This is part of a doctoral thesis by Wendy Milne of Ontario, Canada, who studied at the University of Guelph rural studies department, in a program dealing with sustainable rural communities. Wendy was developing the idea of energy literacy, which has to do with how average people manage their energy use, how it affects their lives and how much control they have over their energy choices.
Most people who use conventional fuels for home heating have a relationship with the process that consists of paying the fuel bill and adjusting the thermostat. They know little about the system and are helpless if anything goes wrong. Wood heat is different and what follows is the most thorough exploration of that difference we’ve seen. JG
Transforming Power in Rural Communities:
Possibilities for an Energy Literacy
Wendy Milne Doctoral Thesis 2003
Chapter 7: Case Study on Wood Energy: Heating Rural Homes
The unique thing about wood energy is that you are so personally involved in the performance of it. And everything about wood burning – especially in our type of forested rural community – from the handling of the wood to keeping the fires going to chimney cleaning – is done by the user. [– a participant in this research project]
This chapter is the second of two case studies on the use of renewable energy in rural communities. This case study focuses on the use of wood energy for household heating and cooking. [the first case study involved families that produce their own electricity off-grid] Exploring the use of wood energy in rural communities provides stories that span the past, the present and hopes for a sustainable future. In the process of researching this case study I sized up a few woodpiles, warmed myself by a variety of stoves, and entered the daily lives of rural wood energy users. As noted, these stories are very different from the dominant narrative told in developed countries about “fire’s removal as a vital force” (Pyne, 2001:138). These narratives show that for some rural communities fire has remained a vital force in both household and cultural experience.
Learning in Context: Exploring the Landscape of Wood Energy
The stories of twenty-six people are woven into the narrative of this case study. These twenty-six people represented fifteen households, two wood stove retailers, and a wood energy specialist. The fifteen households consisted of eleven couples and four single women. In addition, given that all of the solar energy households reported on in the previous case study use wood energy, many of their observations have been included in this case study.
Participants lived in a variety of rural settings. Two households were in a village, two were on small rural lots, one was on a twelve acre property, one on a thirty-five acre property, and nine were on properties ranging from 100 acres to 450 acres.
Three families kept more than one building heated with wood through the winter. Two families live on the family homestead and woodlot. Half of the participants were born in the area, while the other half had moved to the area from other rural and urban areas, between twenty-five and thirty years ago.
For all but one of the participants wood energy was the primary heating source for their homes. Four of these households used wood as a secondary indoor cooking fuel, and almost all of the households used wood for an outdoor cooking fuel. Depending on the year, five of the households also used wood energy for maple syrup production for both personal use and farm income.
As much as possible I have sought to expand on the commonalities, differences and contradictions of the participant’s experience and knowledge through their own words.
The Culture of Wood Energy: More Than a Way of Life
In a rural area like Renfrew County the use of wood energy is deeply rooted in the community and the landscape. The motivations for using wood energy are ingrained in the culture of the area and the benefits of using wood energy bridge personal independence and community cohesion.
Most people described their motivations for using wood energy as a balance of economics, practicality and preference. All of these factors were heavily influenced by the importance of wood energy in the community way of life. This way of life is steeped in the history, culture, consciousness, labour and poverty of the area. Participants described that until the 1950s wood was the only option for heating and cooking. As one woman reflected: “we did not think anything of it – that was our way of life – that is all we knew. My Mother did all her own baking and cooking and all that was done on the wood stove”.
Since the 1960s access to other forms of fuels like oil and gas, and electricity, has not swayed the majority of residents from heating with wood. Electricity and propane have replaced wood as the primary cooking fuel, but many people maintain a wood cookstove in their homes for secondary heating and cooking.
The reason that most people continue to use wood energy is reflected in this participant’s comment:
It is a part of our community – part of the country. In these cold winters up here I think most people would be lost without it.
Participants who did not grow up using wood heat upon moving to the area immediately adopted wood energy as their primary heating source. Some of the reasons given for embracing wood energy right away were: “it was romantic”, “it was the only option”, “it was a philosophical choice”, and “it was what people did around here”.
The participant’s narratives were rife with stories, some very amusing, about the trials and tribulations of learning how to burn wood successfully. One woman described:
In the house I moved into wood was the only source of heat. So you had to learn how to burn wood or you would freeze. There was nothing else – no oil, no electric. I lived with just wood for twenty years. There was no backup heat.
A part of the tradition to heat with wood energy, as a number of participants identified, was, and still is to some extent, linked to rural poverty. All of the people who grew up in the area told stories about their poverty somehow seemed more intense on cold nights. A picture was painted by one participant of the rituals of getting through a cold winter night:
My Mom got up – and if it was a real cold night they took turns to put another block on the stove.
In turn, a number of participants felt that poverty led to lifestyles that were sustainable in that “we were taught to conserve everything because we didn’t have anything” and “we did not waste a thing” and “you heated with what you cut and ate what you grew”. Again, one participant noted that: “even though we were poor we did not know any different”.
People who moved into the area related how their experience of poverty was also linked to their initial motivation for using wood energy.
We were also dirt poor so whatever was there when we arrived we were pretty well forced to use. And it was also part of the culture. It was about learning this whole thing. Who had ever thought about how they heated their house before – I had never considered it.
Today the economy of energy continues to influence people’s choice to heat with wood. All the participants noted that part of the motivation for using wood energy is that it is a cheaper heating fuel. One participant argued: “It makes economic sense in this area. I can heat my house for about $500 a year”. What many participants appreciated about the economics of heating with wood is that “I know how much heating is going to cost me every year” and “there are no surprises on cost”. In fact some even suggested that the cost of wood heating has been consistent for over a decade. A participant reflects: “we heat the house for basically the same money that we heated the house 15 years ago – it is not costing anymore or any less”.
The wood stove retailers identified that it is the economics of a cheaper fuel that brings people into their stores. However, as one stove owner comments:
Once they have burned that stove for about a month and half – they would probably burn that stove for the rest of their life because it is addictive. There is something about it that is difficult to put into words. I don’t think people truly understand what it is.
All of the participants acknowledged they would continue to use wood heat even if it was more expensive than other forms of heating. The use of wood energy therefore is not as much a matter of poverty, as much as it is a choice based on preference. Part of this preference stems from the less tangible benefits of heating with wood captured in this participant comment:
I think for around here where wood is available and cheap – cheap definitely comes into it. It is the best way. Just on another level it is so much more comforting – so much warmer. It is a deeper experience to have wood in your house than to be heating with electricity.
In short the motivations for heating with wood are tied to the benefits associated with this energy source.
Most of the participants in this case study reported that wood energy provides a “deeper experience” that enhances quality of life and possibilities for learning. Using wood energy results in a number of personal benefits that offer some insight into requirements for generating wider citizen interest in energy sustainability.
The themes that emerged through the interviews that help to shape an alternative view of energy are:
* the landscape of energy
* sense of control from hands on energy source
* trading labour for personal and environmental health
The landscape of energy
In discussing wood energy use participants painted a picture that situated their homes within the landscape of the local environment. In painting this picture participants portrayed a domestic space enhanced by the qualities of heating with wood, the local forest as the resource for that energy, and their woodpile as a threshold space between forest and home.
To all but a few of the participants the experience of using wood energy provided a sense of “physical comfort” and “emotional comfort”. The “quality of the heat” wood energy provides was unanimously recognized as important to people’s “quality of life” during the winter months. Describing why wood energy provides comfort proved difficult for participants, but it was generally compared to experiences people had with other heating sources. Some of the ways used to describe wood heating were: “there is less temperature gradient compared to other forms”; “there is no noise”; “wood is the best kind of heat there is – it goes right into your bones”; and, “I find the wood a very comfortable heat”.
The emotional comfort that people expressed, particularly for those families that had a wood stove in their primary living space, was related to the physical and symbolic place that the wood stove holds as the “centre of the home”. This impression was summarized as: “I think it is that kind of heart connection to having a warm centre in your house”. It was repeated by a number of participants as indicated by this comment:
I like having a radiant heat source in the middle of the house. You can dry laundry on it – and toast yourself on it. Even when it is not on I am standing in front of it to get warm.
This relationship that people had with their heating appliance extended to considering woodstoves like a piece of favorite furniture. The narratives offered numerous stories of moving stoves from house to house and across the country. One woman talked about getting her cookstove in her separation agreement. She described when she first saw her old President cookstove:
We had put an ad for a cookstove in the paper. This guy drove us to his house to look at it. I thought this thing should sing and dance. It is gorgeous – the top has cracks but still it is great.
Participant’s image of wood energy extended beyond the household and into the surrounding landscape. A number of the participants described how the forested landscape of the area was brought into their homes through the use of wood heat. The narratives told a story of how wood from the local forests makes its way to the woodpiles and eventually the stoves of rural homes. People talked about how their survival through the winter is dependent on nature, and how this dependence connects them to nature in a unique way.
Being connected to the forest is a way that many participants measure their quality of life. Almost all of the participants described how much they enjoy being in the bush and that this is an important part of their lifestyle. In particular, close to half of the participants who cut all or a portion their own firewood felt they connected to nature in a profound way through their wood energy processing and burning. One woman described her relationship to the bush this way:
I love it. I love living here. I love walking in the bush. I grew up in it – it is calm and peaceful and there are animals out there.
This connection to nature comes to full fruition in the way participants speak about their woodpiles. In many ways the woodpile acts as a threshold space between the bush and the home. Having to go outside to get wood was described by one male participant in this way:
To get the wood you go outside you see the stars – having a woodshed outside too connects you a bit more. I am intimately acquainted with some of these pieces of wood – and I see them coming into the house and I remember the whole thing. That is the one that jammed up in the splitter and I had to get the chainsaw and cut it and weaken it a bit.
The woodpile and the woodshed outside most homes in the area were visual reminders of the dependence on wood for heating. One participant talked about driving around comparing people’s woodpiles, while another participant summed up his woodpile with this description:
I find myself staring at my woodpile going, yeh!!! You know. Cutting it, splitting it and getting off your own property there is quite a bit of satisfaction in that. I can’t explain it. I guess there is a record of your accomplishment that is not wiped out quickly. It is slowly used up – it sort of gives you that money in the bank feeling. There it is all waiting to be used and it is all yours.
Sense of control from hands on energy source.
All of the participants identified that an important part of using wood energy is that it allows control over their own heating and cooking needs. This sense of control was expressed as being experienced on both a personal and political level. On a personal level participants identified that wood energy “insured self sufficiency”, “increased independence”, “brings sense of control”, and “provides safety”. Participants expressed concern about ongoing and extended electric grid power outages. Having wood heating “eliminates concerns about power outages”. As one participant expressed it:
It is nice having control over our heating. You can stay warm and still cook on it during the power outages.
A woodstove retailer also mentioned that people like the sense of control that wood energy allows. She stated:
Why are people passionate about wood heating? I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of control. I mean it is something that you do have so much control over. There is a real satisfaction that comes from that.
This sense of control extended into the larger politics and economics of energy production. A number of participants felt that the unregulated nature of wood energy production and distribution, and the ability to produce a portion of energy needs off their own property, contributed to being able to insure continued energy needs whatever the larger political events. As one participant expressed:
I am not sure it is just the comfort of wood heat – I know it just feels great to be independent. I know if things went to hell in a handbasket – although it would take me a long time if I had to do everything by hand – I could survive.
In many ways being a wood energy users allows people to operate on the margins of dominant energy control. Another participant testified: “I do love being protected from mega business controlling prices of energy – I really love that”. And another woman echoed the ability to have some control over choice of where money for energy costs is directed.
I would use it because of the quality of the heat – also I think there is a big money grab going on with hydro. And I am really concerned about that and I will do anything not to give them anymore money than I absolutely have to.
Trading labour for personal and environmental health
Most participants viewed the use of wood energy as a part of their high maintenance rural lifestyles. These high maintenance lifestyles included vegetable gardens, animal and livestock care, property upkeep, snow removal, long distance travel and managing annual wood supply.
There was considerable discussion in households about the manual labour involved in managing a wood supply and maintaining a fire through the winter. Primarily, balancing the benefits of handling wood with the costs of using wood energy was measured in quality of life terms as opposed to direct cost terms.
Wood energy is part of the whole lifestyle thing – our lifestyle management. If we were to try to figure out the price of every tomato or carrot that we brought to the table in terms of how we’d worked for it we probably would not have a garden.
However, participants largely see many personal benefits from using wood energy. Not only does the labour of wood energy allow people to be outside, but the physical activity of managing wood provides health benefits as well. As one woman described:
It is a couple of days of work to get wood piled. And everyday I load my woodbox. It is a lot of work. I like the physical work. I am not one of those to go to they gym – well even if we had one to go to. It is an upper body type of workout.
The health benefits of wood energy management were confirmed in the narratives of one household. In this particular situation, a mother and daughter told me the story of the mother’s remarkable health change that was directly attributable to the labour involved in heating with wood. Because of ailing health the mother went to live with her daughter, and her daughter’s husband and two children. The mother told the story of how she went from not having the strength to vacuum to being the primary stacker, carrier and fire keeper for the household. She reflected on how the maintenance of the wood “gave value to my work”, “contributes to the family” and “changed my life”. Her daughter identified “it is empowering for her to develop strength”.
Participants also felt that the health benefits extended into the larger ecological landscape by offsetting the environmental costs of other heating sources.
You need a source of heat – whether you get your source of heat from nuclear generator or hydro dam or a tree something is going to suffer. Somewhere down the line something is suffering for it. There is just less suffering from woodheat. I don’t think you could sustain woodburning in the city but I think it makes sense in a rural area.
Wood Energy and Rural Community Sustainability
The participants interviewed for this study lived on the Canadian Shield, in a rural area with a mixed economy of forest based industries, small agricultural production, and the service trade. As the previous discussion identified the use of wood energy constituted a way of life for the local and indigenous population, as well as for people who have relocated to the area from other rural communities and urban centres.
The narratives suggested people’s use of wood energy is strongly connected to their local community and to their local landscape. All of the participants suggested that wood energy is a significant factor in the continued sustainability of their rural community based on the way it contributes in supporting social cohesion, providing some economic security, and encouraging sustainable forestry practices.
Wood energy and the community
The common theme emerging from all of the interviews was that using a shared energy source like wood has been instrumental in building a sense of community and linking community members across differences. Participants contributed this connection to that fact that,
everyone has something in common. It does bring a common factor to a community that everyone is burning with wood – everybody knows what it is like. You talk about piling wood. There is quite a bit of talk around about it. Because it is a yearly event – it is every year.
Another participant confirmed this experience when she noted:
I think in a community of people who all use the same kind of energy – that there is a certain understanding that goes with it. I think everybody loves woodheat.
Participants talked in terms of wood energy being the one thing in their community that bridges class, gender, race, and philosophical divisions. Some of the connections mentioned occurred between locals and newcomers, loggers and environmentalists, traditional and non-traditional lifestyles, and women and men. Part of this connection comes from the fact that wood energy is rivaled only by the weather as an everyday topic of casual conversation. Conversation across life choice divisions are sparked by questions such as: “Have you got your wood in yet?”; “How is the woodpile doing?”, and “Where did you get your wood this year?”.
One participant discussed how after living in the area for thirty years, and still being considered a newcomer, that wood was one way to make connections across this divide. He commented:
Wood links us in a lot of different ways. In conversation and common understanding and it is one of the ways we have of a more solid connection with the farming community. It is a whole lot of exchange of knowledge and understanding between cultures.
This common understanding about wood energy does more than link present day conversation. Participants who moved to the area in the last thirty years argued that wood energy bridges the past and the present. Some of the comments that reflected this aspect of wood energy are: “I think it does link you in with the past a bit and to the older people”; ” It does give us something to talk about with the people who settled here before us”; and “You get a certain amount of respect from the older people for heating with wood”.
One woman commented on this aspect of wood heat:
I think the local people like the idea that other people are carrying on those traditions. It is a tradition – it is not just getting cheap energy or exercise or the environment – it is also a tradition. I think people like to see that continued in this area.
Wood energy is part of the culture, language and story telling of the area. One of the sayings I heard numerous times in the interviews was: “did you hear the one about wood heating you four times: when you cut it, when you split it, when you stack it, and when you burn it”. A couple of participants also recalled the skit that the local theatre group did about how you can tell a lot about a man by his woodpile. It goes something like this: “the wood pile leaning to the left is a socialist, the John Birch woodpile is all white, and the guy who burns 24 inch wood is the guy with the inadequacy issues”.
A woodstove retailer recognized that story telling is just a part of her business.
People are passionate about heating with wood. Its wonderful the stories that we hear over the sales counter at the store. I never ever tire of hearing – men and women – talk about their growing up experiences around the cookstove. Icestorm stories are the best.
Wood heating is passed on from generation to generation in this rural area and some suggest that telling these stories is another way that people can retain their rural identity.
Certainly some of our children are moving into old houses and they are also cutting with wood and heating with wood. My kids complained about doing firewood but it is part of their life. They like to tell people in the city about doing firewood. They enjoy it – it is one of their stories.
Wood energy and rural economy
In the context of the forest-based community where this study was conducted participants identified many economic benefits from the sustained use of wood energy. Direct financial benefits of wood energy accrued to homeowners, wood fuel suppliers, and to a host of local businesses with links to wood energy like woodstove retailers, and chainsaw sales and repair services. The community in general benefited from wood energy when the direct costs of fuel for heating remained within the local community instead of being exported to oil and gas companies. The importance of wood energy in the local economy was summed up by the reflection of this participant:
It is one part of the local economy – but it is a very important part. I don’t import my wood. I buy locally and I sell locally.
There are obvious economic benefits for the variety of small and large-scale wood fuel suppliers in the area. Most participants reported purchasing their fuel wood from small suppliers who are often processing their own wood and for one or two other families. It is estimated that supplying wood in this manner amounts to an additional $1000 to $2000 for their labour and resource. Larger scale fuel wood suppliers, while charging the same per cord, sometimes include GST [a value added tax] and a tax receipt. The majority wood fuel purchases are through cash transactions that allow more money to stay in circulation in the local community. One participant contemplated the relevance of this situation:
Probably not having a receipt and no record of that transaction is also part of the local economy. If these guys had to pay taxes on the firewood they sold they probably wouldn’t be able to buy as many chains for the chainsaw.
The less obvious benefits from using wood energy for the community comes from direct fuel costs staying in the area, unlike oil and gas costs that benefit other areas and corporations. Participants indicated that their savings on fuel tend to circulate in the community for other purchases. Those participants who cut wood off their own property also confirmed that their savings on fuel are often spent locally. These participants saw the duel benefits of heating with wood they have cut themselves as evident in this comment:
We are improving our own bush and improving our pocketbook.
This link between personal, community and environmental benefits was expanded upon when participants discussed local forestry practices.
Wood energy and sustainable forestry practices
Participants felt that, on the whole, the use of wood for residential heating contributed to sustainable forestry practices, and therefore to the sustainability of their communities. They generally agreed that people who cut a portion of their own firewood, and suppliers who live on the family homestead, practice sustainable forestry. Participants were not always sure of the forestry practices of many woodfuel suppliers, in particular the large suppliers.
Participants reported that woodlots managed sustainably could produce firewood and some lumber in perpetuity. One woman noted:
Well heating with wood makes sense because we can grow trees right here – this farm has enough trees for a couple of families to last forever. We would not have made a dent in this 174 acres of bush really.
Another participant agreed:
I am confident that a family of our size could live off this thirty-five acres – we could easily live off it forever. I think we could even now and then harvest some lumber for sale.
Not only did most participants feel that fuelwood production could be carried in perpetuity they also felt it helped the quality of the bush.
Trees die and you clean up the forest – it is garbage wood. You burn them. This is mostly what people are doing. Not selling good trees. I have enough wood on the farm – if I just took dead trees – for 5 years of heating. But I have to cut it and move it and keep up with it.
Proper woodlot management is something “you learn from others. And learn about taking care of a bush by being in it. By working in it”. Participants who maintained their bush for wood fuel and some lumber, and those who bought from small suppliers they where familiar with, expressed that “it is family property – they are not going to go through and clearcut – they would not think of it”.
Many participants reported that they sought out woodfuel suppliers who showed respect for the bush and for their work. Two households mentioned an elderly couple who work together in their fuel wood supply business.
I enjoyed when my wood was delivered – this old couple – it was neat. They were older than I am – into their 70s – and plugging away. And obviously proud of what they were doing. They were doing something good and made them feel good. It was for more than the money they were doing it for – for sure.
Maintaining the bush is also considered beneficial for enjoying nature and for recreational activities that encourage tourism. One participant noted:
You get addicted to being in the woods. Just want to go out and sit on a log and listen to the birds for awhile.
The notion that the bush is a sustainable resource is prevalent in the area. It is common to hear people discuss the family bush as their children’s inheritance to be passed on to future generations.
That is the kid’s inheritance. Like J.M. talks about it all the time. He looks up his ridge of Oak and says – there is my kid’s inheritance -there is all my RRSPs [retirement savings account].
Participants acknowledged that they were sure there were some woodfuel operations that were not sustainable, they were more concerned about logging practices not related to wood fuel. It was generally felt that “people are not decimating the bush for firewood — it is for lumber”. Participants had seen a significant and visible change in the last couple of years of forest management practices. It was felt that these changes have occurred for a couple of reasons: one, there is this widespread reaction against possible government restrictions on cutting that has prompted more cutting of the bush for lumber; two, it was also felt that lumber mills that have refitted to be fibre board plants had encouraged the cutting of smaller and smaller trees. As one participant described the situation with the local mill:
They need 5000 logs a week to keep that place going. There will be no forest left. They go through with harvester and skidder and a slasher saw. When they are going through the bush some of them are 12 ft wide. If trees are not cut down they drive over them.
Participants expressed concern about the future of their rural community in relation to transportation. Many of the participants were concerned about how the lack of public transportation and their need to drive everywhere contributes to pollution, is expensive and in many ways counteracts the positive results from using a renewable energy source.
I wonder about this whole rural living in a way – we might burn wood for heat but we sure burn a lot of gas getting from place to place.
Another participant expressed similar concerns:
The oil issue worries me a citizen of the planet. We are so dependent on our vehicles here. It will be difficult in terms of mobility or being able to plug ourselves into anything beyond the village life. And my village only has six houses and no store.
Gendered Differences in Relation to Wood Energy
The wood fuel users acknowledged that gender in discussions of energy is relevant for developing an energy literacy that can facilitate an informed and equitable sustainable energy transition. As previously identified, there is a tendency to overlook, or at the best homogenize, people’s relationship to energy in industrialized contexts, marginalizing women’s experiences and the role that they play in energy management, conservation and education. However, viewing energy through a gendered lens focuses on alternative experiences of everyday life and makes women’s role in energy more visible.
The gender dimensions that arose in this study related to household division of labour, differences in use of technology, and women’s perspectives on wood energy.
Household division of labour
All family members, men, women and children, are actively involved in one form or another in woodfuel management. This was the case in all but two of the families interviewed for this study. However, the interviews revealed that there are distinct divisions of labour based on gender when it comes to woodfuel processing, stacking, carrying and loading of the woodstove. These divisions were found even in those households that demonstrated equal division of other household and outside tasks.
In most households the gendered relations of labour were roughly based on an inside and outside division. In general, cutting and processing firewood was the primary responsibility of men, whereas the inside work of maintaining fires, particularly cookstoves, was the primary responsibility of women. This relationship changed somewhat with men taking more responsibility if the heating was done with a furnace in the basement instead of a woodstove in the living space. On the other hand, the splitting of wood and stacking of the woodpile is often a shared activity. Children are involved in stacking wood, and take primary responsibility for carrying wood into the house.
Many participants saw this approach to the management of woodfuel as consistent with the traditional division of labour that has been prominent in the community. A senior woman described the division of labour growing up in her local household:
Mother was the inside and Daddy was the outside. She did gardens outside. But everything was her until we got older to help. I can’t remember even starting a fire at home.
Participants identified a number of reasons for this gendered division of labour. A number of participants suggested their rural lifestyles that require woodfuel management and garden planting and harvesting to happen somewhat simultaneously has required some division of labour. One woman reminisced:
I found that once I moved to the country there were a lot more men’s roles and women’s roles. When you have that much work to do in the summer season they do make some sense.
There are numerous exceptions to this division of labour based on changing circumstances and situations. For example, the single women interviewed for this study are responsible for all aspects of their household woodfuel management. And in another situation:
In this household there are 2 men that live here and 2 women. Mom actually does the largest part of the piling of the wood into the wood shed – we go through 6 – 8 full bush cords a year – so she manages that. She windrows it in the yard with a little help from the kids and us – she is the one who lugs most of the wood into the house.
Most participants felt that much of the division of labour was based on practical division of labour based mostly on the physical limitations of women using certain forms of technology.
Gender and wood energy technology
Participants were not able to fully identify why a division of labour existed in relation to wood energy, however, all agreed that the required use of a chainsaw has been a significant barrier to women’s full participation. One male participant described this situation: “On the cutting end of it there are the tools that a lot of women are not used to using that they find scary like chain saws”.
One women who grew up in the area discussed that even though she spent lots of time in the bush with her father, it was her brothers that were taught to cut wood, while she was expected to split and stack. Another woman interviewed for this study who was a housebuilder and is now a blacksmith expressed her reluctance to use the chainsaw:
It is not the tool thing – because I am comfortable with tools and I did a lot of the building so it kind of went that way – because it was something he was comfortable with and good at doing – while I was more comfortable doing the building.
Four of the women interviewed owned a smaller sized chainsaw. However, these chainsaws are used mostly for small jobs in the yard and trimming fallen trees. One woman who has been recently widowed described her experience of trying to learn to use a chainsaw.
I bought a chainsaw at one point and I was using it. But I found anytime I went out to help with firewood my husband always preferred that I drag brush away and stack it and get it out of the way rather than doing the chainsaw because it was just more efficient with him using the chainsaw. So I never learned to use it which is unfortunate now that he has gone.
However, most of the women who are in relationships felt that they were fortunate that their partners are willing and competent with the chainsaw. A couple of women joked that “if I used the chainsaw it would be just be one more thing I had to do. Just as well not to learn”.
When it comes to wood burning technology men and women had equal comfort and competence with the functioning and management of woodstoves, furnaces, and other wood energy appliances like barbeques and maple syrup evaporators.
The purchase of a wood stove, particularly if it is to be in the main floor of the house, was a joint decision. Women and men were equally interested in correct burning technique, clean burning fire, and wood conservation, while women were more interested in management of ashes, placement of wood storage, size of wood, and environmental implications of woodburning. One woodstove retailer did detect a difference in women’s willingness to learn and to take initiative for their own learning about wood energy technology.
I find women have a lot more really good questions. And women listen and hear to what you have to say. And they are willing to do a little research on their own. They are not as dependent on you to spend hours telling them stuff. You can spend 5 minutes telling them where they can go and find the stuff themselves. They are able educate themselves and they will do that much more willingly then men.
Women and wood energy
The previous discussion made visible the reality that men and women in some rural communities in developed countries have maintained daily hands-on involvement with energy. However, the case study also confirmed that women’s experience with energy has been shaped somewhat differently then men’s experiences of energy. Women felt there was a distinct gender difference in the use of energy in rural households. For example, “men tend to use four wheelers and skidoos – men are recreational consumers of energy – whereas women are not”
Two things in particular emerged in this case study that can provide some insight into the development of an energy literacy. These themes are: poverty and how it can link women across the globe; and, responding to gender barriers by learning with other women.
The four single women participants in this study, like the two single women from the solar energy case study, identified that poverty had influenced their use of wood energy. Three women lived in log houses, while the other three lived in frame houses. All of these homes are aging with need for energy efficient insulation and windows. All of the women described wood as the only affordable option, as well as being a preference of heating source.
All of the women bought wood from a supplier and had it delivered. However, after delivery these women were solely responsible for stacking, some splitting, and daily loading of the wood box and wood stove. One woman echoed others sentiments when she stated: “the labour involved in handling the wood is a way to offset high costs of other heating fuels”.
Women described how having low heating bills was important, however, there was some concern about having to pay for the wood all at once. There was often anxiety about having enough cash to pay for woodfuel in the fall. As one women described:
I don’t make enough off my farm income to survive. All the bills come in the fall. Every fall I get really anxious. You have taxes and firewood and Christmas – gets hard and it all comes at once. I am probably making as much as I would on welfare.
On the other hand, women felt that since everyone else in the community was using wood there was no social stigma associated with using a cheap heating fuel.
A couple of the women discussed how their use of wood energy broadened their understanding of energy and approach to energy in a way that was very different from women and men in urban situations. A couple of women discussed satisfaction with being able to look after their energy needs by being able to split and haul wood. One woman laughed about this:
I was thinking when city people come to visit I get to feel like an Amazon. I can even split a few pieces of wood to show off. Well not really show off – but it feels good.
Two of the women mentioned how using wood energy links them to women in other parts of the world.
I think of the work of using wood energy in terms of what the rest of the world has to do sometimes to keep their lives going. Women can take 5-6 hours to collect the fuel the need to do basic cooking. We don’t want to have to do that. But it is nice not to be so far way from those women – to be plugged into that human sustenance and reality to realize we don’t live by magic. We are a wee bit different from most of Western society that thinks heat comes from turning the dial and meat comes in Styrofoam trays.
Linking with women was very important to the woman woodstove retailer in Lanark County that was interviewed for this case study. This retailer contributed much of her success and ability to get through the early years as a woman in a male dominated business to the one other woman woodstove owner in Ontario (only a few in all of North America). She approached her mentor recently and told her: “you know if it weren’t for you I would not be where I am now. You were there to help me get to where I am”.
Learning about Energy: Everyday Life and a Sense of Place
Learning about energy needs to be a component of a transition toward more sustainable lifestyles. The previous discussion about the experiences of wood energy users offered a view of energy that is rooted in the local cultural and physical landscape. By extension, learning about wood energy has been done in connection with the local community and the local environment, using traditional knowledge in combination with advanced wood burning technology.
As noted in the previous case study the intention of this study is to use the experiences of renewable energy users as the basis for an energy literacy. The intention of this section of the case study is to summarize aspects of learning that can inform an energy literacy. In this section I want to briefly focus on aspects of learning that link individual and community learning with the local environment. This case study in particular offers some understanding of learning from a balance of everyday experience, traditional knowledge and transitions in technology.
Learning about energy from everyday life: tradition and transitions
Participants described that learning about wood energy is a cyclical and multidimensional process that revolves around the home, the community, and local forest resources, and applies practical, traditional and technological knowledge.
In the household people learn about woodburning through daily management of wood energy. Wood energy is a hands-on labour intensive way to heat your home. It is through participation in the process of using wood energy that people have gained a unique awareness of energy. All participants described how using wood for heating “makes us very aware of our energy use” because “every other form of heating is hands off”. Learning about energy from daily experience is reflected in this participant’s comment:
We have talked a whole lot about how intimate we are on a daily basis with making the wood energy process happen. I am sure we have a much clearer understanding – and gut feeling of what is involved in energy
There are different aspects to learning how to burn wood in your household. This participant described some of these characteristics:
There is definitely something about resourcefulness with wood energy. Knowing what is going to work for what situation – it is just learning all the time – about wood, about fire, about oxygen, about your own home and your own stove.
During the last twenty years the development of more efficient woodstove technology has prompted a transition toward more efficient and ecological wood heating techniques. Several participants attributed increased awareness to a local woodstove store that carried new technology and had certified staff with helping them to learn about efficient use of wood and clean woodburning techniques. One participant described his transition to more efficient use of wood.
My old way of woodburning changed with the new stoves. New technology – a whole new stove. A lot of my old friends don’t like airtight stoves. A lot of people didn’t seem to understand that kind of burning technique. Burn it hot until the juice it out of the wood and turn it down. The old style was to put one big log in and get something good out of that. Really, everyone has a different way of burning. Some people burn their whole life and don’t know how to burn properly.
Despite advancements in learning about proper wood burning there is still the common perception that heating with wood is a relatively simple matter. As one retailer described:
There are a lot of people who come in that don’t expect that there is anything to learn. They think that what you do is you buy something and stick a piece of wood in there and you light it and that is all there is to it. There is a lot of time spent with every couple that buys a wood stove. Even if they have a high efficiency wood stove there is always education. Time spent doing that is always worthwhile – they understand it better and it will work better for them because they understand how it works.
Participants were concerned that burning stoves inefficiently “is wasteful – you can get a lot more heat burning properly”. And participants identified that there is still resistance from older people that there is anything more they could learn about wood burning. In particular, participants have noticed considerable skepticism about new stove technology, and widespread concern about “university educated” forestry professionals.
Even participants committed to advanced woodstove technology agreed with local skepticism about forestry specialists. There was general agreement among participants that learning how to look after the bush in the traditional manner is a healthy choice for the forest. There was also agreement that there was a significant difference in attitudes about maintaining the forest based on private ownership or public ownership. People who live on their woodlot, and are maintaining the family homestead, tend to view the forest as a permanent resource that needs to be managed properly. While participants expressed support for publicly owned lands there was concern about “the way these lands are managed by political whims and not always forestry health”.
Many of the people who grew up in the area learned from being in the bush and from local practices. A participant explained: “Growing up in the bush you can see how things grow”. And another participant stated:
Wood is the nicest thing there is. It is renewable. Trees grow again. I know a lot of the oldtimers they cut their bush so they would always have firewood and always have good trees. They learned from their Dads.
People who have moved to the area felt that they have learned everything they know about maintaining a forest, and other farm related activities, from local practices. The respect for local practices is evident in this participant’s reflection:
On the wood end we learned strictly from locals. What to cut, what burns best, when to cut it, and how to stack it. Our neighbour was very gentle in teaching us with patience. Always willing to share anything that he had to offer.
Just as learning about wood burning is not static, most participants viewed learning proper forest management as an ongoing process done in conjunction with other community members.
I am still learning about chopping down trees. I am learning about wood and ecology of wood. It is because we talk about it so much here – you always learn something – from a neighbor or a friend.
In the end, keeping a house warm with wood energy is learning to balance modern technology, with traditional knowledge, with a little intuition about nature. As this participant describes:
Wood burning connects you with nature through the weather too, in that you are constantly adjusting for the weather. There is no automatic thermostat on the wall – you are it – you are looking and listening to the weather and looking at the thermostat and trying to judge how much wood to throw in.
The stories of many of the participants interviewed for this study confirmed that using wood energy helps people to learn about energy in the context of everyday life, learn together in community, and to do this within the limits of the environment and the cycles of nature.
In this case study I have presented the experiences of a small number of rural people who use wood energy for their household heating requirements. I have presented their stories as much as possible using participant’s words to describe the culture of wood energy, how it contributed to rural community sustainability, the gendered dimensions of wood energy, and what has been learned about using wood energy in the context of a rural forest-based community.