Do We Belong Here?


I have started bringing in the stove wood for the coming winter, ranking it around the garage walls where I can get to it handily when the snowdrifts come. It is early for thinking winter but I know from experience that if I don’t start in October when time and weather permit, I won’t get finished before the snow flies. As I unload the truck, I amuse myself by singing the old hymn, “Bringing In The Sheaves,” substituting “wood” for “sheaves.” “Bringing in the wood/ bringing in the wood/ we shall come rejoicing/ bringing in the wood.” There is some joy in both jobs since both achieve security from the winter cold. (Carol, as a child, thought the words of that hymn were “bringing in the sheeps.” “Sheeps” she understood; sheaves was not a word heard on American farms in our day.)

But while there is comfort in knowing that even if the electricity goes off, or especially if the electricity goes off, the ricked wood in the garage will keep us warm and snug, a troubling thought always haunts my brain as I “come rejoicing.” We humans are the only animals here in the wintery north that need artificial heat to survive. Do we really belong here? It is hard to deny that we are presently burning up the earth to stay warm. Perhaps the ultimate force of destruction that will strike down the earth is the intelligence that enables us to use fire to stay alive in winter.

What if we are supposed to stay in warmer climes? Maybe global warming will be the way we will survive. If the whole earth never got below freezing, we would not have to burn it up to stay alive.

The coming of winter fills us all with uneasy foreboding, although we don’t always realize it. In the news recently were new statistics that indicate stock market plunges occur more frequently in October than any other month, followed closely by September and November. The economists don’t know why. I like to think I do. This is the season of uneasiness. Our inner instincts know we are entering the cold season that we are not naturally acclimated to. We are foreigners in a foreign land. We are intruders. We can only survive here by burning up the earth. If you are in the stock market, it is time to sell.

In this season, all human cultures dwell on remembering the dead. Halloween. Ghosts and spooks and goblins and skeletons and daylight getting shorter. Graveyards and cemeteries. Batten down the hatches. Hold on.

And then comes the winter solstice. Aha. The shortest day comes and goes. Warmth will return. It is written in the stars. Merry Christmas.  Buy.

I see in the news that some scientists think the smoky stoves that millions of families in various parts of Asia use for cooking just might be the reason the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting faster. The smoke blackens the surface of the ice so it draws the sun’s heat more. (Notice that this report comes to us now, at the beginning of the season of bleak outlooks.) But maybe it’s true. Here again, another troubling thought is hard to ignore. Humans are also the only animals that heat their food.  Are we all horsemen of the Apocalypse?


What an interesting topic to ponder as I commence my daily work on the farm. “Do we belong here”? As a transplanted Canadian who used to be able to tunnel through the snow drifts to visit my friends, Kentucky seems pretty livable.

As I stack 100 round bales and 300 squares I wonder what life would be like where grass grew all year and and whether the “wisdom of the earth” would still resided somewhere in the noggins of farmers enough to keep the native grasses growing for winter feed.
This is the first time in 23 years that I have not kept my kiddos toasty warm with wood heat so for me the issue is not burning up the forest to keep warm it’s working harder and longer hours to pay the electric bill. As I look out at my unused logging equipment hanging in the barn I can remember the feeling of taking out the horses to bring back a tree or two from the woods and how great it felt to know that this work would keep my family warm and fed, since I cooked on the woodstove also. I just can’t seem to conjure up that same warm and fuzzy feeling sending in my check to the TVA.

By the way, my cousins back home say they haven’t seen tunnelable snow drifts for 10 years.

In recent years, locally fires were suppressed as per Smoky the Bear’s advice: hence the forests became overstocked with new younger tree upstarts crowding and competing with old growth; so then along come insects and disease munching on the various edible parts of the overstocked and overstressed trees and in the process killing or weakening many of the trees. Now red from dying needles or leaves and grays and blacks from dying, shattering bark interrupts the formerly seemingly solid green vistas of our local forests. Next along comes lightning or humans with their propensity to start fires and the fires sweep across the vegetated landscape consuming dead and dry vegetation or scorching the green. The heat is often so intense that the soil becomes like a brick and water runs off the slopes like it’s running off a roof, taking tons of soil with it and contributing to damaged streams.

The natives used to burn on a regular basis, which kept the fires at a lower intensity than now because the fuel was more sparse and closer to the ground. I dare say the ancient native peoples didn’t question much whether they belonged here because they needed and used fire, therefore they just did what they thought best to survive and thrive. Perhaps their closeness to fire for a variety of needs from cooking and preserving food to keeping warm to keeping mosquitoes at bay with smoke to making brain tanned hides more pliable and water resistant (also with smoke) to providing light for drawing on tipis (or cave walls before there were tipis) eventually lead to our seemingly genetically ingrained affinity for burning wood and staying close to camp fires.

I observed a great drove of archery hunters recently, filling one of our wooded valleys with campfire smoke. I’m certain all the game animals around knew that human hunters were afoot in search of their succulent flesh.In spite of clouds of smoke warning the game of human presence. Going hunting without building a campfire just isn’t the same experience.

The point being if we don’t burn the dead wood and/or grass, nature will eventually do so. It seems to me better to do the burning in a manner that minimizes smoke such as a well-drafted wood stove or a fire that is fed sufficient Oxygen to minimize smoke and burn cleanly. That the controlled fireplace or wood stove burning also serves to give us light, warmth and energy for cooking etc. is just one of those percs nature provides for us.

As I lay in our wood supply in our newly completed deluxe woodshed I am not troubled with thoughts of whether we belong here , I just :”Know it in my bones.” (No comments about being a bonehead please.)

Should wood to warm us run short, there are always options of baling and pelletizing dead, dry grass and weeds for pellet fuel stoves as folks in Canada are doing to warm homes, work buildings, greenhouses etc. The benefit is that the grass harvest can be managed to minimize translocation of soil and plant nutrients such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Energy release as heat is far more than energy required to harvest and pelletize the grass and weeds so it’s a good practice for sequestering Carbon, with the added benefit that what Carbon is released into the atmosphere during harvesting, processing and burning will likely be equivalent to what Carbon is captured by the grass plants during the next growing period. Balers and pelletizers suitable for making grass pellets are already in existence and reasonably affordable, so it seems to me to be a sustainable small-scale business opportunity for small widely spread entrepreneurs. Even coppiced tress are usually not cut on more than a seven year rotation, but grass regrows so quickly that annual harvests are feasible. I would suggest however that it is wise to return ashes and charcoal from the pellet stoves to the soil from whence it came.

In summary, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about where we belong without the use of fire by our ancestors and us today. Some researchers indicate that using fire to cook food was instrumental in the development of our big brains. But I rather think they have it backwards, inasmuch as it takes a pretty good brain to properly cook a good roast of deer meat over a fire to begin with, without turning it to leather or charcoal. Clearly, good meat, good vegetables and other vegetable foods and and good fires all went together. Don’t let raw food enthusiasts persuade you otherwise. To this day the smell of a good roast or stew or home-baked-bread not only causes me to salivate, but brings back really good memories of home-cooked goodness coming from the depths of a wood cook stove, which also served to warm the kitchen when the snow was drifting high. Therefore cut, split and dry wood or make grass pellets to burn while knowing you do truly belong wherever: ” here” is and you are in fact doing what you should be doing..

Do we belong here? I instantly thought of a poster I had in my youth. It was words found supposedly in an old church. It was called “Desiderata” if I remember correctly, and it told me I was a child of the universe, and I had a right to be here. Call me naive, but I’ve always remembered what that poster said to me and it has served me well.

If we don’t belong here, think of the frogs, turtles and salamanders. I too have been bringing wood near the house in preparation for winter.Down in the valley, several months ago I cut up a large ash which had fallen. This week, when I rolled these large pieces of logs over, under the pieces of wood were salamanders, and frogs, getting ready to hibernate. They have time to find another place for the winter, but if you’re questioning whether we belong here, they definitely wouldn’t belong here. They have to sleep half their life away (more or less) just to exist here. This time of year I watch my hummingbird feeder, waiting for the first day I don’t see a hummingbird passing through from the north. Of course they belong here, too. Winter is my favorite time of year because I can see things because the leaves are gone, and I can see tracks in the snow to let me know what I didn’t see. It’s comfortable to work in winter, too. Summertime is sometimes oppressively hot, and there’s a corallary to Murphy’s Law that states that ten minutes after you get nekid, the damned Jehovah’s Witnesses will come a knockin’. See, the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t belong here. I don’t think that was in “Desiderata”, but it should have been!

As indigenous people have been living nearly all the way to the poles (since following the glaciers north) I don’t think home heating needs to be a problem. Given the animal populations efforts to hibernate, migrate, or tough out the cold I bet most would do exactly as we do if they found it an easier way to survive, such as the mice that move in to our house every fall.

Our senses of comfort, entitlement, and our particularly American “need” to travel are the problem. Here in central Vermont half of our carbon comes from transportation. I found it no hardship to switch to 100% wood heat by careful design of our home, but I still burn far to much gasoline. If I could now learn to eat and live without driving at times farther in a day then some people used to travel in their lives I might make some progress.

Perhaps it was because you started off with the “good bourbon”? 🙂

And yet here in the Southern Hemisphere our days are longer, with daybreak lighting the mornings earlier and the evenings taking longer to creep in. Every day I feel better, lighter, and more optimistic, yearning to get out into the garden and dig and turn the soil over, plant the tiny seedlings I’ve been nurturing for weeks through the gloomy, dank winter days.

Perhaps it’s all part of the cycle of life and relative to us as individuals 🙂

life of the hand - life of the mind October 3, 2013 at 8:44 am

silly barry

Humans and dung beetles have such a commonality, thinking they are masters of their universe. The current fad of anthropogenic change of global climate changes is akin to the beetle that heaves its dung ball onto a slope, worrying that it has caused the increased motion. Silly beetle!

Why do you think good bourbon was invented?
And Hostess Ho Ho’s, I Never eat more than one a week!
And I also like those little green trees you put in your car to make it smell better.
And fresh peas right off the vine, those are good as well.
Somehow I think I missed the point of your post. Sorry…

i learned from Gene Logsdown to take the winter to bring in firewood for NEXT season. Still, I find myself slicing downer maples from July storms into the shortening days of October. Wet rock maples that take sometimes 50 swings of sledge and wedge to make the first split. I love the sound of the steel on steel even when the woods are still green to yellow. But I love the short dark days when snow muffles the clank of the swing and split. Remembering my parents whose land this was; remembering my friends who have gone too soon, remembering my youth, too foolish and smiling in retrospect) idealistic. Come on winter.

I could not understand why I was feelin so spooky and wanted to just walk alone in the woods. Now I know. It is also an insight as to why hunting is so popular.

“We humans are the only animals here in the wintery north that need artificial heat to survive. Do we really belong here?”

I guess I tend to think that we *get* to use artificial heat. One of the great joys of winter is the crisp, cold air. Another is the heat of a crackling fire. Neither would be available if we didn’t “belong here.”

There’s something soul-sucking about a lack of diversity. I imagine most readers of your blog would acknowledge that this applies to farms and farmland, but to me it applies also to locality (among other things). Sure, constant 80 degree temps on a Caribbean island might be nice for a while, but part of the joy of a cool, crisp autumn is that it follows a hot, humid summer, and part of the joy of a warm, green spring is that it follows a cold, brown winter. Without contrast we miss the joys of each season. Personally, it seems like the next season always begins right about the time I’m getting fed up with the current one. I think I’d miss that if I lived somewhere that didn’t require supplemental heat in the winter.

life of the hand - life of the mind October 2, 2013 at 8:57 am

Thanks, Gene. And know that I’m always first in line for your Wednesday morning offerings.

Whether we “belong” here or not, the fact of the matter is we are here. We can either embrace the planet and treat it well or treat it poorly and suffer the consequences. Although, in most cases, it’s the coming generations that will probably suffer most of the really nasty consequences…

Sure we burn up the earths resources to keep us warm, but I doubt that moving farther south will help. If we aren’t running our heaters we’re running our air conditioners and how much of a difference does it make for the planet?

I think that living in the north is kinda like special ops training. Either you can take it or it’s to hard and you get out. Just substitute hard with cold and get out with moving to Florida.

life on the land: I enjoyed your defense of Mr. McGregpr on you website. Gene

It is Infinities purpose for us to be here.

life of the hand - life of the mind October 2, 2013 at 7:02 am

The question “Do we belong here?” puzzles me. Because it implies that “we” have something to do with the fact that we are here. Or, if you believe that God purposefully placed us “here,” then the question calls into question God’s wisdom.

Neither of these make sense because both are fantasizes.

Humans “belong here” or “do not belong here” no more or less then frogs, radishes, woolly mammoths, or full moons “belong here” or “do not belong here.” We are all here (or were here, or will be here) because we all just happened to land here after a very very very long journey from a very very very strange land.

The beauty of frogs being here, however, is that they’re not dead set on watching tv all day and eating at White Castle all night. They don’t whine and complain. They don’t wear new white sneakers when traveling in France or scheme about how best to get back to Dollar General for the second time in one day.

The question to ask might go something like this: “Now that we are here, how could we better,…?”

I love fall with a melancholy mix of emotions while enjoying the fruits of summer, the brilliant colors, and the freedom of my allergy dripping nose. It means that soon I can read the stacks of books and magazines that have built up over the summer without that innate Puritanical little voice of disapproval of idleness nagging at me!!!!

Humans like all other animals fight for their spot on the Earth and to maintain their life,few animals die a peaceful death even the top predators usually die of exposure or some weaker
species doing them in their time of old age and weakness.The Disney Animal World is a complete fabrication with no connection to the reality of the violence that goes on 24 hrs a day in the real animal world.Humans have a more profound affect on other species than any other and some is bad but other is good so I guess humans going on and doing what they feel they need to do to survive is no different than any other species doing it and letting the chips fall where they may.Difference is humans are the only species that gives any thought to the consquences of their actions.Whether thats a good or bad thing is debatable.

There is a pretty simple way to think about this if you understand a bit of the science. For starters, a tree grows and as it does, it sequesters carbon in its tissues, in the lignin and the cellulose and etc.. If we humans come along and cut down that tree to burn for heat, then we are releasing the stored carbon from solar gain over a time period equal to that tree’s life span – so fifty, a hundred, maybe two hundred years. That’s not a lot of of carbon debt in the greater scheme of things, at least not on any time scales that matter to climate.

The problem is two-fold and really started a couple hundred years ago when we discovered fossil fuels and began to dig them up out of the ground to burn. When we did that, we started releasing millions of years of sequestered carbon in a time scale that is literally overnight when compared to the geologic time scale during which all that carbon was put away. Additionally, all that incredibly powerful and cheap energy gave us the power to apply it to our food supply, and of course, as every biologist knows, when you increase the food supply then you increase the population. Almost our entire food supply now is simply converted oil, and the implications of that fact means that there are over 7 billion of us, all spewing out formerly sequestered carbon from fossil fuels.

If you think about this in terms of an annual solar gain/carbon budget, then anytime we generate energy within the domain of a year’s worth of solar gain (or even within 200 years as in the case of a big old sugar maple) then we are not adding substantially to the carbon side of the equation. You can even see this principle in action if you look at a graph of carbon measurements over time. Carbon in the northern hemisphere goes up in the winter, and down in the summer. This happens because all summer long the trees and grasses and flowers are taking in carbon and turning it to body mass. In the winter everything sleeps, so the carbon builds up in the atmosphere. (I would include a graph from NOAA here but their web site is shut down because of those idiots in Congress)

None of what we do would matter all that much if we were sticking to that annual carbon/solar gain budget and if there were only a half a billion of us. But because we are so many, and we are releasing hundreds of millions of years of stored carbon, we have become significant agents of change in the large scale carbon cycles that generate climate and ultimately, weather.

The carbon balance in the atmosphere is and has been incredibly finely tuned over the last 4 million years with only the tiniest fraction of a CO2 shift causing enormous and global changes just like clockwork. Remember, we are talking about a ridiculously powerful gas that alters the entire climate of the planet from ice age to an interglacial and back by simply shifting 100 parts per million up or down – from 180 ppm to 280 ppm and back again. That is an absurdly tiny amount of gas that produces an 18 to 25 degree up or down global average temperature change in a highly stable cycle for millions of years, but that’s how it works and that’s what the natural system does.

Because of fossil fuels, we humans are adding about 4 gigatons of extra CO2 into the atmosphere per year for at least the last 25 years, way above the normal annual cycles. The oceans and other natural processes have soaked up some part of that carbon already but not enough, and as a result of that extra carbon (400 ppm as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory this past summer during the Northern hemisphere peak output) there is now a gross imbalance in the in/out exchange of energy (solar heating versus planetary re-radiation of that heat back into space – about .5 watts per square meter) and the planet is heating, both the atmosphere and the oceans themselves – most of it going into the oceans because the atmosphere holds only about 2 percent of that heat. As we have known for some time, temperatures, CO2 and methane are coupled in this living system, so whatever happens to one happens to all.

Remember, we are already at 120 ppm above and beyond the concentration that normally creates natural global warming into an interglacial period from an ice age, and we haven’t even included methane which would push us up at least another 50 ppm. (not to mention increased water vapor from the extra warming, and nitrous oxide and a whole raft of other powerful greenhouse gases)

The global climate – as well as all the weather generated by that climate – is driven by a steep temperature gradient between the poles and the equator. When it is very cold at the poles and very hot at the equator, the dissipation of heat energy along that gradient compels the jet stream to act as a laminar flow, going around the poles at a very high rate of speed. That means that the weather systems progress around the planet in a fairly rapid and orderly pattern. Rain today, sun tomorrow and so on, all the highs and lows moving along in sequence like boxcars on a train track.

When the energy gradient between the poles and the equator becomes shallow, such as is happening now because of all the extra CO2 and other GHGs (like water vapor) which are retaining heat in the atmosphere, then the jet stream loses energy and instead of acting as a laminar flow it begins to meander, with peaks of warm tropical air extending way up into the Arctic where it should never go, and cold dry air slipping way down deep into the tropics where it should never go.

Additionally, that loss of energy in the jet stream creates what are called blocking patterns, cut-off highs and lows that anchor in place and keep the weather systems stuck in place instead of progressing eastward in an orderly fashion, distributing their energy from place to place as they move in an easterly direction.

We have seen this pattern again and again and again around the planet in the last 10 years, everywhere from Pakistan, Italy, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Phillipines, Mexico, South America, as well as in dozens of places around North America – with Sandy of course, and with Colorado simply being the most recent. The jet stream locks in place, and whatever is under it or on either side of it just gets hammered and hammered and hammered. It doesn’t matter if it’s a baking hot spell and drought that wipes out crops and generates massive megafires or a freight train of low pressure systems that dump a year’s worth of rain in two days, the cause is the same – forced climate change due to human-caused global warming generated by our dumping too much CO2 into the atmosphere.

Regarding the issue of soot and glaciers, yes, that contributes to the melting, but it is only one minor factor among many, the greatest of which is the incredible heating due to the excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Regarding the issue of whether we belong here or not, well I would say yes, of course we belong here. After all, here we are. And personally, I love these hard Maine winters. I just hate shoveling snow. 😉

Hope that helps explain and clarify.

We see the same uneasiness all around us. While the deer may be “twitter-pated” as Disney says, the blackbirds are uneasily massing for their migration murmurations. The chickens are laying more infrequently as they prepare to hunker down for the winter. Watching the squirrels’ frantic scamper, we too seem possessed of a need to “lay by” for the winter. In some ways, fall seems more invigorating than spring.

Gloomy uneasiness is spreading in our household too as winter looms. For my hubby it is the onset of the freeze that overcomes this, once the ground is frozen the winter jobs can commence or not as the snow dictates, but while the dreariness of rainy late autumn days prevail, gloom descends. Maybe the stock market ups and downs are nothing more than Vitamin D deficiency by the stockbrokers cooped up in their offices during the daylight hours.

Practical Action organisation is trying to help those cooking with smoky fires by helping them to develop more efficient cooking stoves or using biogas from farmstead animals. Let’s hope they are more successful so the glaciers don’t melt in their entirety.
( – they’ve lots of interesting projects and you can while away the winter months just looking through some of their low tech engineering projects)

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