Where There's Smoke

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I know I shouldn't do it. It's as bad as smoking, maybe worse according to some data, but I just can't help it -- like a moth to flame, I am powerless. I open the vent and breathe in through my nose as outside air streams into the car.

These winter mornings on my way to work, the mountain air is laced with wood smoke. Blue, grey, or white wisps and tendrils curl up from chimneys by the roadside, revealing silent houses tucked between the redwoods. The aroma is intoxicating and evocative.

We all remember campfires, roasting hotdogs or s'mores, good friends and scary tales, stars beyond number high above. It might have been a forest, or a beach, or just your parent's yard, but somewhere, sometime, you've been imprinted with the smell of wood on fire, linked to happy times. It's primal too: we crave warmth, and light brought to the darkness can hold back leopards. Safety is a good thing.

These days, of course, the predators we fear are vastly changed -- more abstract, more varied and perhaps more deadly. Obesity, climate change, greed, terrorism and intolerance are just some of the new bad guys. Wood-burning stoves are pretty small potatoes on that scale, but the smoke they put out is just as deadly. Dioxin, arsenic, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide are some of the toxins found in wood smoke. Its small particles, many carcinogenic, get deep into the lungs -- and from there to the bloodstream.

I know all this, and I don't burn wood myself -- for heat, light or ambience. I know my neighbors need their stoves and I can't fault them for it, though I do hope they use dry, seasoned wood and have clean, efficient stoves. Meanwhile, for a few seconds on a frosty morning, I'll enjoy the smoke from their fires -- and all the memories it can carry.


With a Perspective, I'm Peggy Hansen.