Saturday, January 5, 2008

Stayin' Warm?

Zero degrees again. the goose egg.

Stayin' warm? That's what Mainers ask each other this time of year, when they meet neighbors and friends at the post office, the hardware store, or the Brooks "general." The standard greeting.

If you are not "stayin' warm" then that's a very big problem. Something went wrong with your efforts to ensure heat for the winter. You don't have enough firewood. You can't afford oil or propane or kerosene. The furnace is "out" and you can't get a furnace guy to come look at it. To some extent, this is definitely your problem, not your neighbors. Particularly if you are a responsible adult, you're the one that must make the plans, get in the firewood, buy the heat oil, put in the insulation. This is rock-ribbed, formerly Republican New England, after all. But if you're old, or sick, or just pathetic, and not "stayin' warm," someone will like as not take pity on you, and deliver a truckload of free wood scraps, or put plastic on your leaky windows, or loan you their back-up heaters and fuel. They'll do their best to shrug off the good deed. Charity is demeaning, we understand up here, even when it absolutely genuine and comes from the heart.

So no-one will make a big deal of any such good deed. Charity is not something you wear on your sleeve, like the millionaire who gives money to the church and is celebrated loudly. That was all over Georgia when I lived down there. Up here, charity is an underground phenomenon. But surprisingly widespread, especially among older men, the most competent and silver-backed (and modest) of whom often have three or four shut-ins they very secretly keep an eye on. Even their wives may not know that for years they've been helping some old lady out. When it gets cold.

Mainers also like to have "back-up for back-up" when it comes to heat. We like wood stoves because they keep going in power cuts, which always come with ice and wind storms. Power cuts are a norm, not an exception. We like to have back up generators and inverters, to run furnaces and well pumps and light bulbs. A big old oil or coal furnace, even if you don't use it much because you heat with wood, is never a bad thing to have. It's even worth having three or four of those 110 volt electric radiators, because having one for each room you actually use will keep you from the utter misery of not "stayin' warm." We also have elaborate back-up systems of heat tape and strategically placed light bulbs to keep pumps, well, and pipes from freezing if furnaces quit.

If all else fails, one of those stand-alone kerosene heaters, where the fumes go right into the house, will be a life-saver. All your liberal ideas about health and air pollution will go out the window. You'll happily breathe those foul fumes, pull your chair right up to the heat, suck it down, just to stay warm.

If, for some reason, you are defeated in this fight, and the quiet charity of your neighbors fails you, the cold will creep into your house like an icy blight. The walls will feel cold to the touch, the floor will hurt your feet, there won't be any place to get comfy. Reading a book, watching TV, eating dinner, sleeping, all these normal activities will become hard to do because you can't concentrate enough to do them, not even sleep, because the cold will nag you. You'll feel miserable. Your hands, feet, and nose will become numb. You'll find you have to keep moving. If you're old, you won't be able to, and your body core will cool down and you might die. If no-one comes to see you. But someone will.

If you leave, and go somewhere warm, like church, or the cinema, or work, you'll suddenly feel safe, and then happy, a little giddy with comfort, and then you'll begin to fall asleep.

Or, especially if you're younger, you'll become a little frantic, like a worried beaver or squirrel, and you'll run errands to the hardware store, perusing the heating appliances, counting your pennies, trying to find something that will make you warm again that you can afford. You'll troll through "Uncle Henry's" trying to find dry firewood. If you know your forest trees, your dendrology, and have land, you'll take your chainsaw, or even a bucksaw, and you'll cut down ash, and burn that, the only life-saving tree that will burn when green.

And our students say dendrology is silly, not useful. They've never been cold.

Don't worry about us. We're keepin' warm.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mick

    I left a comment for you just now on the Trinity College Sustainability blog. I am not sure if that was, or was not, the surest place to leave a message for you so I am putting a copy of it below, here. Apologies for the duplication.


    A few days ago, I started a new blog called


    It can be found at

    It is, and will continue to be, a very low level affair compared with your blogs but I have been looking through blogger profiles for people who have interests in architecture, politics and the enviroment to let them know about it.

    (If I don't mention it to people, well, no-one will know it is there.)

    I was interested to read about you because I think there are areas in which we may have similiar concerns (energy use) and sensitiivities (being very aware of our Britishness . . . in my case, Englishness). And other areas in which we would probably have very different attitudes (I notice you were at RAF Leuchars . . . I used to be at St Andrew's University so we have Fife in common . . . but I also used to take part in actions at Greenham Common, protesting against the introduction of Cruise Missiles there . . . )

    Anyway, I hope you don't mind me dropping by.

    SHOUTING AT THE RADIO is only three days old and any comments you may have as it develops will be very welcome.

    I can be contacted through the blog and by email

    Best wishes for 2008

    Susan Harwood

    P.S. The 'radio' being shouted at, in my case, is generally BBC Radio 4 or 5


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