountain so we also saw some up close…

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This tapestry of tree species and their corresponding colors is useful as well as beautiful. Oaks are important to track for a variety of reasons. They are important to many species of wildlife, from bears to squirrels. They tolerate harsh conditions and hold the soils. They are indicators of various changes… increases in temperature may increase their range, but increases in precipitation happening at the same time may offset that. Changes in land use may favor or discourage them, and it seems all the tree species in Vermont are vulnerable to one sort of disease or another. During both the summer and the winter the oaks blend in with the other hardwood tree species, but during October and early November, they jump out to be seen by anyone who is looking.

When we are really lucky, someone takes aerial photos during the fall, and we can map the distributions of oak in very fine detail.

In this air photo you can see the oaks as green blobs, with ‘pokey’ green conifers scattered about and colorful maples, birches, and perhaps hickory also visible.

Here’s an iNaturalist map of where red oak has been reported. It occurs in about half the state, in the Champlain Valley and Connecticut River Valley, and the major rivers that bisect the Green Mountains but is largely absent from the higher mountains and most of the northeastern part of the state. If you’d like to contribute to this map, now is a great time to do so as the oaks are still very visible. There are other oak species that can be found in Vermont too, including white oak, burr oak, and swamp white oak, but these are much more limited in range. All of these seem to keep their leaves longer than other hardwoods, so they should be increasingly visible in the warmer areas where they occur and where other trees drop their leaves later.

Don’t Forget to See the Beauty

There’s a lot of politics going on right now. Believe me, I’m as pissed off as most other people, even though my job is not directly affected. Still, I don’t think I have that much to add, and meanwhile Vermont is in the midst of the most beautiful fall in recent memory (disclaimer: they are all the most beautiful in memory because it isn’t possible to remember how beautiful it is after it is gone).

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I’ve modified some of these photos to accentuate the color. They may look a bit ‘fake’ but believe me when I say… in person the colors are far more vibrant than even these modified photos. I don’t know how it is possible… but it is true.

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The photos that I didn’t modify seemed oddly dull, and nothing like reality…

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It’s really one of the wonders of the natural world, and worth seeing at least once in your life, if you have the opportunity. I’m lucky that I am able to see it every year, right outside my window.

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Perhaps the owner of this building doesn’t see the beauty in this, but it’s very striking. My parents came to visit last week, so I spent quite a bit of time ‘leaf peeping’ with them and enjoying showing Vermont to two people who had spent almost no time here in the past. Doing this always is a reminder not to take things for granted, though it’s hard to take something so vibrant for granted…

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So a few thoughts and quotes and more pictures of the beauty that we are so lucky to be surrounded by…

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Driving home I see those flooded fields
How can people not know what beauty this is?
I’ve taken it for granted my whole life
Since the day I was born

~Neko Case, fellow Vermont transplant (she lives just over the hills somewhere)… <a href="http://nekocase.com/music/discography/fox-confessor-brings-the-flood/ (this song will always remind me of maples turning red early in the fall of 2011 when they were inundated by Irene’s horrible floods.)

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i hope that I don’t sound too
insane when I say there is darkness
all around us
i don’t feel weak but i do
need sometimes for her to protect me
and reconnect me
to the beauty
that i’m missing

~the avett brothers, January Wedding (we aren’t actually getting married until next summer 🙂 )

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headed north, the rain it turned to snow
through rusty towns and dusty gravel roads
i said grandpa, where is this thing you wanted to show me
he said kid, you’ve got a long way to go.

cloud cult, ‘transistor radio’

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and of course…

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
― Edward Abbey

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i flooded my sleeves as i drove home again