At Home in New Hampshire > Adventures with Wood

On a winter night three years ago, I trudged over the crusted snow in my back yard to empty the ash can. The temperature hovered around ten degrees, and the wind plowed off the pond like a wall of ice. I dumped the woodstove ashes, which had been sitting for forty eight hours to cool in a snowbank, on to the compost pile and hurried back to the house. I was heating up a pot of soup a few minutes later when my neighbor rapped on the door.

“There’s a fire in your back yard,” he said.

I stepped to the porch to see flames leaping skyward. Only later did I have time to reflect on the remarkable calm of my neighbor at that moment, who added rather casually, “Do you have a shovel or something?”

The shovel was in the shed, in the opposite direction of the fire. Too far, I thought. I dashed downstairs to the basement, grabbed the metal scoop I use to empty the ashes from the woodstove and went flying across the snow brandishing the thing (no larger than a big spoon), realizing only as I reached the compost pile how utterly ineffective this tool was and how absurd I must look. By the time I got there, my neighbor was stirring the ashes with a big stick and the fire was more or less out.

As you might have guessed, I did not grow up in New Hampshire. I spent Adventures with Wood By Katherine Towler Illustration by Tucker Stilley my formative years in Manhattan and, before moving to New Hampshire seventeen years ago, lived almost exclusively in apartments where the “yard” consisted of a front stoop. Everything about home ownership and the management of a quarter acre of land has contained an element of adventure. I knew I had truly left my city ways behind, though, when I began heating with wood.

My husband and I had a woodstove insert installed in our fireplace because it was more practical than the fireplace, which we rarely used, and we thought the orange glow behind a glass door would look pretty. However, we quickly discovered that the stove, with its blower, would heat the house if we kept the fire stoked. I may have grown up in New York, but I come from New England Yankee roots, and once I realized how much money the woodstove could save us, the rhythms of tending the fire came to rule my winter days. I learned the difference between ash and birch, which woods burn longer and hotter, and which are best for getting a fire to catch. My first act on rising became restarting the fire, my last before going to bed became picking the perfect logs and filling the stove to capacity.

Other than the mishap of the backyard fire—which occurred the first winter, before we had worked out a better system for handling ashes (two ash cans and longer than forty-eight hours for cooling are now involved)—our woodstove adventure has been relatively hassle-free, although I will be the first to admit that it involves plenty of work. By the time March rolls around, I’m sick of hauling wood, and checking every hour to see if the fire needs tending no longer has the homey charm it held in November.

But even in the doldrums of mud season, I love the warmth at the heart of the house. The stove gives off a rich, dependable heat that is nothing like the wisps of lukewarm air that emanate from the heat registers. I’m no longer afraid of temperatures that fall below zero or the January winds. Like a born-and-bred New Hampshirite, I meet the coming of winter with a certain bravado and pat myself on the back for the money saved, although I know that heating with wood is not something I do only out of frugality. There are other, more fundamental rewards: the night sky carpeted with stars above the woodpile, and the cats curled together on the hearth.