Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Primitive Modernism

It's only dawned on me today why women - or at least one person - traditionally worked in the home. In the days before push-button central heating, it was a full-time job just to keep the fires in to heat the house (and cook and heat water). I knew I had some paperwork to do today so I got up at 6 a.m. to get the wood burner going in the front room so it would be roaring and I wouldn't have to reenact Bob Cratchit's scene in A Christmas Carol.
Both fires are going - in the front room and in the back room. The front room wood burner burns coal so it requires regular trips to the coal bunker out back to refill the bucket, and top up the fire.

The back room woodstove only burns wood. I nurtured it back to life from last night's embers, and fed it all the wood I had in the room. Out to the log pile to split a couple barrowfuls more. Then back to shake down the bed of ash in the front room, and back again to prod the back room fire. And again to the front room fire to empty the ash. And to the back room again to feed the wood in, which burns twice as quick as the coal.

I'm going to need to put a revolving door in between the rooms.

There is something holiday-ish and cozy about a fire, I don't deny that. But only when it's supplemental to modern heat. Otherwise it's an unending chore. We do have central heating - installed 4 years ago. The house was previously "heated" using a solid fuel burning system that allegedly pumped heat to radiators throughout the house. Mike disputes its effectiveness.

But our wood is free, our coal is cheap and the central heating burns oil which is not. So I chop and stack and feed the never-satiated stoves. This is my new second job.

And it's not unique to us. The BBC news report this morning said that 6.5 million Britons live in substandard housing, which includes bathrooms that are not attached to their house. Yes - outhouses. The first apartment I looked at in England had an unheated 2nd bathroom at the bottom of the garden, and the rental people seemed to think it was normal.

I'm not saying we compare to developing nations' living conditions but we certainly fall short of first world conveniences. Like bathrooms not at the bottom of the garden.

We only have one bathroom, but it is heated and inside the house (another tick in the 'modern' box). However, at least once a day I need to 'spend a penny' and either the bathroom's occupied or I'm too lazy to take my boots and rain gear off to walk on the carpet (another tick) and I sneak behind the house to where the drain is. We've affectionately termed this our 'en-suite'. I've learned to pee really fast when it's raining.

What life choice did I make that has put me in a position where I have limited access to indoor plumbing?

Yet we have wi-fi and a laptop (albeit an ancient IBM ThinkPad).

I'm not against modern improvements. Any tool, be it an axe or a computer, is useful if it makes the job more efficient and easier to accomplish. I watched our mate Colin with his tractor-mounted hedge trimmer trim our front hedge this morning. In minutes. From the warm dry cab of the tractor. I've cut that hedge with a hand-held petrol hedge trimmer for the last few years and I can confirm that cutting it with a tractor is a vast improvement on my quality of life at least.

Bless you, Colin

When I was head gardener, I used to cut all these topiary by hand with a frame, secateurs, and a hedge trimmer. Before me they were done with shears and a lot more human labor. I used to cut the lawn with a petrol mower. Not long ago they were cut with gang mowers pulled by horses wearing special shoes so their hoof prints wouldn't mark the lawn. I like some of the 'old ways' but I can appreciate that technology can bring improvement. A horse and plow was an improvement over hand hoeing.

An example of the horses shoes courtesy of The British Lawnmower Museum website

This is what inspired my thoughts today while poking the fires. And this is the result of my efforts:

I will refrain from making a hot dog joke.


Pomona said...

We heat with woodburners, too - so the supply of wood is a constant concern - and keeping it dry. I put a couple of kettles of water on top of the stove and it is a way of getting 'free' hot water during the day for washing up, etc. Like you, our central heating is oil, so we only put it on frost setting so the pipes don't freeze. I am sitting here wearing about six layers of clothes, but it is amazing how you get used to it!

I think those extra hearth rugs are absorbing most of your heat, I think!

Pomona x

Paula said...

We heat with wood as well, but by choice and not out of necessity. I am at home unemployed these days, and since my husband works at home, I keep the fire going. I've been wondering lately what he will do when I go back to work, since he's not as fire-savvy as I am.

I also put pots of water on to boil for the washing up and for tea. Speaking of which, a cup sounds good right now...

Tamar said...

I feel your pain. Our woodstove is a supplement to the oil burner, but our wood is only free in theory. It's out there and we already own it, but most of it, tragically, is still the form of trees.

For someone who's in favor of modern technology, you're awfully nonchalant about splitting wood. One of the reasons our wood is still in trees is that we don't have a log-splitter (other than an axe). The splitting is, I think, the hardest part of heating with wood. Sure, hauling it around is time-consuming, heavy work, but at least it doesn't involve swinging an axe at full strength in the general direction of your feet.

But you're nonchalant about all kinds of things I find daunting, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Jennifer Montero said...

Pomona - You right, you do acclimatise to having a colder home. We also keep our heat just above freezing. I will start putting an pot of water on the stove while it's lit too, a sensible idea.

I have an old coffee pot I fill will water, orange peel, cinnamon sticks, vanilla and spices which I put on the stovetop. As it heats it scents the room.

The 'hearth rugs' make good hot water bottles in bed if you can stand the snoring.

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - you know what it's like to be the full time fire tender. It is a pleasant job, even if it's a constant one.

I was also made redundant earlier this year, hence the cost cutting efforts.

I know more women who are fire-savvy as you put it than men. Fires need nurturing and each stove has its own peculiarities. Men I know start fires with diesel and old tires - though not in the house thankfully!

It's a joke in our village that if you can't find any men around, it's a sure sign that there's a bonfire going somewhere. It has a hypnotic effect on them and they're drawn to stand around it and readjust the pile of burning brush. It's quite sweet really.

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - We are perfecting the lazy (wo)man's approach to procuring wood. We clear a lot of big fallen branches (dead, dry) and cross cut them and leave them in piles where they are til we need them.

Then as a group we fill pickups and dump piles at each other's house. Over the winter we split and stack in small lots as we feel up to it or the weather's not good for much else.

And I am selective about the wood - ash is best. Burns wet and splits easily. I give chestnut a miss, but birch and beech are ok.

Splitting wood is about technique and you just have to find yours. And use a light, thin axe not a heavy thick maul. Wood splits easier than you think.

Don't feel you have to split and stack all your required cordage. Set yourself a goal to harvest and split some fallen wood to just contribute to your log pile for now, and to work an a comfortable splitting technique.

After all the other skills you've mastered, this will be a cakewalk. Easier than growing mushrooms in your bathtub!