Jerry Williams pulls two oak logs off a neat stack outside his house. In spite of the chill Arlington evening, he's wearing just a short-sleeve shirt. He grasps one log in each hand and whacks them together.
Thwock! The report is crisp and high.
"Hear that?" he asks. "When you get that crack, it's starting to be good wood."
Across the Potomac River, in the Glover Park section of Washington, Jim Lively shows off a couple cords of mostly elm, oak and maple. He scavenged it all from fallen street trees within a mile or two of his house. He pulls out a steel strongbox holding a collection of sharpened wedges and hefts a wood-handled maul with a head like a bladed sledgehammer.
"Here's my tools of the trade," he says. "I like to be prepared."
Astronomical home heating prices are bringing out the inner mountain man in people. Messy, physical, real -- wood is the original comfort technology.
The appeal is more than the romance of the hearth, more even than mere relief to the wallet. Match + wood = heat. Simple. No fuss with unseen forces -- gas pipes, oil trucks, electric grids and $400 checks to utilities and fuel companies. Trust in wood, and neither terrorism nor hurricanes nor inscrutable global economic forces can stand in your way.
"You put on a flannel shirt, you go outside, you breathe the cold, brisk air," says John Juliano, a truck driver in Marshall who just bought a high-efficiency wood-burning fireplace insert. He gets his wood free from a buddy in landscaping. "It's invigorating. . . . It's like the commercials: 'Put Campbell's Soup on.' "
"People don't want to be held hostage by the fuel companies, and in an emergency situation, if all else fails, they could find a piece of wood to heat the house," says Judy Miller, co-owner of Woodburners Two, a fireplace store in Falls Church.
People who haven't lit their wood stoves since the energy crisis of the Carter administration are stacking cords under the back deck. The passion for wood has no comparison in recent memory. Survivalist urges that arose pre-Y2K and post-9/11 were just fleeting boosts to stove sales.
"This time it's real," says Rich Cartlidge, owner of Bromwell's fireplace store, also in Falls Church. "The increase of prices, as opposed to a phantom problem. It's greater. . . . There are people with back yards full of wood, and they want to put it to use rather than pay Washington Gas."
The wood industry -- from the guys with pickup trucks dumping cords in driveways to the chimney-accessories dealers to the manufacturers of wood stoves -- is thrilled, and a little stunned.
Don Saunders Jr., founder of Saunders Landscape Supply in Burke, is logging a lot more miles in his black-and-white International 4700 truck. In all of last season, he delivered 217 cords of oak, mostly in Northern Virginia. By Thanksgiving this year, he had delivered 313. He charged $165 a cord last year. He began this season at $175 a cord, then bumped it up to $185 in October to cover the rising cost of diesel for his truck, he says.
In 27 years of business, Woodburners Two has never had so many wood stoves and wood-burning fireplace inserts on back order, Miller says.
At Bromwell's, Cartlidge says in mid-October he ordered an extra truckload of about 100 stoves and inserts because he was getting a lot of inquiries from customers. Now he wishes he had ordered two truckloads. He has also burned through much of his warehouse supply. In one month this fall, he says, he sold three or four times more wood stoves and inserts than he did all of last year.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, are scrambling to meet demand that is two to three times greater than they had expected. They can't find enough welders and pieces of steel and cast iron to assemble all the wood stoves. Thousands of deliveries are a month behind.
"In September, all hell broke loose," says Tony Woodruff, president of FPI Fireplace Products International, a major manufacturer based outside Vancouver, B.C. "It was like the American consumer suddenly went, 'Oh, my God. It's going to cost me a lot more this winter. I've got to do something about it!' "
It used to be that people who bought wood stoves from those crunchy catalogues or those precious showrooms were considered just a little eccentric, but harmless. They probably came from New England or way out in the country, and they had Shaker furniture, crochet wall-hangings and a well-used set of copper-bottom pots in the kitchen. Or they were misguidedly trendy, re-doing the family room in neo-ski chalet.
Now the wood stove people look like visionaries.
Williams recently placed his new black Vermont Castings stove in a corner of a big room he is adding to his Arlington home. He paid about $4,000 for the top-of-the-line stove, including installation. (Not counting installation, wood stoves cost about $1,100 to $2,400).
He hasn't finished the room yet or fired up the stove, but he waxes both poetic and practical about his new lifestyle. The stove will join such amenities in his "Oak Room" as a pool table, bar, leather chair, couches. It will heat the 33-by-24-foot addition with 12-foot cathedral ceilings, and the heat will waft through the rest of the house, reducing the need to use his natural-gas furnace. It cost $300 to $400 per month to heat the house last year, and even with the price hike he is hoping for the bills to be only $100 to $125 per month in this first year of the stove. He certainly will save the expense of conventionally heating the addition. He bought two cords (a cord is 128 cubic feet) for the winter from Saunders for $370. Over time, he expects the stove to pay for itself.
He'll light the stove once and feed it twice a day for a permanent burn. He'll be able to watch the fire through the glass front, or open the stove door for a heightened fireplace effect and smoky aromas.
He and his friends will sit in the leather chairs and drink 30-year-old brandy in front of the fire.
"It's the perfect solution," Williams says. "You save money and have a good time doing it. There's nothing like a big room with a wood fire burning in it. The warmth and the cheeriness of it. Who knows, maybe it's primordial."
Yes, primordial. The timeless twin attributes of fire. There is the non-heat-related ambiance -- romance, nostalgia, fellowship, family, the tribe gathered before the hearth, flickering glints in the eyes of a mesmerized child, a contemplative collie. This is fire's victory over spiritual and emotional cold. And then there is the warmth itself -- fire's victory over physical cold.
For the ambiance part of the equation, any regular fireplace will do. Throw on a log, hold someone close, summon times gone by in the glow of dancing flames and pulsing embers.
But as a heating device in an age of high gas prices, the regular fireplace is a fraud. It may look hot, but 90 percent of the heat goes up the chimney. In the lingo of the industry, a wood-burning fireplace is 10 percent efficient. And it pollutes the air.
Wood stoves, on the other hand, can be about 75 percent efficient, manufacturers say. If you don't like the classic stove look, another option is the wood-burning fireplace insert, essentially a combustion chamber with a glass door that fits into your fireplace. They're similarly efficient and cost up to about $2,700. Modern wood stoves used to have catalytic converters to clean their emissions, but now stoves and inserts have secondary burn tubes that consume more of the dirty gases before they go up the chimney.
Depending on the size of the stove or the insert, you can heat a room or your whole house.
The Jeter family has yet to turn on the furnace this fall in their brick Colonial in Springfield, but the wood-burning fireplace insert in the family room has been burning logs every day except one since it was bought in October. Last year the November gas bill was $170, and heating bills averaged about $300 a month last winter. This year: zero, so far.
The insert cost about $3,800 including installation, and the family bought four cords of wood for $720.
"Over a couple years, we'll get our money back," says Tim Jeter. "I've done my homework on it."
The evening before Thanksgiving, three of the four Jeter daughters -- Jackie Garcia, 19, Jordan Jeter, 15, and Chloe Jeter, 12 -- sit in front of the fire. Their mother, Lisa, adds another log and shuts the glass door. The girls watch the blue flames, which seem to wave in slow motion.
The thermostat in the dining room at the other end of the house reads 76 degrees.
They were inspired by the family next door, who got an insert some years ago. When the two families got their cords of wood delivered this fall, they had a contest to see who could stack it first. The Jeter girls beat the two boys next door.
"It's a family thing for us," says Tim Jeter, a retired Fairfax County firefighter.
A chimney products store is a self-consciously cheery place. All those frolicking flames! All that polished brass! After a while, it's like a smile that lingers an inappropriately long time. Spend enough time in the store, and eventually the flames cease to register on your brain; they lose their meaning and seem to disappear, like all the TVs in Sears.
This is gas-fueled cheer, of course. No one burns real logs in the fireplace store. Too messy, too much trouble. The wood stoves and inserts for sale are empty, while the gas stoves, gas inserts and gas logs burn on and on, odorlessly, silently.
Here's the weird thing: Despite high fuel prices, gas is doing all right in this winter of wood. For several years gas products have been king in the fireplace business. This winter, locally and nationally, wood units are dramatically retaking ground, but still, far more gas guzzlers than wood burners are being sold.
Inside Bromwell's, Cartlidge picks up a remote control unit. It is much lighter than Jim Lively's maul. Cartlidge hits a button and fires up some gas logs. He has an aesthete's appreciation for artificial fire display, and this unit is one of his favorites.
"That's about as good as you're going to see in terms of yellow flames and red-glowing-log effect," he says.
The piles of fake logs have names such as "Real-Fyre," "Rugged Split Oak," "Forest Oak," "Split Oak Designer Plus," "Texas Stack" and "The Blazing Inferno."
Both the price and efficiency of gas units are slightly higher than wood-burning ones. Depending on the product, the gas units burn fuel at the rate of about 50 cents to $1.50 an hour. You can turn down the thermostat on your furnace and heat part or all of your house with your gas fireplace.
"There's a romance associated with wood burning," Cartlidge says. "You smell it. You hear it. It's what people remember. There's something invigorating about splitting wood.
"But when the day is done, it's messy."
People do reach that conclusion.
But Tim Jeter went to the wood because he wished to live deliberately (apologies to Thoreau). He grew up in rural Stafford County, where he and his cousin had the job of splitting logs and filling the wood shed for the stoves his grandmother used for cooking and heating.
"We joked we'd never split wood again," Jeter says, remembering those days past and rocking back on his heels in the cozy present of his wood-warmed home. "Here I've come full circle."