This weekend we burned, for the first time, “firelogs” in the wood stove instead of “real” logs. They worked great. Burned hot and clean. These particular firelogs are from Cottonwood, CA and are made from cedar and redwood. I can’t find much information about Sis-Q-Logs but they are most likely pressed together from mill waste. Now I have a hard time with the notion of waste, and any outfit that sees a resource instead of a throwaway has already got me on their side. A lot of these wood products are actually superior to “natural” logs in terms of emissions and sometimes even heat output. Some have waxes added to bind the sawdust and chips together and to make them easier to light, but the ones we used appeared to have no such extra material and left little or no ash.
It got me thinking about our whole notion of “natural”, “synthetic”, and “organic” when describing everything from fabrics to foodstuffs. Rayon is made from cellulose, so it is a “natural” fiber in origin, but a “synthetic” one due to the chemical treatment required to make a finished product. Nylon is “synthetic” because it comes from petroleum. That seems a little weird, doesn’t it? Petroleum products are something you study in a course called Organic Chemistry*. Why do chemists call it “organic” chemistry? Because it was originally about chemicals that occurred in living or once-living things. As opposed to chemicals that occur in, for example, rocks. Ocean salts are “inorganic” but oil deposits are “organic” because they were once—mostly—vast swarms of phytoplankton. (Coal is mostly terrestrial, oil mostly marine.) The key is carbon. Another way to say organic chemistry is carbon chemistry and to avoid confusion that terminology is gaining more acceptance. If your chemical has a carbon backbone, it is organic as far as a chemist is concerned. That means petroleum products are organic. Yes, that includes plastics, pesticides, and polyesters.
But these days we have organic farming. This kind of farming is no more carbon-based than any other kind of farming but the unfortunate naming confusion exists. To the ordinary person, organic means closer to Nature and less dependent on synthetic chemicals. That’s all fine. I’m big believer in sustainability and will support any scheme that seeks to improve our methods of production. Certainly industrial agriculture is too dependent on non-renewable fuels (even though those “fossil” fuels are “organic”!) and relies too much on short-term soil treatment. And pest control has to be more integrative, we can’t just keep poisoning these things and inventing more poisons when the old ones fail. Organic farming employs ecological principles, or at least attempts to, and that’s good. We could use more ecological principles in all our industries.
But I hate the fuzziness of the words. Why is a synthetic chemical bad? A natural, plant-based or animal-based poison can kill you just as readily as a factory-made one. A human being is part of Nature, so aren’t the products of human ingenuity equally natural? And I don’t, for the life of me, grasp this fear of chemicals. I hear it all the time: “we don’t want chemicals in our food!” What? EVERYTHING IS MADE FROM CHEMICALS. Water is a chemical. Air is composed of chemicals. Foods are heaping piles of chemicals. Hell, DNA is a chemical! No DNA, no life. If you want to wear wool because it is an animal product instead of polypropylene because it is a petroleum product, fine. (I love wool long johns, by the way.) But they are ALL chemicals. And they are ALL organic. And they are ALL natural. Wool is renewable—that’s good. Focus on that.
Is burning wood better than burning natural gas? Probably not. Natural gas burns cleaner and puts our more heat per unit. But wood stoves are very popular in the high country because we have access to wood. They would not be practical in cities due to the smoke problem, and in fact many rural areas have wood-burning restrictions for that reason. When we get inversions here in our little valley, which can be frequent in the winter, we can get a smog that rivals Beijing. But it’s OK, right? Wood smoke is natural and can’t hurt me, because, you know, Nature. Tobacco smoke is natural, too. God created tobacco plants, not Man. So smoke eagerly, my friends, and hold it in to get the full effect!
I’m sold on my new synthetic logs made from natural materials. I suppose they qualify as organic, too, as I’m assuming the original logs came from forests. Forests are pretty damn natural, right? I also burn fuel oil in a heater. We have a big house and the front half does not get sufficiently heated by the wood stove. Not to mention the fuel oil heater comes on automatically and requires almost no attention. That fuel oil is organic, I hate to say. Not as groovy as wood fuel but certainly as earthy. Those hydrocarbons come from Nature. I’ll spare you my rant on inorganic-but-still-natural things, that’s for another time. But the silicon and germanium and arsenic and gallium and whatnot in the chips my computer runs on are also products of Nature. And let’s not forget the miles of copper that link us all together!
*In 1828 an extraordinary chemist by the name of Freidrich Wöhler accidentally synthesized urea (a component of animal urine) from inorganic (not extracted from living things) materials. Soon other scientists realized that chemicals once thought to be exclusive to living organisms could in fact be created in a lab.