Mud splats against wheel wells. The transmission howls. Linda Ronstadt, a half-ton Chevy pickup with a ton of yellow birch cordwood aboard, has sunk to her rusty frame in a mushy patch of logging road. Linda has four-wheel drive and a lot of heart, but this is a Sargasso of mud, the kind that bogs the wood lot every year after the leafless forest trees stop drinking water and the October rains come. Linda's friend and owner disembarks to consider the problem.
What follows is wet, dirty and boring, and goes on for hours. The truck's owner, an escaped city man who can sound irritatingly smug about the rewards of living in the country, is angry now at the cordwood, the mud, poor mired Linda, and himself. He is spinning wheels, wasting time. Great deeds remain undone, great orthodontist bills are unpaid. Awash with self-doubt, he heaves the birch chunks out to lighten the truck, then jacks, wedges, winches and ponders. At last Linda groans free, and all that remains is to retrieve the half cord of jettisoned birch. There is never a thought of leaving the firewood behind: in darkest February, it will heat the woodsman's ten-room New Hampshire house for a week.
As the cost of electricity disappears round the bend, as heating oil levitates to 90¢ per gal. from about 55¢ a year ago, grubbing for firewood in a muddy forest does not seem such a bad idea. A few years ago, a good many Americans could not have said for sure what was being burned to keep them warm. Heat bills were often less than phone bills. Now, they not only know what heats their homes, but millions, particularly those who must use oil, are painfully aware that their bills will nearly double this winter over last year. Solar heating of water and living space has crossed the minds of many. The business of wood stoves is booming. Coal stoves are being rediscovered. Stores selling insulation and weather stripping are doing well. Department stores are advertising insulated "snuggle bags" or "people sacks"—sleeping bags to stay awake in. Sweaters and wool chemises are actualities. Long Johns are a distinct possibility.
Most outlandish and un-American of all—and disturbing to those who believe that growth in energy use is a necessary element in the improvement of society's well-being—conservation, however limited, is beginning to be a hopeful factor in the nation's energy calculations. To what degree the flammable situation in the Middle East, the world's largest oil- producing region, plays a part remains uncertain. Price is a key factor and it keeps going up. Administration officials are confident that heating-oil supplies are sufficient to tide the nation through the winter, despite the U.S. declaration of a boycott of Iranian crude in November.