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Lance Morrow: How to Keep Warm

( -- Bow hunting season started. The first Canadian cold comes down, air like wolves. Leaves descend today in a steady downpour, and in a week the trees will be all but bare, and will revert to dark wrought iron: November. Oil prices could rise 40 percent, to a 10-year high.

Previous Columns by Lance Morrow

It may be a rough winter.

I locked in my heating oil at $1.38. My neighbor brought three cords of firewood the other day and dumped them on the grass in front of the house by the basement door. I have an Everest of logs to split and stack. I wonder if they will last til April. We're thinking about buying a second woodstove.

How to keep warm: Jefferson burned 40 cords of wood to get Monticello through one (relatively mild) Virginia winter. But Jefferson had a fancy standard of living. I live much farther north. I use four or five cords in a bad winter, and 2,000 gallons of heating oil.

But, as a pessimist, I'm getting ready for an atavistic, pre-petroleum winter. I stand in the yard, knee-deep in bright orange maple leaves, and study the grain of the firewood, lazily choosing the straight grains first, the ones without knots or ropey torques that will clutch the blade and hold it, stuck like Excalibur. Splitting wood is a crude, rustic version of diamond cutting. Read the grain right and strike it there, and the wood bifurcates (CHUNK!) with satisfying algebraic cleanness.

Keeping warm can be a primitive but pleasing science. In a fireplace, you organize the logs in harmonious balance between wood and air -- fuel for the flames to lick and curl about and combust, encouraged by just the right oxygen and draw. A good fire is self-consuming architecture.

The trouble, of course, is that most of the heat flows up the chimney. Count Rumford's 18th-century fireplace design (shallower, built to throw more heat back into the room) helps a bit, but the basic idea remains Paleolithic. We live in a dark, cold cave. There have been times during sub-zero winter power blackouts (one of them lasted for four or five days) when we have pulled a futon next to the fire and slept there, curled up as close as we could get to the heat without igniting the blankets. On the other hand, the woodstove in the kitchen radiates efficient gemutlichkeit -- a cloying heat, like the house on a Thanksgiving afternoon that has gone on too long.

Keeping warm, if you must work at it over a period of time, is an exhausting business. It's hard to stay clean. The effort (chopping wood, building fires, heating water) coats you with a fine sweat, like a delicate machine oil, which then acquires admixtures of woodsmoke and ash. If the hot water heater is gone, you don't wash much, or thoroughly.

Then there's Fred, the heating unit of last resort. Fred is the dog. This is not life as Jefferson knew it at Monticello. You pile Fred on for extra warmth in extremis. But you think about it first.

To begin with, there is the possibility of fleas. Fred has been known to carry an infestation -- though not lately. The second problem is that Fred, in the last year or so, has begun to snore, loudly and almost humanly. Fred is not one of those neurotic watchdogs that spring up barking at every sound in the night. Fred enjoys his sleep -- deep, snoring sleep. Any kick short of actionable cruelty to animals merely causes Fred to stir and rearrange himself and go back to snoring.

The other downside is that Fred smells doggy -- not flagrantly, but enough. He's a farm dog. He gets around. He rolls around. All energy choices involve tradeoffs, and that includes Fred.

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