March 29, 2013 § 10 Comments
Awhile back, Doug W left this comment on the SAVED page. I’d meant to turn off comments for that page, which, after taking his down, I did. But he raises such fantastic questions, ones that permeate almost every aspect of my life (and, I’m guessing, at least a few of yours’), that I feel compelled to devote an entire post to his comment.
|The unspoken other topic here and in all the recent posts about money is the matter of time. The two have been linked ie either you have the time or the money in a given situation. But what about time in and of itself? How do we experience it? Is really scarce. Is it linear or really cyclical? Is it possible to live in the eternal present in the modern world? One of the most common experiences around a homestead is to become lost in a specific task, to be totally present, and immersed, activities like fencing or cutting wood without any sense of the passing of time.|
I’m not even sure where to begin with this subject, because it’s just so huge and important. As seems to be my wont, I suppose I’ll start with a personal anecdote.
It was 1998 when we first moved onto our property and began immersing ourselves in the many land-based tasks that now comprise the majority of our waking hours. I remember feeling lots of things during this period, but most pertinent to the issues of time and money is that I recall being amazed that anyone (and in this case, by “anyone,” I mean Penny) would so willingly work so damn hard to raise, say, a crop of tomatoes that could be purchased at a grocery store for a price that, if applied to the literal fruits of her labor, meant she was pulling down a coupla bucks an hour. At best. (It is probably worth noting that at this point in my life, I was far more interested in riding my bike and skiing than sticking a shovel in the ground, which seemed to me like a whole lot of bother).
I suppose what I’m saying is that I was still a believer in the adage that “time is money”; as such, I could not imagine exchanging my time for a measure of recompense that, when measured strictly in dollars, could not compete with the commodity market.
It is amazing to me now to consider how many lies and misconceptions reside in that one sentence. For instance, the notion that time is money. There are innumerable ways to dispel this idea, but I suspect the most poignant would be to ask someone with a terminal illness how they feel about it. If you think their thoughts on the subject don’t apply to you, bullshit. All our lives are finite. Some are just more finite than others. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: Our societal belief that time and money should be conflated is extraordinarily convenient for a commodity market capable of producing (usually crappy) products at a price that makes it compelling to consume, rather than produce.
There is another flaw to this line of reasoning, and it is this: That the labor we invest in producing for ourselves does not have its own value. In other words, that we should consider it a burden, rather than a blessing. The truth is (and this is not unusual), Penny was way ahead of me with those tomatoes. She understood that the hours spent amending and seeding and watering and picking and processing should not be detracted from the final tally, but added to it. In her view, it was a blessing to have the privilege of entering into that relationship with those tomatoes and this relationship had a value that could not be expressed in monetary terms.
The older I get and the more of these relationships I enter into myself, the more I find myself able to, as Doug W suggests, fully inhabit the moments of my life in a manner that entirely alters my relationship to time itself. It’s not that it slows down or speeds up; it’s just that it feels like it’s mine. There’s actually a term for this: Temporal autonomy, which can roughly be defined as the capacity to spend your time in the manner that is most satisfying to you.
If there is any single motivation for how we live our lives, that’s it right there. We want to spend our time (which is to say, our lives) in the manner that’s most satisfying to us. It just so happens that what satisfies us is to be on the land, to have relationships with our animals and our trees and our kids and the ground beneath our feet. Almost every decision we make around issues of money – should I write this article or not? Should I take this speaking gig or not? – are made only after we’ve determined whether or not it will enable us to deepen these relationships. Of course, that’s a over-simplistic way to put it, but it’ll work for now.
Befitting such a long post, I will leave you with a relatively long excerpt from SAVED. And that’s it for today. Because, you know, I’ve gotta get back to work and make some dough.
…the inescapable and somewhat unsettling conclusion remained: Erik’s relationship to time was different from mine, and I say “unsettling” because I was fairly certain his relationship was less dysfunctional. I’d first noticed this more than 6 months before, during that November day I stopped by his house to find him contentedly cutting boards with a dull handsaw. During our mushroom hunt, I’d twice noted it, first when our search continued past the span of time that seemed (to me, at least) reasonable and again in response to my query about the hike from the cabin. There was something in the unhurried nature of Erik’s day-to-day existence that made it feel as if he owned his time to an extent that most of us have forsaken.
In his book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, Robert Goodin points out that time is both inherently egalitarian (everyone has access to the exact same 24 hours per day) and inherently scarce (no one has access to more than 24 hours per day). Goodin talks about “temporal autonomy,” which is the ability to make choices regarding how one’s time is passed. Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend our time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth, and it struck me that Erik’s unhurried, almost languid temperament suggested a particular confidence that could only evolve from an abundance of temporal autonomy. Or, put more simply, from the certainty that he could damn well do what he pleased, when he pleased.
For a moment I probed my memory, but I could not recall a single instance when I’d heard Erik worry or even wonder about the time. And I thought how interesting it was that watches have become such a symbol of status in our culture that people are willing to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on a little clock to ride on their wrist. Perhaps it was merely the jeweled aspect, the diamond-studded bezels and gold-striped bands, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was also something in the auspicious display of the timekeeping mechanism itself, as if reminding the world that the bearer’s time is so very valuable as to demand such royal carriage. And then an irony struck me: If one’s time is so damn valuable, why in the name of Rolex would anyone allow a clock to rule it? Viewed in this light, being beholden to a clock could be seen not as you owning your time, but as your time owning you.
It occurred to me that unlike most of us, Erik does not compartmentalize his time; he does not seem to differentiate between the hours spent in pursuit of a paycheck and the hours spent in pursuit of either mushrooms, a finished cabin, or a pair of dumpster’d sneakers. He seemed to understand more clearly than anyone I’d met that there is only one thing human beings truly own, one thing that cannot be claimed by others: time. Furthermore, he seemed to respect the rather uncomfortable truth that none of us can rightly claim to know how much we own. As such, he seemed determined not to convert his unknown quantity of time—in truth, his life, for how we spend our hours and days is, of course, how we spend our lives—into a commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder.
At first, I struggled to square this with the languor he applied to so many of his tasks. For who would spend hours cutting boards with a rusty handsaw but someone who felt as if time were very much on their side? If Erik were really so cognizant of the true value attached to the ticking clock of his life, would it not behoove him to at least get a freakin’ Skil saw? But the more I observed him in action, the more convinced I became that I had it exactly backward. Indeed, it occurred to me that Erik had an absolute respect for time, to the point that he was able to exist inside any particular moment with tangible contentment. He understood that the value wasn’t to be extracted by rushing to get to the next project, but rather by truly inhabiting each and every moment he was fortunate enough to experience.
March 28, 2013 § 5 Comments
As many of my longtime readers know, I occasionally fall victim to the manufactured educational expectations of contemporary America and begin to have doubts about our ability to educate the boys at home.
Yesterday, watching them make bows while tending our little white trash backyard sugarin’ rig as the chickens pecked at whatever struck their bird-brained fancy, was not one of those occasions.
Increasingly, I am coming to understand that any doubt in our ability to educate Fin and Rye is nothing more than a loss of trust. Not only in myself, but also in the boys.
I can deal with not trusting myself. But not trusting my kids? That, my friends, is inexcusable.
March 27, 2013 § 14 Comments
Yesterday I hardly even thought to check to see if the sap was running. After all, it wasn’t all that warm, and there was a steady breeze out of the north, a combination that doesn’t typically bode well for a good sap run. But by 2:30, I’d had about enough of listening to myself (this is one of the strange things about writing; it’s sort of like listening to yourself talk all friggin’ day. And even I can take only so much of that), and I needed a diversion. A quiet stroll down to the maples at the far reaches of Melvin’s hayfield seemed like just the ticket.
By gum, those buckets were nearly full. In fact, a few were overflowing, and the sap was running so hard that steady rivulets of sweet water rolled down the bucket sides to drip deep melt holes into the snow below. I humped it back to the house, grabbed the sled and a trio of 5-gallon buckets, and took off back down the field at a trot. It took three trips to complete the gather, and by the end I was down to a tee shirt and feeling that wonderful skin-tightening sensation of the high sun on my winter-white arms and face. Damn but I love that feeling.
Hell, I’ll just say it: I’m fired up. And if I’m fired up, you can only imagine how Penny’s feeling. That woman is a freakin’ inferno this time of year (well, most times of year, to be honest), plotting and planning and gumming up the whole damn kitchen with flats full of soil blocks and the implements of her trade. In fact, right now, in addition to Puck, an orphan lamb with a hurt foot who follows us around in her pathetically plaintive way, our kitchen is home to a split-open 55-gallon barrel full of potting soil, myriad bags of amendments and other potions, and enough seeds to grow enough food to feed an army. Or our boys, whichever eats more (my money’s on Fin and Rye). Not only that, but she’s got a list of tasks so long that I get dizzy just looking at it. “Don’t worry,” she told me this morning, “most of them are quick.” I looked at the list and saw, among other things, “build rocket mass heater,” “build outdoor bread oven,” “build new chicken coop,” “finish sawmill roof,” “finish firewood,” and “plant terrace orchard.” Well. Thank goodness they’re all quick. What will we do with all our free time this summer?
Truth is, not all of these things will happen, or at least, not all of these things will be completed over the next six months, and probably not over the next 12 months, either. We know this, and we know it well, having now passed better than 15 years on this little patch of dirt and grass and trees (oh, and rocks… can’t forget those). But we also know well that there’s a season for everything, and this is the season for indefatigable enthusiasm, even if said enthusiasm goads us into creating an entirely unconquerable list of tasks.
The other truth is, if there ever comes a spring when we don’t feel this enthusiasm, don’t feel the small fire of it in our bellies and our bones, don’t recognize it for the amazing gift it is… well, hell. That’s when I’ll start to really worry.
March 20, 2013 § 9 Comments
Last week the Hewitt family had a big night out, which means we stoked the fire, tromped out to the car and motored a mile-and-a-half down to the Cabot Library for a presentation.
The big show that night was by a fellow named Richard Czaplinski, a fellow of some renown in these parts for his commitment to low-input living. Richard is 72 but could pass for 55, and like most people who’ve figured out how they want to live their life and then actually lived it that way, he has a wonderfully grounded, low-key manner. I’d met him a couple times before and always liked the fella.
Anyway, Richard came equipped with a slide show (on an actual slide projector, no less; none of this fancy-shmancy Powerpoint baloney for him) and something like a half-century of experience and stories. It was, for Penny and me at least, a somewhat eye-opening experience.
By contemporary American standards, we lead a pretty simple, low-input life. We power our home on somewhere between three and four kilowatt hours per day, which is good bit less than the average family of four (29 kw/day, last time I checked). We heat only with wood, burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 cords per year. We cook primarily on wood, and heat our water via solar hot water collectors and the cookstove. All-in-all, ours is a fairly “green” existence, if you’re into that sort of thing.
And yet. Here’s Richard in his 800 square-foot home, burning a cord-and-a-half per winter, existing quite contentedly on the power provided by a single 75-watt solar panel (for comparison’s sake, we have 1800-watts of solar, and still use a gasoline generator in the winter months). There are a couple of factors in Richard’s favor: First, he’s not raising children in his little house, with his piddly solar panel. Second, he has fairly recently gotten married and now lives part time with his wife, in her relatively commodious home. But that doesn’t take away from the decades he spent in his place, listening music through a car radio (so chosen because it operates on the same 12-volt power supplied by his panel), crapping into a bucket toilet, and preserving his garden harvest in the stone walled confines of his root cellar.
We’re not really interested in downscaling our lives because we feel compelled to reduce our carbon footprint, prepare for the end of cheap energy, or gird ourselves against financial collapse. Those may very well be legitimate reasons, but to me, it feels as if they are rooted in fear and negativity and I suspect if they are the only motivating factors, the path they lead to is not going to be a very fulfilling one. Instead, what we have observed is that the more we downsize our lives and expectations, the less dependent we are on the dominant money economy. And the less dependent we are on the dominant money economy, the richer our lives become and the more our sense what is possible expands. It is as if by exchanging the faux affluence of money and stuff and even some of the presumed necessities of 21st century American life, we open ourselves to an entirely different form of wealth and connection. It was probably there all along, but I’ve found that all that other crap has a nifty way of obscuring it, to the point that it’s hardly recognizable.
One of the prevailing themes and topics of discussion in our life these days is finding the correct balance between these disparate forms of affluence. I can’t pretend that money is not a motivating factor, or that we don’t sometimes wish we had more of it, rather than less. I can’t pretend to know what the correct balance is, although I feel as if we are getting closer to it every day.
There are definitely times – and this past week has been one of them – when we look around our 2200-square foot house, with all the upkeep it demands and all the shit we’ve managed to fill it with and say “what the hell were we thinking?” The truth is, of course, that at the time, we weren’t thinking. We just did.
Don’t get me wrong, we love our place. It’s a good house, and we know it intimately, having built the vast majority of it with our own four hands. It is where both Fin and Rye were born, and I can point to the very spot on our living room floor where both of them came into this world. It keeps us warm and dry and, for lack of a better term, it just feels like home. These things are worth a lot. A whole lot.
But if we could do it over again, would we do it different? I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t.
March 19, 2013 § 12 Comments
I passed all of Friday and most of the weekend in the throes of exertion, which is really just a fancy way of saying I spent most of those three days outside, working. I dropped a bunch of balsams, limbed them, and skidded them to the log landing by the sawmill. I dropped a couple of black cherry that were rotting from the inside out, limbed them, and skidded them to the log landing by the sawmill, where I proceeded to buck them up before we all laid into them with splitting mauls. I did some other stuff, too, but honestly, the details are sort of hazy. It was a busy few days.
I make my living as a writer, which means I’m either one of the luckiest fools ever to walk this good green Earth, or a scam artist of enormous skill and cunning. Probably it’s a little of each. I’ve got no complaints; I love my work and am wickedly grateful for it. Which is a good thing, because I’m entirely unqualified to do much of anything else.
Still, there’s something a bit unsettling to me in getting paid to write. I don’t want to say that writing is easy, because it’s not, really. But the truth is, it’s a pretty damn privileged way to make a buck: Here I sit, toasty warm and clad in my long johns, hot cup of coffee close at hand, listening to good music, and watching the snow fall through the window above my desk. True, I’m not getting paid to write in this space, but then, this is only a fraction of the day’s work, and the remainder will be the paying kind.
Here’s the deal: I am close enough to enough people who make their living from the land to know what truly hard work looks like. And this here ain’t it. Last week, I sat up with Jimmy and Sara in their sugarhouse until midnight, at which point I bailed because, you know, I was a little tired and had to work the next day. Jimmy boiled until 2:30 a.m., slept two-and-a-half hours, and then went to the barn for morning chores. There will be many more nights like that for him over the next few weeks, and that’s just the way it is. He’s grateful for it, too, because if he’s not boiling all night, it’s because the sap’s not running, and if the sap’s not running, he’s not making money. If he’s not milking, he’s not making money. If he’s not splitting firewood, he’s not making money. So yeah, writing’s not exactly easy, and it’s not exactly making us rich, but compared to what some of my friends and neighbors do to make their way in this world, it’s a big ol’ piece of cake. With ice cream.
In some regards, I think this is what I find so compelling about working our little piece of land: It feels to me like an antidote to my chosen profession. On Sunday evening, having put in three full days in the woods and around the home place, I dropped into that sweet sense of bone-deep fatigue, like sinking into a hot bath. I had a pile of sawlogs and a nice collection of split firewood to show for my efforts, and all felt right and just in my world, as if I’d taken no more than I’d given, and perhaps even a bit less.
Writing offers a certain type of satisfaction, no question about it, and I suspect if I were to give it up entirely, I’d come to miss it right quick. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, I am fortunate that my income is not entirely dependent on my body, with its myriad vulnerabilities. And I’d be lying if I said there’s not a certain satisfaction inherent to this work. There is. There very much is.
But the truth is, the moments I feel most at home in my body, mind, and possibly spirit almost never happen at my desk. They almost never happen at the end of a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a book. Instead, they happen in the woods, or out on the pasture, or even just walking across the barnyard on my way to feed the cows. They happen at the end of a long day spent with my hands in the dirt, or stacking bales on the wagon behind Martha’s tractor.
I’m not sure what this says about my writing; perhaps it suggests I’m not putting enough into it. That seems like a very real possibility. Or maybe it means nothing more than that I’m lucky to have paying work I enjoy, and nonpaying work I love.
Which, come to think of it, is not exactly a terrible way to go through life.
March 18, 2013 § 18 Comments
Last night at my folks house for dinner, there was a discussion about this blog. Of course, my parents love it, if only because it cracks open the window into our lives a little further. Like most parents, they want to know more about their children than their children are sometimes inclined to share, so any extra scraps are consumed with glee.
Penny, it should be said, is less enthusiastic. This is in part because she’s inherently a private person, but also because she’s not a fan of the medium in general. It feels to her like an artifice of true connectivity, and she also dislikes what she perceives as the self-aggrandizing and voyeuristic nature of most blogs. Penny is one of the most grounded and secure people I’ve ever met, and to her, blogging feels like the antithesis of these qualities. In short, if you are truly happy with and immersed in your life, why would you feel the need to broadcast it to others?
Furthermore, you have to understand that Penny dislikes computers, and simply cannot fathom why anyone would spend a half-second more in front of one than absolutely necessary. It’s not that she doesn’t like to read (she reads voraciously), or finds everything that is available via the Internets distasteful; it’s simple that she abhors staring into a screen. Fair enough, I’d say, because despite however curmudgeonly a brush it might paint me with, I think there is something inherently different between reading a book and reading pixels.
It’s also important to understand that Penny is not a dreamer, but a doer. Once she decides on a course of action, she commits herself to it until completion. She is not afraid of reevaluating and possibly shifting gears; it’s just that she has little-to-no patience for dithering. To her, there is something in the nature of the blog that is noncommittal, that suggests a passing relationship based on something less than full engagement.
If there’s an irony in any of this, I suppose it’s that Penny is the source point for many of the ideas and themes I write about. More so than myself, she is the one responsible for ensuring that our lives have been only minimally hijacked by 21st-century expectations. She has no desire for money or stuff beyond the absolute minimum necessary to support our little hill farm enterprise, and she feels enormously connected to the natural world and the rhythms of our small lives. In this regard, I find her inspiring.
Penny has made her peace with this site. I don’t agree with all of her views regarding the medium, but I value her perspective tremendously. If nothing else, it reminds me that no matter how honest and sincere I try to be in this space, it is in a sense not real. It is only a two-dimensional version and a fractional vision of a world that is decidedly three dimensional, whole, and imperfect.
March 14, 2013 § 8 Comments
On Sunday I drove down to a library just outside of Boston for a book discussion. It was beauty of a day, and to be perfectly honest I was hardly in the mood to spend the majority of the sunlit hours staring through the Subaru’s windshield and listening to my collection of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen cassettes (in truth, it wasn’t the Van Halen I minded; it was the fact that the only sun I felt that day was filtered by window glass).
In Montpelier, I stopped for a cuppa and, via circumstances that are too convoluted to explain here, found myself emerging from the coffee shop in the company of a young anarchist paramedic named Tasha who was southward bound without a vehicle to call his own. “This car smells just like the farm I used to work on,” he told me when we stepped into the Subaru, and I had to laugh, because that’s exactly what the hitchhiker Penny picked up a couple months back said, too.
Tasha and I spent the next 90 minutes discussing money, wealth, anarchism, the interstate highway system, and veganism, in approximately that order, until I dropped him at the junction of I89 and I91 and motored onward alone. I love strange little serendipitous events like this, the unexpected detours that make life interesting. One minute, you’re rolling along, belting out the chorus to “Panama”; the next, you’ve got an anarchist paramedic in your passenger seat, sharing tales from the business end of a northern MA ambulance.
I made to the library in a timely fashion and, as is so often the case when I am invited to participate in these sort of discussions, found the subject matter veering into unexpected territory (although, frankly, this has begun to happen so often it’s hardly unexpected, anymore). I’d been invited to talk about small-scale regionalized food systems, which had somehow morphed into a wide-ranging discussion of money, wealth, education, television, and health, along with a few other things I’m probably forgetting.
At one point, after suggesting that our lives might ultimately be richer if we simply ignored the news over which we have little-to-no control, a middle-aged woman blurted out “You sound like an isolationist.” It was clearly not intended as a compliment and she looked a little pissed, as if I’d somehow offended her. We spent a few minutes batting that around, although I was a little taken off guard and not sure exactly how to respond. Maybe I am an isolationist, I thought. And then: Is that bad?
The truth is (and as I tried to explain to the assembled crowd on Sunday), I have only so much emotional and intellectual energy to expend on the world around me. Quite consciously, I have chosen to expend it on the part of the world that feels tangible and real to me. That I feel personally connected to. Perhaps this is merely evidence of my small-mindedness, or the narrowness of my view. Perhaps there will come a time when I see it as a flaw and will feel compelled to rectify it. But for now, I am certain that by not allowing my energy to become diffused and fragmented by often-tragic events over which I am powerless to affect, I have more energy to immerse myself in family, land, and community. Is it possible that if we all focused our energies in this manner, the world might actually be better off for it? Of course, I cannot know, but I think this might be true.
All of which is to say, I guess, that it’s quite possible I am an isolationist.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t be an immersionist, too.
March 12, 2013 § 9 Comments
This past weekend featured the first truly springlike days of the year, and as much as I’m fond of portraying myself as a rugged contrarian stoic who pays little heed to the capricious vagaries of a Vermont winter, the truth is I get as excited about spring as anyone.
On Saturday morning, whilst waiting for sap to accumulate in the buckets we’d hung, and with the boys out scouting the woods for some innocent fur-bearing species or another, Penny and I split wood together (this is what passes for a date around these parts) and damned if I weren’t more than a few rounds into it before I was down to a tee shirt and feeling the first salted beads of sweat forming on my brow. Ah. We split for a bit more than an hour, then spent some time futzing with our cobbled together sugaring apparatus, and then, unable to resist, strolled down to the most prolific of our taps to assess the situation. Of course, there wasn’t nearly enough to be worth gathering, but there was plenty to be worth tipping a bucket or three to our mouths for a sample.
The way we sugar is frankly absurd. Our 60 or so taps (“just enough to be annoying,” is how one north country farmer described it to me) are spread across a broad sweep of fence line maples that extends for more than a quarter-mile down along our southern boundary. We transport sap in five-gallon buckets, either pulling them in a sled, or simply lugging them over the rotten snow, post-holing with each step, our shoulders slowly being extracted from their sockets until finally we capitulate and stop for a rest. It’s borderline ridiculous, or maybe not even borderline, given that our friends Jimmy and Sara make some damn fine syrup just up the road, which they sell at a fantastically reasonable price.
I have to admit that late on Saturday afternoon, after my second trip from the far reaches of our sugaring territory, with my arms screaming hellfire and my chin sticky from sap and sweat, and the dawning recognition that we’d so far collected enough for a single gallon of syrup at best, and still there was the straining and boiling and bottling and crikey, how many hours would we have into that single gallon, anyway? Three? Four? Yeah, I have to admit that at that precise moment, I was about ready to throw in the friggin’ towel on the whole damnable operation.
And at that precise moment, as I was standing in our yard, hoping my biceps would someday stop hating me, Rye emerged from the woods. He’d found a handful of errant sugar maples deep in our woodlot, and in his uniquely industrious way, had quietly tapped them. Both boys had assembled little fireplace rigs, and were excited to do some sugarin’ of their own.
So here I am in the yard with forty or so gallons of hard-earned sap arrayed around me in five-gallon buckets, and I’m about ready to collapse into a puddle of sorry-ass self-pity, and Rye’s carrying two sloshing buckets, which he’s hauled over hill and freakin’ dale. Speaking strictly in terms of weight and strength proportion, never mind terrain and distance (his haul exceeded mine in both regards), my eight-year-old had just out worked me by a country mile.
And the little bugger’s grinning to beat the band, holding onto his precious sap for dear life. “Look, Papa, look,” he said. “Do you think I have enough to boil?”
Suddenly, my arms didn’t hurt so much.
March 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
Because I’ve been told by various people that I should be more forthcoming about letting folks know where my work is available, I figured I might’s well mention that I have an essay in the new issue of Taproot.
I might’s also mention that it’s bound to get a bit slower ’round this site, what with the warmer weather and a new book project. More on that later.
March 4, 2013 § 12 Comments
It’s been relentlessly, almost oppressively gray and cool, like a head cold you just can’t shake. I don’t mind so much, really, because it’s March now, and everyone knows that March is practically summer. Which is a ridiculous statement, of course (and meant to be), but the point is that March 1 is when everything shifts, when the orientation of rural, land-based living turns from winter to spring and, because spring inevitably leads to summer, to summer. So: March is practically summer. Maybe it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.
In truth, I spent much of the weekend looking even a bit further ahead, which is to say, I spent much of the weekend in the woods with the tractor and winch and saw, extracting a sizable downpayment on next winter’s firewood pile.
Let me tell you how much I love doing firewood: A whole mutherfreakin’ lot, and I love every aspect of it, from felling the trees, to skidding them out of the woods, to bucking them up, to splitting and stacking and finally, to loading them, piece-by-piece, into the wood stove for their final immolation. And then, to stand before the stove as the cool iron warms and expands, each piece ticking into place and the first sweet waves of heat radiating outward…. ahh. You can actually smell the stove metal getting hot.
It is interesting to me to consider how the many aspects of our day-to-day existence that most Americans would consider at the very least inconvenient, if not downright insane, have become imbued with a particular reverence. They are part tradition, part ritual, and in some sense, I suppose, part sacrifice. About seven years ago, we ripped the gas range out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burning cookstove and I remember being a little anxious about it… surely, there would be times the inconvenience would seem burdensome (to be clear, the gas range is now on our porch and we do rely on it during the summer months).
It has been entirely the opposite: We love cooking on that stove, which is far more art than science. It’s like playing an instrument, or maybe dancing, and every May, when a wood fire in the kitchen becomes oppressive, it is only with reluctance that we shift our cooking to the porch. And every September, when we get the first cool morning, the first one of the season that begs for a little fire to crack the morning chill until the sun climbs high enough to cook the dew off the grass… well, I wake up downright excited.
A couple years ago, we began experimenting with shutting off our gas hot water heater. No biggie in the summer, as we have solar hot water collectors that produce more hot water than we can even use. But in winter, when the sun is a sad, feeble thing, barely able to even rise its sleepy head above the row of maples that line the eastern-most fringe of our land? Well, we’ve taken to keeping a couple big pots of hot water atop the cookstove; for dishes, we ladle from them. For baths, which we take once per month whether we need ‘em or not, we carry them up to the tub and upend their steaming contents, adding cold from the tap to get it just right and then… ahh. I know, I know, it sounds like a pain in the ass. But it doesn’t feel like one, and in fact I’ve come to truly enjoy the whole process: Filling the pots, setting them on the stove, waiting for them to heat up, carrying them bow leggedly up the stairs, dumping them into the tub. There’s a participatory nature to it that simply can’t be replicated by twisting a faucet tap.
What has happened to ritual in our culture? It seems to me as if there was once ritual built into all our lives, that the very nature of living demanded it. Maybe for some “ritual” is too strong a word; maybe it was merely habit or tradition, born of simple necessity: You cut the damn wood because if you didn’t, you froze. You heated the damn water on the stovetop because if you didn’t, your bath was cold. Maybe it is my lack of formal religious affiliation that compels me to elevate these simple tasks from mere chore to ritual.
So, ok, call it what you will. The fact remains that these things are no longer part of most American’s lives, and in this regard, each day becomes somewhat indistinguishable from the next. When I consider this, it reminds me how grateful I am to know the days and seasons as I do. To know that March means sugaring, and next year’s firewood. To know that September means the first fire and more greenhouse tomatoes than we can ever figure out what to do with. To know that June means first cut hay and August, second.
And to know, finally, that my participation in all of these things matters, that these things will not just happen to me, but that I must in some way call them forward, give them a little piece of myself – a little sweat, a tired back, the occasional drop of blood – in exchange for their gifts.
I think this is ultimately what I love so much about doing firewood. It feels like such a tangible, honest exchange. There is risk, and exertion, and sweat, and time. For that, I will have wood to make my coffee and heat my bath. For that, my family will survive another winter. For that, I get to spend dozens of hours in the woods and wielding a maul, never surer of my small place in this huge world.
Could there be a better deal?