During the day I study photosynthesis. I spend long hours poking and prodding plants to understand how it is that they are able to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make it into something more chemically useful. The basic equation for photosynthesis is simple. Energy from the sun is used to split water and the resulting energy is used to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and biomass. Water is split in half releasing oxygen, and we have air to breath, wood to build with, and even gas for our cars. When I walk outside in even a bitter winter, my face is warmed when the sun shines. When the sun drops, the story changes and in winter months in the inland northwest, survival depends on finding alternative heat.

We spent Thanksgiving break at a cabin with no running water.  We limited the generator to a few hours in the evening to play games and clean up from dinner. The cabin was heated entirely by a single wood-burning stove. Although I was grateful for my zero-degree sleeping-bag, this single stove spared me the seven degree weather outside the cabin. As I looked at the glowing logs in the darkness I thought about how I was watching photosynthesis in reverse. The oxygen in the air, once released from water by plants, was now being used to fuel the combustion of wood producing carbon dioxide. This combustion released heat that in essence came originally from the sun. So even in a dark winter, my face was being warmed as if I walked through a field in noon-day.


Releasing the sun from a hunk of wood can be hard or it can be easy. Gasoline and a lighter do the trick, but some of us prefer a more ancient approach. When making a friction fire you must remember that you are doing photosynthesis in reverse. You have to have biomass (the carbon in the piece of wood you are using), oxygen, and a lot of heat to get things started. Instead of fixing carbon dioxide, you are releasing it. Instead of releasing oxygen, you are consuming it. Keep these things in mind and you are sure not to freeze too bad this winter.

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