As the season of the wood-burning stove nears an end, it's time to reflect on the social impact of its presence.

Life styles and behavior patterns shift with changing environments, and the explosion of homes using woodstoves during the last decade has left its mark. New words such as "airtight," "cord," and "creosote," now spring up in everyday conversation.

More importantly, new forms of comparison have surfaced. After spending $600 for the installation of the average woodstove, every stove owner compares his cost per cord of wood, the number of cords burned and the burn time of each stoking. The woodstove owner desperately wants to convince everyone--especially himself--that he is really saving money in the long run. It is probably a good rule never to trust the estimates of a woodstove user; the temptation to exaggerate overwhelms normal societal pressures for honesty.

Even when one cannot financially justify burning wood--particularly if time and effort in cutting, splitting and hauling the wood are included--there remains at least the satisfaction that a small step has been taken to reduce the homeowners' subsidy of the Arabs and the oil companies.

But the impact of the woodstove is not purely a question of economics. After four years of using a woodstove as our primary heat source, I am convinced that the consequences on our family are broader and potentially more important.

In a household of two parents, three children and a dog, the introduction of the woodstove into the family room made that area live up to its name and intended purpose. In the P.W. (Pre-Woodstove) era, the family room was cold and drew only those members who had lost the battle for the upstairs television. On most evenings family members would spread themselves around the house to read, do homework, complete projects, watch television. Central heating led to decentralized living. When every corner of the house was equally comfortable, family members found their own little corner and avoided everyone else.

The woodstove changed all this. It became a comfortable magnet for all family members. The lure of sitting around the stove's radiant warmth brought everyone out of their formerly cozy hiding places. The shift was not painless. New forms of compromise over what to watch on television, and whether to watch it at all, required new rules and understandings, but in general sitting around in one room increased communication and interest in others' activities.

Homework became more of a family challenge. Questions and discussions were not discouraged by distance or invading someone else's "turf." The kids seemed to develop a new appreciation for the work of both parents. The woodstove helped rekindle a sense of family.

The demands of the woodstove have also sparked a new sense of responsibility for providing a necessity such as heat. The gathering, cutting, stacking and stoking have become a family enterprise. Heat is no longer something magically provided by ripping off part of Dad's paycheck, but a joint effort of the whole family. Although the call to stack wood is not always a welcome intrusion into Saturday morning television, careful timing does turn it into an instant retreat from homework.

Family trips are planned around wood gathering, and numerous discussions have arisen when the children were made aware--visually--of declining natural resources. In the past the oil truck appeared with a cargo that had a mysterious origin someplace "over there." When we cut down the last dead tree in our yard, one of the children lamented that next winter, when that wood was gone, it sure was going to be cold.

In many realms--from fashions to woodstoves--current generations pick up the discards of past generations and define their use as progress. I was put duly in my place by my father after I had extolled the virtues of our woodstove. "When I stopped having to shovel coal into the furnace," he retorted, "THAT was progress. You are just making the best of a bad situation."

None of us wants to go back to the so-called "good old days." In fact, relying on a woodstove as a primary heat source makes one more thankful for modern conveniences. On those frigid mornings when no one wants to make the mad dash to stoke the stove, it is comforting to snuggle deeper in the covers waiting for the furnace to come on. Despite claims to the contrary, most wood burners in this area use their furnaces as a back-up system.

Despite claims of the manufacturer--and my proud boasts about burn time--our stove will not keep the house comfortable all night when the temperature gets below 20 degrees. On those cold nights, it is my duty to do the mid-night stoking. Although not always welcome at the time, the experience has a silver lining: My most creative times are those last few minutes before falling off to sleep.

For the first three years of woodstove heating, we heated our home with a $200 cast iron stove. Because we ran the stove pipe up through our fireplace chimney, we kept installation costs down: $30 for bricks to set the stove on, $15 for five feet of stove pipe, and $30 for insulation to build a firewall covering the fireplace. This year, we decided to take our accumulated savings and purchase a top-of-the-line cast iron stove ($875).

Friends with a house similar to ours spent $900 on oil this year. Our four-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot house (set at 65 during the day and 60 at night) used four cords of wood plus $60 worth of oil to heat it this season.

A cord of mixed hard wood--which costs $85 to $125--is equivalent in heating capability to about 140 gallons of heating oil, which goes for about $1.20 a gallon. Even paying top dollar for all four cords, we would have saved about $400. Since we gleaned three free cords and paid the off-season rate of $85 for the remaining cord, we saved even more.

Like most other woodstove owners, spiraling fuel costs drove us to seek an alternative heat source. Even if heating oil were to drop to its former bargain price, the woodstove would remain as a major heat source in our home . . . although with a little bit of pressure I might be willing to sacrifice the creativity spawned by that 3 a.m. dash through a cold house.