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Villeggiatura: the role of the wood burning stove in your retirement plan

Running a wood burning stove can be good for your health and good for your bank balance, as well as heating your home, but it's not for everyone.

Last week, I visited a charming retired couple who, after one freezing winter and outrageous gas bill too many, had been considering putting in a large stove in their large house, but who decided, on reflection, that running it was just going to be too much work for them. They didn’t want to spend their dotage filling up the log basket from the log store, fiddling with paper, kindling and matches on a daily basis, or scooping out and disposing of ashes.

 These activities are part and parcel of owning a wood burning stove, unless you have servants to perform them for you, and you definitely need to think carefully about how much work you can be bothered to put into heating your house. If your stove is just there to enliven dinner parties, it might seem charming to jump up once an hour to put on another log; if you’ve calculated on it underpinning your quotidian domestic heat requirements, but have failed to think through how a stove differs from gas-fired central heating, it might quickly become a chore.

I was reminded of the words attributed to the jazzman Eubie Blake, who lived to the age of 96 (though he claimed to have reached 100 five days before his death) who famously opined, ‘If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.’  

It’s a sentiment that anyone over the age of forty, however sprightly, has probably experienced, and one that is highlighted by Dan Buettner, a writer who has investigated the ‘Blue Zones’ in the world where life expectancy is statistically unusually high, who notes that the denizens of these outposts of longevity become ‘unintentionally old’. How they have come to live such a long time, and with such grace and contentment, is a subject of infinite fascination for a species inherently conscious of its own mortality, and the answer is at least partly to do with a proximity to nature and an active lifestyle.

One of the supposed advantages of living in what the great French thinker Claude Levi-Strauss termed derisively ‘la civilisation mechanique’ is a liberation from the drudgery of domestic tasks. John Maynard Keynes, with characteristic whimsy, imagined that in the future (meaning now), technology would have liberated us enough to work just fifteen hour weeks and to devote the rest of our time to edifying activities. While Mark E Smith of ‘The Fall’ reminds us in his autobiography, ‘Produce, produce – it’s the only thing you’re there for,’ efficiencies should by now mean we can all spend our time learning foreign languages, writing symphonies and concocting dance routines.  In fact, though, for whatever reason, this utopia has not materialised, and even if it had, we would probably not have spent the dividend wisely.  As Bertrand Russell said, ‘To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation, and at present very few people have reached this level.’ As it is, British people fill most of their leisure time with the random idiocy of television or by trawling the never-ending virtual shopping mall-cum-lunatic asylum of the internet.

The problem with this is not just the appalling lack of ambition, the blighted lives and the squandered talent. It is also that, as whole tribes of doctors and health professionals queue up to tell us, the sedentary life is not only killing us, but, what is worse, destroying our health so that our medically-extended lives are of poor quality, characterised by cancer, diabetes, senility and premature enfeeblement.

Increasingly, the debate about old age is less about extending life duration than improving the quality of it, and is framed in terms of Healthy life expectancy versus Total life expectancy. The existence of the ‘Blue zones’ is evidence that a combination of the two can, and should, in a mature and moral society, be achieved.

On a more prosaic level, there are serious doubts about our ability as a society to pay for the scale of care that endemic ill health necessitates. Like an inept surgeon, the government has been groping the welfare budget for any slack, clumsily cutting a bit of winter fuel allowance here and a free bus pass there, yet still costs spiral. It’s only a matter of time before the scalpel starts to be wielded more ruthlessly.

At the same time, the powers-that-be have long been trying to nudge us into healthier activity, not least because most health complications today are not from external causes – bacteriological infections or the trauma of violence - but from what we inflict on our own bodies: routinely poor diet, the over-consumption of alcohol, lack of activity, sedentary lifestyle, overwork, loneliness and needling anxiety.

 However, the motivation required to keep re-approaching the gym treadmill sometimes requires a level of narcissism more easily accessed by the young than by the elderly in need of exercise, doing Sudoku in order to keep your brain active is unsurprisingly not as fulfilling as doing an activity for fun, and the discipline to rein in self-destructive impulses can be hard to find when you’re bored.

The notion of cut-price preventative medicine has form in Communist China. After the Cultural Revolution, when all the doctors had been murdered, clerical revenue producers been put to work in the fields and the coffers were empty, the totalitarian ruling elite realised they would have to do something to stop people getting ill. They hit upon the gimmick of Tai Chi, and spun out a bastardised version of the dance-like martial art and made three months of practice a necessary pre-condition of medical attention. This of course was a great boon for Tai Chi teachers, but it also (depending on who you listen to) dramatically improved the health of the Chinese population (it could be that all the ill people, lacking medical attention, simply died, disappearing from the statistical scoreboard). The key to this is probably less in the mystical properties of Tai Chi, which were rather lost in the synthetic version of the institutionalised ‘short form’, but in the very fact of movement. Physical activity is essential to human health; as Jack London wrote in Whitefang, ‘Life is movement.’ Or, as the protagonist of Murakami’s novel ‘Dance, dance, dance’ is told, ‘Dance so it all keeps spinning. Don’t think. Dance. You gotta dance.’

This brings us back to the so-called mundane drudgery of domestic life. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed, ‘Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them,’ but there comes a point, at the end of a continuum formed of central heating, grocery deliveries, celebrity-chef ready meals and fully automated administrative transactions delivered painlessly by your gently whirring computer, when you start to wonder what it’s all for, and if civilisation has not , in fact, deflated into a general retreat.

Perhaps, like Julie Christie and Omar Sharif hiding out in their dacha in Doctor Zhivago, real liberation is actually to be found in a re-engagement with elemental realities of human existence: the cultivation and transformation of the mandatory ingredients of life through fully comprehensible processes. To grow vegetables, to maintain a house, to cook food, to keep animals, to chop firewood, to regulate a ticking stove; to engage in such activities is to re-engage with earthy reality, to calibrate time into meaningful sections and to genuinely enjoy the fruits of your labour in a logical evolution, rather than simply swapping a symbol – money – for the produce of someone else’s labour.

Not only might this be good and pleasurable for us, it might also become necessary for many.  More and more people are living in fuel poverty, energy prices are rising remorselessly, and underlying inflation is gradually pushing up the cost of living at the very time that salaries are shrinking, saving rates are static and the Chancellor’s axe is scoping out the choicest chunks in the budgetary tree: pensions and the bloated NHS budget will be prime targets in the next Parliament, whoever turns out to be wielding the axe.

Wood burning stoves have a natural place in this scheme of things, and can potentially save you a lot of money. Modern stoves are incredibly efficient at transforming wood into heat, and, suitably deployed, can minimise or even make redundant other forms of heating, especially in a small house. A good proportion of our number at The New Forest Wood Burning Centre heat their houses entirely with wood, not because they are zealots but because it makes sense.

Sourcing firewood can be good fun, and if you're prepared to be creative, can yield very cheap or even free wood too. Even if you just buy from log merchants, you still enjoy the liberty to buy at a time of your choosing, not at the point of use as with gas. If you can build up surpluses when cheaper wood is available, then there is no need to buy any when supplies become scarce in the winter months.

What is arguably inefficient about wood burning stoves is firstly the transformation of the fuel from living tree to dry log – a process that is not scale-able or ‘efficient’ like mass fossil-fuel extraction and distribution, and secondly, the fact that you need to re-fuel the stove by hand. These are the very factors, however, that can make the running of a stove so economical, and so good for you.

Running a stove can form part of an everyday active lifestyle that is, along with gardening, housework, cooking and walking, ideally suited to the elderly. Like Tai Chi, stove use involves slow and low-impact movement and good use of diverse muscle groups. If you are more active, chopping your own wood can give you an intense workout with significant aerobic and anaerobic benefits (i.e. it will leave you fitter and stronger, as long as you don’t cut your toes off).

Down-sizing is of course increasingly popular, but it may become imperative for many, and could conceivably transform the landscape of the nation. For those in or near retirement, or just worried about their future economic prospects, and specifically about how far their pension or savings might stretch, the main focus of concern might naturally be on security, autonomy and quality of life. Considerable savings can be achieved by moving to a smaller house, insulating it, having a wood burning stove, cultivating vegetables and being as self-sufficient as possible.

The low-tech lifestyle need hardly be one of hair-shirt misery. The residents of the Greek island of Ikaria – one of the Blue Zones – live long, happy lives relatively unblighted by depression, loneliness and stress. They may not have many possessions, jobs may be few and far between and the environment might be described as ‘austere’ by modern standards, but, in common with many peasant societies,  they enjoy simple comforts and active social lives, have good family ties, grow their own food, take naps and eat sensibly. The key to this healthy life expectancy is not a checklist, but an environmental engagement with the activities that underpin and perpetuate survival, an engagement which also seems to produce happiness as a by-product.

In a very different climate and at the opposite end of the longevity scale, for many people in Russia who have been failed by the demise of Communism and by corporate capitalism, salvation has come from a mini-boom in low-scale garden cultivation. While in Western Europe we tend to think of organic produce as an exclusive luxury, in Russia it is commonplace.

In 1999, ninety percent of Russia’s potatoes, the vast majority of its fruit and vegetables and over half its meat were produced by 35 million small family plots, and this in a country where the growing season is only 110 days! 2003’s Private Garden Plot Act was a further driver of small-scale agricultural production.

 Russia, of course, is not paradise. It has a male life expectancy of just 63, and has a famously chronic alcohol problem. Putin’s land reforms could also be seen as a cynical ploy to enfranchise a broad but toothless swathe of the electorate, thus using democratic levers to legitimise his own repressive authoritarian regime and buttress his authority. (Could democracy, which has long been treated as a byword for Liberty become the 21st Century’s tool of choice for oppression? Hmm..)

 The low-level gardening phenomenon demonstrates that a properly liberalised market economy might yet have some tricks up its sleeve, that there might be better ways of feeding the world and looking after it than selling it to Monsanto, and that ‘work’ for the old, unskilled or unappreciated need not necessarily mean working the tills at Tesco.

One is not, of course, advocating a world where the poor, old and dispossessed are reduced to serfdom, but looking for ways in which people can help themselves when the world seems to have shut the door on them. It could require some constructive legislation to limit the 'purchasing' power of monopolistic multi-nationals, the withdrawal of some supposedly protective regulation (‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’ – Benjamin Franklin) and the dethronement of some assumptions about aspirational consumption to which we have all become far too accustomed, but a more human, healthy, sustainable world is not out of the question, even on a planet of eight billion.

With a wood burning stove in every home? Perhaps not quite yet. We could start with just the New Forest!