Gene Logsdon and Friends

Cold Weather Conundrum

In Gene Logsdon Blog on February 8, 2012 at 5:00 am

From GENE LOGSDON

I say that a love of nature is at the root of my love for farming, but in fact I hate cold weather, an integral part of nature in the north. How can I explain the contradiction? I’ll give you my line of reasoning as long as you don’t hold me to it too strictly. I argue that cold weather is the biggest threat to human existence on earth. That’s why I hate it. We seldom think about it but humans, unlike other animals, can only survive in northern climates with some kind of artificial heat, which means burning up the earth’s supply of stored sunlight as fuel. We are not polar bears. We live through northern winters by plundering the rest of nature.

What made me think of this again is that, much to my surprise, fur prices are on the rise. Muskrat pelts are selling for $8 and up at auctions, coyotes at $60 and up, red foxes from $25 to $50, and raccoons from $13 to $19 each. China and other “newly rich” countries are driving up the prices because the people there not only think fur coats are fashionable but because animal fur is a very good insulation against cold weather. Muskrat belly fur for example, makes an excellent lining for cold weather boots because it is nearly impermeable to moisture.

Obviously, as humans migrated from their natural environment of warm weather, they not only had to discover fire but gird themselves in animal skins until they figured out how to make insulated underwear out of polyester. Before that there must have been eons of migration from warmer climes to colder and back again as winter approached, a practice still honored by migrating birds and quite a few corn-beans-and Florida farmers. With furs and fire, humans slowly learned how to stay in the north through winter. This led to the whole silly culture of clothes and heaven only knows how much that has cost the earth. Even with clothes, humans had to have shelter to survive bitter cold. They used caves or built structures out of wood or stone or ice, leading to the ultra-extravagant housing industry of today.  All of this, in the beginning, just to stay warm.

As fuel supplies seem to diminish now and dreams of grandeur soar, this kind of un-sustainability continues. We cover entire sports arenas from the weather; we set up acres of solar panels to produce electricity. More and more, greenhouse tunnels and hoop houses become part of agriculture. Can we roof over the entire northern hemisphere just to keep from living in more tropical areas like nature intended us to do?

I try to figure out where the geographical line between a natural human environment and an unnatural one should be drawn. Strangely it seems to run along the boundary between the north and south of Civil War times. Hmmm. Any connection? Is the inherent antipathy between North and South an environmental one? Hmmm. Will the South finally win that war after all?

I’m just thinking sort of randomly of course. But obviously, as heating fuels run out, I am not thinking idly. If you follow the news lately, Eastern Europe is experiencing extremely cold weather and people are freezing to death by the hundreds.  The cold weather has cut off access to artificial heat for some and forced the rest to face the realization that death is just a click of the artificial heat switch away. It is time for my commercial. People in cold regions should be teaching their children to teach their children to teach their children how to grow trees around them to use sustainably for fuel. Or face the awesome improbability that the ancient human migration into cold climates will have to reverse itself. To save the earth and themselves, humans might have to live where they belong: in warmer climates.

Maybe global warming will save us.
~~

  1. Figuring out how to make insulated underwear out of polyester as a benchmark of human progress. That’s a keeper.
    Personally I suffer more in hot humid weather. We would still need the trees for shade in a world without air conditioning.

  2. In all fairness, one should consider that its harder to keep people cool than to keep people warm. This is evidenced by the hundreds of heat-related deaths whenever there is a significant heat wave in the summer. Maybe humans were always meant to migrate to the 70 degree weather?

  3. we can surely survive in the north; people have done it for thousands of years.

    whether we can do it comfortably and conveniently is another matter entirely! :-)

  4. I agree, plant trees, the only fuel that is an exception to the laws of entropy, providing more energy than it consumes, as it gives out warmth three times, when you cut it, when you drag it home, and when you burn it! ^-^

    To be fair, shelters also protected us from the rain and other predators, it is probably the most important contributor to the creation of the human society, languages, etc.

    Maybe winter is Nature’s way to force the land to lie fallow and regenerate, since we would otherwise farm it to death all year round with 2 or 3 harvests a year like they do in warm climates like Hawaii.

  5. Heck,I always thought people built houses to keep their books safe and dry.

  6. I hate to say this Gene, but maybe it’s an age thing. There’s a reason many people retire to the south. I’m in my 40s, and I love winter. Yeah, I even love the cold. I’ll take a 20º day over a cloud of mosquitoes anytime. I bike to work, and I’d much rather bike in January than July – I can only take off so many clothes! (I just wish they’d turn down the heat in our offices!) Humans have been dealing with the cold almost as long as we’ve been human. Supposedly it was the last ice age that really gave our species a chance to shine, and our ability to adapt to the cold that did in neanderthals.

    And don’t count on climate change to help with the cold bit. Some of the first effects of more heat will be severe droughts. Think Texas, over most of the plains. I’d prefer to eat in the cold than starve in warmth.

  7. We’ve started a coppice forest that we’ll cut in rotation. Like they did in the old days.

  8. There’s been lengthy discussion on this before, but I’d like to say again that heating with wood tends to make a person a lot more appreciative of their heat, and in turn probably at least a little more sparing with their fuel, especially if they cut their wood themselves. I say this because we have both electric and wood heating capabilities, and when we heat with wood I’m a lot more prone to let room temperature stay in the low 60′s (last year it was the mid 50′s, but it was much much colder here last year. With the electric heater, it’s much easier to turn it on high and forget about it for a couple of days. More comfortable, maybe, but how much more destructive to the environment if this behavior extends throughout the whole society.
    Is anyone else hankering for asparagus yet? Come on spring!

  9. I will be looking forward to you Wednesday post on or about Mid August. I’ll bet you will be singing a different tune.lol

  10. I second the observation that when you heat with wood (yes especially if you cut it yourself!) you develop a finer appreciation of the work and overall EROI involved. It would help if we would all learn to build our houses properly too: with thicker walls and better design, orientation of windows to the sunshine, more insulation, and with masonry wood heaters, all of which would minimize the use of said resources.

    But nope, what do we do instead? We build cheap, thin, poorly-positioned vinyl-sided one-level boxes with extra windows, no chimneys, extra electrical outlets and oil furnaces (that require electricity as well as oil to function) and then insist on running around in T-shirts and shorts in January! I have personally found that 60 degrees (F) can be quite comfortable indeed if I decide to put on some nice wool long undies on under my wool pants and sweater. Most of us are so spoiled with quick/easy heat availability that we simply don’t dress properly either.

  11. I too side with the cold lovers, I am useless on a hot, muggy day. I think on average, I spend more time outside in cooler months than the summer, and my garden suffers in August from lack of attention. We heat mostly with wood, but alas turn on the furnace for company and pipes. We live in a late 1700′s farmhouse, where several rooms are cold enough to hang meat… if the original inhabitants could make it, so can I.

  12. It is pretty clear from the responses that people are in agreement that wood heat is both sustainable and desirable. I for one say that the difference between my wood heat and gas heat is beyond compare in quality and quantity. The trick is getting people to build homes that can be heated with a minimum of wood and change agricultural practices to devote more acres to sustainable wood production.

  13. A “natural” environment for humans is where they can survive without clothing or housing, year-round. The original such environment was in Africa, and by natural migration, the tropical regions of Asia/Indonesia and Australia and the Pacific islands. Everywhere else they are an “invasive” species, including the Amazon rainforest (having to cross the Bering Straits from Siberia to Alaska – wearing clothes – to get there).

  14. I grew up in an old Tennessee farmhouse (South of the N-S line) built in 1868, freezing through winters. The summers were enjoyable because the house was built to draw drafts up the chimney. It never really felt that hot, even in August (except when we were canning), but it was utterly miserable in winter. My ancestors’ long dresses had burn holes in the front from sitting close to the fire. When my parents built a new house with central heat, I stood over the vents in wonder. No smoke. No having to sleep under electric blankets, or with blankets piled on us until we could not breathe. No watching Dad after work, after dark, splitting wood to keep us alive. No water globes freezing solid at night and bursting like a shotgun blast. BTW- I was born in 1971. Nobody else I knew lived like we did. My parents were not environmentalists- just poor.
    Wood heat is sustainable if done right. Around here, a tree we called yellow bowdock produced a heavy wood that burned hot with sparks, and could hold the fire all night if banked properly. It also grew back in multiple branches for each you cut, if you left part of the tree alive. Dad cut the trees near the river wisely, so we would live through the winter. But Dad gladly left that life behind when he had the chance.
    I hope the news about how to build well spreads as fuel gets more expensive. Otherwise there will be a lot more kids like me, with bad memories of wood burning and very cold feet.

    • Mitzi, Most interesting to me.Yellow Bowdock is another name for Osage Orange as you probably know. It has the highest BTU value for heat of our all native woods, I think. In my book about trees coming out this spring, I talk much about coppicing as a way to get a lot of wood off a given acreage. I wondered, as I wrote, if anyone had ever coppiced osage orange. Now I know. Thank you so much for contributing. Gene Logsdon

  15. I love wood heat, but its not a good option for the city (urban or suburban). I can’t imagine how bad the air quality would be if everyone burned wood. Its bad enough in the summertime when people have recreational ‘campfires’.

  16. When the first settlers arrived here the Utes were shocked to hear that they intended to spend the winter here. The indians never would have tried to winter at 7300 ft elevation,I sometimes wonder why I do. We have snow on the ground from October to late May most years. I heat my place with fire wood that I cut and split myself. Sometimes I feel like a squirrel because of the energy and time I put into firewood and hay. I have to look at this as my physical fitness program. Plus the wood ash really helps the pastures grow!

  17. Hi Gene,

    I just finished reading your brilliant book “Small-Scale Grain Raising”. Some books change lives. This is one of them.

    There will now be another Australian homesteader who will be raising organic grain as well as vegies to feed their family sustainably.

    I just wanted to pass on a recent United Nations report that backs up everything you predicted about the coming death-knell of intensive farming practices.

    The UN predicts that in 38 years (2050) when human population is expected to reach 9 billion (currently it’s 7 billion), unsustainable farming practices will cause a global crash of food and water supplies.

    So let’s spread the word of Gene Logsdon and get some more people planting vegies and grain in their yards instead of the ‘green desert’ of lawn.

    Here the link to the UN report:

    http://www.climatespectator.com.au/news/land-water-scarcity-threaten-food-security-un

    I look forward to reading some more of your books. (The husband can’t wait. He says that every time I read another book, it ends up costing him money!)

  18. I attempted to burn Bodock (Bois D’Arc)or (Osage Orange) one year and nearly melted my stove down. I will not burn it inmy cast Iron stove any more. We burn oak THAT WE CUT or Tie Ends that we buy form our local tie yard. Oak that we cut hold a fire all night and leaves us with a good bed of coals to start the day with. tie ends don’t have any bark and is mostlycenter wood Its a little harder to get started and burns completly up leaving all most no ash. We have a gas furnace but choose to heat wood because it is more comfortable to our old bones. A few years back we had a terable Ice storm that year we burned anything soft maple, walnut, hickory, mulberry and hackberry. We had wood stacked until it started to decay and we still burned it. No cost but a paine in the …

  19. Gene, good to hear you have nother book coming as you have the tendency to accurately predict my future, Easydigging hoes, deep litter bedding, backyard field corn experimenting, etc… apparently I’m catching up to you as I’m putting about an acre of black locust that I hope to coppice with osage orange hedging. I’ve not burned osage but I have a feeling it’s one of the woods you should mix with lesser wood in an ‘airtight’ stove, such as my boiler which is manufactured to burn coal or wood. I am also curious about the coppice capacity of chinese chestnut, but I think I will more likely plant black walnuts as I’ve some bearing trees around the yard. Hard to beat the cost for seed…

    I had a big weeping willow limb fall during a strong wind this summer, about half the full tree(!), and I was going to use it for bonfire wood next year, but out of curiosity I stuck some drier pieces in the boiler during those 40 degree days in the fall…. probably wouldn’t burn if I didn’t have a blower, but I found it would heat the house easy enough, especially when mixed with a few small pieces of oak or maple. Softwoods get a bad rap, but I think they have their season. Hard to beat the growth of a willow except maybe with popple. Methinks they’re examining these ‘inferior’ species for new biomass type energy, perhaps in somewhere like Sweden.

    Last but not least, when you say “make insulated underwear out of polyester” I am totally thinking of a Duofold union suit. Sure, it’s actually cotton and merino wool, but point being union suits should go on the human cold survival timeline as notable!

    I’ll be reading your book when you make it!

    • Tristan, the fact that you are coppicing black locust is so exciting to me. I go on at length about that very thing in the book, based on experiences I found in a century old book! I thought I was bringing back something no one was doing today. Marvelous. Yes, softwoods burn okay if they are good and dry, but it just takes so much more bulk to equal the denser hardwoods. Black locust and osage orange have lots of other interesting uses, as I’m sure you know. Gene

      • Can the same thing be done with honey locust? I have alot of these that want to come up in my pastures and I keep cutting them back. Am I missing an opportunity? I heat with wood and have been burning blow downs as they’re easier for me to cut up. I have an old red oak that is more than a century old that I have been whittling away at since a blast of wind/tornado split it and brought down (almost) 2/3s of it. Coppicing sounds so much easier than dealing with this “widower” maker?!

  20. My husband and I are thinking of moving from California to Iowa (or Minnesota) to try our hand at small farming. Well, we know we’re nuts–don’t bother telling us that. The one huge thing we are worried about is weather shock. He grew up in Indiana and Michigan, so it might not be too bad for him. But, regardless of the fact that I hate our hot, dry summers (imagine no rain for between May and October, most years), I think I may croak from the sudden climate change. Any advice for an easier transition?
    We will keep an eye out for that book on trees–where ever we settle we hope to put in a healthy woodlot (or purchase one already in place).

    • Hi freeformlife-

      I was born and raised in Minnesota, and moved back here after a brief internment in Virginia. I love it here, including the winters! The best advice I can give you is buy the warmest jacket you can find, and don’t give a hoot if people think you look like nanook from the north! I say this not to scare you off, but because cold weather is easily dealt with by wearing the proper clothing. I regularly wear long johns, wool socks, and sweaters- if you don’t dress for the weather, it will be miserable!

      Now I would be remiss to only talk about the winter- summer in Minnesota makes it all worth it! Mild temps (90s are rare), plenty of moisture without the oppressive humidity, and lakes galore!

      Good luck with your farm plan!

    • Yes to what Austin said. But also be prepared mentally for the buggy season in June and July, the ticks and mosquitoes. Get on the I-Net and read up on how to live with them. Some years they can be quite bad. Our first year living in the country (in central Wisconsin) the mosquitoes were so bad that you couldn’t walk outside without a head net. But that was the only year of the past 12. It also will depend on the terrain around you. Be sure to query your real estate broker about that. But I envy you getting into small farming. Sure wish we could do that.

  21. Betty, honeylocust burns well when dry but throws sparks. I would not want to use it much because of the huge thorns. Invariably you will step on one of them or worse run over one with the tractor. There are thornless honeylocusts but the wild ones are usually thorny. Gene Logsdon

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