Notes from the urban/rural divide: Heat

When I was growing up, whoever got up first in the morning was responsible for lighting the wood stove, which was an excellent justification for skulking in bed rather than copping to my duties. It wasn’t just because the stove was finicky and fussy and had to be gently coaxed into life and carefully, tenderly nursed as it sluggishly and angrily built up enough of a fire to sustain itself. It was also because if it was cold enough to light the stove, it was cold, and the ashes of the night before had likely long-since died out, and that meant padding across a freezing floor wrapped in layers of garments and blankets, hoping that there was enough kindling and wood that you wouldn’t have to go outside, and crossing your fingers that someone had cleaned the woodstove recently so you wouldn’t have to dump out the ashes before you could start a fire. Sometimes it would be so cold in that poorly insulated house that frost would lace the inside of the windowpanes, the cats buried deep in the blankets, hissing when you let the cold air in.

When I went away to college, I remember waking up one morning to a ghastly clanking and hissing, groaning and clunking, and the hitherto inert radiator next to my bed was suddenly scalding hot. It was rather thrilling. Someone, somewhere, had turned on the heat, and now my room was slowly swelling with warmth. It might be frosty outside, but I was perfectly toasty, and I hadn’t needed to get out of bed. I shared the spectacular nature of this discovery over breakfast and found a fascinatingly divided group.

Some found the whole thing unremarkable. It was winter, of course someone had turned on the heat, hadn’t I noticed it was cold outside? Others found it peevish: At home they controlled the thermostat, and the heating was either too hot or too cold. I understood on an intellectual level that people lived in places where heat was automatic and easily controlled, but it was beyond wondrous to me, that heat should magically appear at the touch of a thermostat or by the will of a building supervisor. When I came home that winter and went back to building fires, it was rather a letdown.

Only in my late twenties did I start living in houses with actual gas heat and thermostats, and I still find it absolutely marvelous. Why, if it’s chilly, I can get up and put the thermostat on and the results will be nearly instantaneous! When I stay at other people’s houses, sometimes they have nifty electronic ones on timers and things, or ones you can turn on from bed with your phone, and it’s all really quite splendid, really. I don’t think you fully realise how lovely it is if you’ve lived with it your whole life.

Across the US, in both urban and rural areas, fuel poverty is a vicious problem, particularly in regions where it gets very cold in the winter and low-income people have to make terrible and calculated choices about how they are going to spend their resources. Many low-income homes are poorly insulated, compounding the problem. Whether people can’t avoid gas or fuel oil or kerosene, electricity or wood, they struggle to keep their homes warm. This is unacceptable. No one should have to make a choice between heating and food because heating isn’t just about comfort, but also health, and, for those who own their own homes, the lifespan of your building. Buildings don’t like getting extremely hot or extremely cold and they hate fluctuating temperatures. Keeping temperatures stable contributes to home maintenance.

This is one of those rare instances where a rural struggle has a nearly identical analogue in urban environments. People who experience fuel poverty experience it in very similar ways, whether they are living in poorly-built apartments in Chicago or ancient farmhouses in Iowa. You have a problem, a distinct lack of heat, and a solution that you cannot afford, even if the type of fuel used tends to vary. Wood stoves are relatively rare in urban areas, for a variety of reasons — steam heat isn’t as common in rural communities (especially outside the northeast).

This drives at something deeper when it comes to urban and rural politics. Rural areas tend overall to be more poor than their urban counterparts, so many of the struggles of poverty are also, unsurprisingly, more common in rural communities. When people in urban areas experience problems akin to those in rural areas, the common thread is usually poverty. There’s fuel poverty and the inability to heat homes adequately. There’s the poverty that makes public transit sparse and inaccessible. Financial limitations on fresh, diverse food. America’s urban and suburban poor may have more in common with rural people than they realise, or want to confront.

I don’t know if I’ll live in a house with a wood stove again. Not out of conscious choice, but they are growing less common, including in rural areas, though they offer a number of advantages, including the ability to produce heat and provide a cooking surface when the power is out. When I wake up in the morning to the determined huffing of the fan on my gas heater working to push away the cold, I don’t feel particularly nostalgic for my wood stove days, but it does make me think about how many people are getting up in the morning to shiver over their stoves as they coax them into light.

Image: Wood stove, Dan Phiffer, Flickr