Wrapping Christmas presents in the dark

Ah, electricity. Invisible and unappreciated until it’s gone.

               
Like most of the west coast, we here in South Beach, Oregon got hammered last week by back-to-back storms. Rain came down in sheets while wind did its best to rattle everything loose. On Thursday, everyone was talking about the big storm that was coming. When I woke up to blue skies, I rushed out to finish my Christmas shopping and maybe take myself out to lunch before the storm hit. While I was in the checkout line at Fred Meyer’s in Newport, I saw people coming in huddled in wet coats and knew the storm was starting. Folks were talking about getting over the Yaquina Bridge before it was closed. Forget lunch. Time to get home.
               
Rain spattered the windshield harder and harder as I drove south. Wind gently nudged the car as I crossed the bridge. But it wasn’t bad. I still had power to warm up my leftover pizza, to read by while I ate it, and to finish my work at the computer.
               
The lights flickered. I closed my files, but Facebook grabbed my attention until suddenly, silently, the computer screen went dark. Oh. It was 2:12 p.m. Twilight outside, twilight inside. All the little green and red lights on my various equipment were out. The pellet stove, which runs by electricity, had stopped. The only sound was the rain on the skylights and wind thrashing the trees.
                
Okay. I had a plan. Power failures are not unusual around here. I have flashlights in every room, a large supply of candles, and two electric lanterns. I have wood for the wood stove in the den. I have cold food to eat, plenty to drink. One never knows how long the power will stay out around here. Once it lasted two days. An area farther south stayed dark for almost a week.
               
Since I couldn’t work at the computer, this was my opportunity to wrap my Christmas presents. So I did, with loud music playing from the battery-operated radio I keep handy for storms. The sound is tinny, but it’s company.
            
I wrapped and wrapped until it got so dark I couldn’t tell blue ribbons from green.  Now it was lighter outside than in. The rain had stopped and the wind had slowed, so I took Annie out for a short walk. Soon we heard the chatter of a radio from an emergency vehicle and came upon the source of the power failure. A giant tree on the next block had fallen into the power lines. Rain-suited crews from the electric company had cut up the tree and were now restringing the wires from the highway to the street that connects with mine. Big trucks. Bright lights. Noise. “Thank you for what you’re doing!” I called.
               
 “No problem,” a guy hollered back.
             
Satisfied that eventually the lights would come back on, we turned back home, running into our neighbor and her children coming to see what was going on. We’re all nosy.
             
I had thought I would work on my Christmas cards, but darkness in the woods is truly dark, not like back in suburbia where night is only slightly different from day. Instead, I talked to a friend on my cell phone, then settled in front of the wood stove to build a fire. Big logs, little logs, kindling, building from a spark to an orange finger of flame to a roaring fire.
              
I sat back and watched the fire, all other duties canceled due to darkness. I thought about the days before electric lights. Even with candles and lanterns, the light is limited and full of shadows. You cannot see to do anything intricate. If you spill or drop something, it’s difficult to see where it went. It’s hard to stay clean. And surely you go to bed much earlier because it’s so dark.
              
Electric lights have changed the way we live our lives. Natural light has become irrelevant. Many people work round the clock under artificial light. If we need more light, we just plug it on and turn it on.We forget how easily that light could disappear.
              
It’s not just light I was missing. I would not be able to heat my food. The food in the refrigerator would spoil if the power stayed out. My cell phone would lose its charge, the house would cool down, and I would not be able to watch my TV shows. But I could adapt.
              
Luckily, I didn’t have to. At 6:00, just as I was about to make a ham sandwich for dinner, the lights came on. “Yay! Thank you!” I shouted as I hurriedly threw a fish in the frying pan and a potato in the microwave before the electricity changed its mind.
                
Despite predictions of 90 mph gusts, it turned out to be a pretty average winter storm here. We just had a few trees and branches down. In Newport, the big sign outside Bank of America blew down. In Portland, a tree fell on a car, killing the people inside. California had flooding and mudslides. But here in South Beach, we just had a little electricity-appreciation lesson.
              
Lights. I like ‘em.
How is your weather? Any storm damage? Please share your stories in the comments.

Making Fire from Sawdust: The Quest for Heat



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I knelt by the pellet stove shaking a colander over a pot, trying to separate the pellets from the sawdust. The pot was nearly full, and I could still see sawdust, so I used a slotted spoon to shake out a few pellets at time and toss them into the hopper. Every time I tossed a few more pellets in, I got more sawdust on the floor, on me, and on the dog, who huddled close for warmth.
Sometimes I missed the hopper, and pellets scattered in all directions. I cursed and rushed to pick them up before the dog ate them. She did eat a few. Tough poops tomorrow. Over and over, I swore to get rid of this stupid pellet stove that took so much work and only went on when it felt like it. I considered selling the house just to move someplace that had a normal heating system.
For those who have always lived in homes with gas or electric heating systems that go on and off automatically, keeping the house at a comfortable 68 or 70 degrees, the idea of a house without heat is unimaginable, but for a lot of people living in rural areas, it’s a reality. Around here, wood stoves are the norm, just like in the olden days.
Usually the pellets don’t come cushioned in sawdust. I had clearly gotten a few bad bags. When I finally gave up after three bags and took the others back, the guy at the lumber yard admitted he’d given me bags from the wrong pile, ones that were supposed to be thrown away. He replaced them, with two more for my troubles. By then, I had taken pictures and prepared to argue for a refund, thinking they wouldn’t believe me. But the guy was waiting for me. He was already aware of his mistake and knew I’d be back. I just wish I’d come back three bags sooner.
Three vacuumings of the pellet stove later, it seems to be working, but there are no guarantees. I’ll do anything to avoid another visit from the serviceman who charges hundreds of dollars to spend hours in my living room, stove parts everywhere, lecturing me on how I need to clean the stove with little brushes every five minute and sift every bag of pellets for sawdust. 
 
This winter has been unusually cold, and I’m going through more than one 40-pound bag of pellets a day. When I was in California for a week last month, Oregon had record-setting low temperatures, down to 14 a couple nights in South Beach. It snowed, and the snow froze into a solid sheet of ice that closed down everything. It was cold. Damned cold. So cold the strings on my bandurria came unstrung. So cold a ceramic bird house outside cracked into little pieces. So cold pipes were freezing all over western Oregon.
God bless my dog sitter, who came from the Midwest and was not afraid to drive in the snow. I asked her to let the dog sleep in the house. The crate in the laundry room was too cold. She wanted to know how to turn on the heat. I explained the pellet stove. She had never seen one before, and it took a while for her to get the hang of it and to understand that when the pellets run out, there is no heat.
When it’s working, I spend half my life warming my buns by the pellet stove. I read, write, make phone calls, and ponder the world within two feet of that warm orange heat. I have the burn marks on the back of my bathrobe to prove it. My dog lies at my feet, soaking up the heat. Visitors remark on how warm and cozy it is.
Yeah, I think, when it works, when it doesn’t start to light, then fizzle out with a sigh as if it just can’t find the energy to make fire. It’s old. It’s worn out. It’s persnickety. And every time I turn around, it’s empty. I think I lose a quarter inch in height every time I carry one of those heavy bags from the garage to the house. This winter, if you put them all together, I must have lifted a couple tons of wood.
Oh, and if the power goes out, which is not uncommon around here in the coastal forest, the pellet stove doesn’t work. The fan runs on electricity. Then I have to light the wood stove in the den, which is a whole other story.
Last night I researched the cost to convert my pellet stove to gas. Apparently you can go the other way—gas to pellets–pretty easily, but pellets to gas is prohibitively expensive. Not only would I have to buy a new “insert” for about $3,000, but I’d have to install a propane tank outside and pipe the gas into the house. Not happening on my budget.
Instead, I’m taking my Christmas money to Home Depot and buying the biggest, most powerful plug-in electric heater I can find, so when it gets cold and Mr. Pellet Stove isn’t in the mood, I can turn it on and be warm. Meanwhile you’ll find me and Annie next to the pellet stove.
Dear friends, if you have a real heater in your house, give it some love. You are blessed to have it.
And if you have suggestions for how to use two buckets

of fine sawdust, let me know.