The Wood Burner's Lament

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Another holiday season is upon us. We can expect the usual "spare the air" days to sharply curtail the comfort and warmth of our once numerous holiday fires. It's really not the regulators' fault, as easy as it is to blame them. It's more our growing awareness that as much as fire was once critical to our survival, it now contributes to our undoing. 

Throughout my life, I have found a meditative state in the ritual of gathering fuel, igniting tinder, building a roaring blaze, then sitting back in the sensory experience of warmth on my skin, the fragrance of ignited sap, the symphony of crackles, crunches, pops and hisses, as matter transforms and energy releases, all within the safe confines of my fireplace. I witnessed the blues, purples, yellows, oranges, reds and even the occasional greens, as biomass transforms from ember to ash. Even tastes arrived, a barely perceptible flavor on a breath's smoky inhale.

Even the design of our homes reflected the central place of fire as a refuge, long after its use for cooking was relegated to the kitchen. My 1905 craftsman home celebrates our fireplace as its altar, with a surround of hand cast, terra-cotta tiles of varying green hues, occasional accent tiles and a hand-cast keystone of grapes vines and fruit. 

But, as we have come learned, our atmosphere is threatened. The combustion gases pose significant health risks to our family and neighbors and the carbon capacity of our atmosphere has reached critical limits. 

So, I am searching for the next best thing. It likely will be a gas insert, still dependent on fossil fuel, but 99 percent better for health and environment. It certainly will be less experiential (no smell, no taste, no symphony, no evolving light display), less dynamic (same concrete logs), and less ritualistic (just press the button). But it will provide warmth, a reminder of days gone by and the confirmation that I am contributing to a healthier environment.


With a Perspective, I'm Tim Tosta.

Tim Tosta is a land use attorney and writer in San Francisco.