Not unlike signalling "yep" or "nope" for a new a pope, the smoke spewing from the chimney of the house up the road is laden with meaning.
It's how I know she's still alive.
Our neighbor, a widower in her 70s, maybe 80s, is fiercely independent and, sometimes, just fierce.
Once, down the pub, she told me she hated the name we'd given our first child.
Bit harsh, especially when you're wetting the baby's head.
A couple of old horses graze her property. When it rains, they're statues under a rickety shelter clinging to her brick house.
A timber shed in her yard blew over and its skeleton protruded from the dirt for years; a dead huntsman's silver legs clenched in the air.
She's very mobile and prowls the place with a kind of Cruella de Vil defiance. She even wears a tatty fur coat. Sometimes, her little car conks out in the middle of the road and she'll just leave it there and walk home.
During the bushfires, she drove the 200m down to our house and, in an accent originating from around the same region as that papal smoke, demanded "A LADIO! A LADIO!" so, like the rest of us, she could tune in to the local FM community station as it dispensed blow-by-blow updates on the coming inferno.
She stayed put through the ordeal.
It may sound like she's alone, but she's not. Family members visit regularly and provide her with important firewood. The split blocks are stacked around her yard and snake up the stairs leading to her front door, within reach of a cadaverous talon.
Regardless of the weather, her wood heater is always burning. Even when we feared we'd all flash away like those down the escarpment, it was still going, puffing out information.
Her fire, like her mien, never roars or sparks, it smoulders, mysteriously, caustically.
She couldn't be bothered opening the damper on her ageing furnace, so the smoke emitted from her appropriately mascarad chimney is plump and cumbersome, slipping down to street level where you suck it in when walking past.
Her smoke is bad, but not the worst.
So choking and acrid are emissions from some households, they seem to be engaging in cut-price cremations from their lounge rooms (around here, you never know).
Mostly though, thanks to our topography and the fact our vertiginous village is nestled smack-bang in the middle of a wind tunnel, we're not plagued by the winter palls which descend on some towns, such as Armidale, in NSW.
This week's report in the Medical Journal of Australia about the impact of wood heater smoke in that community is sobering stuff.
A study by the University of New England suggests pollution from household burning kills at least 14 Armidale residents prematurely each year. For those born in the Northern Tablelands town, wood smoke takes about a year off their expected lifespan.
In chilly places, this seasonal debate has been hotting up for years. Some jurisdictions, such as Tasmania and the ACT, are already offering wood heater buyback schemes and banning them in new homes, but the fact we're now quantifying mortality rates associated with domestic heating must surely be a game-changer across the country.
NSW is in the process of reviewing its clean air strategy, so authorities will be taking great interest in the Armidale study, not only because they want to improve the environment for their taxpayers, but also because, frankly, no one likes getting sued.
With wood heater emissions shaping up as a cloudy litigious battleground akin to passive smoking from cigarettes (remember them?) the writing is on the wall for households, such as ours, for which the primary source of heating is DIY combustion.
The prospect of a nanny state eradication of this practice scares people.
Topping the list of frequently asked questions on the Firewood Association of Australia Inc. website is "Are they going to ban wood heaters?"
This says a lot about people like me, almost as much as the FAQ in the middle of the list: "Should I feel guilty about burning wood?"
I feel guilty about everything I do, so it's comforting when the association says I needn't worry. Turns out, as long as I'm buying seasoned wood from sustainable sources, I'm in the clear because I'm actually helping the environment by not relying on gas or electricity.
Kind words but I'm still nagged by doubt.
I'd like to be care-free, like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, telling Samuel L. Jackson eating swine is fine.
"Burning wood feels gooood. Naked flames feel gooood."
But I'm more like Woody Allen in Broadway Danny Rose.
"It's important to feel guilty, otherwise you know, you know, you're capable of terrible things [like burning wood]."
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Our old house is terribly cold and we use our wood heater a lot but we can also fall back on a reverse-cycle air-conditioner, which I loathe.
Although ruthlessly effective, the air-con (its imposing unit hovering like a killer drone) blows an unnatural, prickly gale into our faces. It warms us rapidly, but we feel exhausted for the experience, slightly abused. Outside, the whirring inverter intrudes into the evening quiet, out of place, uninvited.
But a fire feels as right as an air-conditioner feels wrong.
A fire crackles gently, unobtrusively. Waves of energy; enveloping, disarming.
If it's too hot, we open the door a bit.
Soon enough, summer will be here and household heating will be the last thing on our minds. It's when we're suffering through those January nights, I sometimes look at the dormant fireplace, gaping like a malignant lacuna in the bones of the house, and think how ugly it is; how it stinks, how it's dirty, how it robs us of space and light; how we should knock the whole place down and start from scratch; double-glazing, solar passivity, earth ships, thermal masses, wind farms, batteries ...
Then, amid all the outlandish Grand Designs reverie, winter arrives and we begin to lose our ambition to the basics of bitter mornings; ushering frigid kids onto buses and using watering cans to liberate vehicles from frosty shells.
In this state, a fire, transcendent of environmental politicking, feels primal, a universal necessity, a human right.
- B.R. Doherty is a regular columnist.