A Better Deal

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?

§ 12 Responses to A Better Deal

  • Susan says:

    This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for putting into (lovely) words feelings and thoughts of my own that I am unable to articulate!! As my husband and I planned out our garden for this year and placed our seed order with High Mowing (love supporting those guys!) we said something similar about how March 1st seems like the beginning of summer :)

  • maggiemehaffey says:

    True. All of this really resonates with me. We are planting now in the hoophouses (www.mehaffeyfarm.wordpress.com) where it does feel like summer. Still burning and cutting next year’s wood here too. There’s something very special and completely honest in keeping to a simple, but well-lived life…a homely and humble life that is filled with purpose and meaning.

  • Matt says:

    Stuck in a concrete block of an office in San Francisco, I so envy your lifestyle and outlook on life. Thank you so much for sharing. Love your writing and look forward to your frequent posts and upcoming book!

  • Wendy H says:

    Another great post, Ben! I am living somewhat the way you are at the moment. Simplifying and downsizing after a lifetime of consuming and convenience, though I’m not sure how far I’ll go as time unfolds. Another back-to-the-land movement seems afoot, though, from what I’m seeing and reading about, as people are waking up to the limited economy and devastated environment to recognize self-sufficiency, community, and simplicity are the golden path we should now walk again to find more satisfaction with our lives.

    The change for me is not foreign. I was fortunate to have lived off-grid when I was 20, when I joined my mom and brother’s family who had gone ‘back-to-the-land’ and moved from our MA city to the NH mountains to ‘get away from it all’ back in the late 70s. It was a wonderful experience for the time I was there (~18 mos), and it left an indelible impression. Oh, and when I say ‘off-grid’, I mean TOTALLY – no electric, water, sewer/septic. We had oil lamps (Aladdin’s), carried water in, had a propane stove & fridge, woodstove, and outhouse. Plus, it was 1000′ feet up to walk or snowshoe in (with water, groceries, huge propane tanks) – so no gym was needed!

    I agree with the ritual aspect and the connectedness a more simpler life provides with the moment at hand. One begins to live fully in gratitude with this way of life, and to respect each act that is performed. It’s meditative in nature. It’s also very interesting to see how little water one consumes when they have to carry it in or simply heat it for bathing, dishes, etc. (For those curious to know, you can wash your hair on a gallon of water or less – and shower with less than 3 if you’re smart!)

    My city friends think I’m crazy, but I am more certain every day that I am, in fact, the sane one – as I know that I am living a more sustainable (and happier) lifestyle than they are. It’s nice to read your words, and to know I am not the only one who relishes the small town VT life and way of living closer to how nature intended. Thanks for sharing yours with us!

  • Tonya says:

    Our family lives just northwest of you a bit – and appreciates much of the same homesteading kind of life – not for the novelty of it – but because we really do believe in the power of 1 – we can all make a difference.
    Sure beats paying for a fitness club membership, doesn’t it?
    When we lived off grid in our mobile home we heated all our water on the woodstove for our tub baths and carried water for washing dishes, for flushing the toilet, for our animals- learning water really is the essence of life and how truly how little even a large family actually “needs”.
    Thanks for your writing – it is affirming to “meet” other families that wouldn’t think we were crazy.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Did you say you hauled water for your animals? Jeezum that’s crazy.

      Seriously, thanks for the note. Northwest of Cabot I’m thinking Albany. Or Irasburg.

      • Tonya says:

        Actually, Westfield – we only had chickens then and actually it was more carrying water – by the bucket full – we filled reserves and would then get buckets from that. I did forget to mention that i also washed all of our clothes by hand and came up with a pretty good method – great exercise and it actually got our clothes cleaner than the front loader that came with the rustic cottage we bought just down the road from where we had been living. – I actually miss it and think that if the washer breaks down and my husband can’t repair it, we may go back to hand washing.

  • Jocelyn says:

    I love your last paragraph, where you said that firewood feels like an honest exchange. That’s what I’ve always felt about homestead–it’s honest work. You use your hands, you use your mind, you use your body, and the results are tangible–food, water, wood, what have you. It means more than a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, most of which you never see as it’s transmitted electronically to your bank and most people never even hold cash anymore. Money is a concept, hard work is a reality and the results can be felt, held, and seen.

    We are done sugaring here in Ulster, NY. I’m actually going out to pull the taps out of the trees today. It was a good running year, though. Good luck on your sugaring!

  • CJ says:

    I wonder, sometimes when I’m out in the woods, what if everyone had to, or even just wanted to, cut their own wood? You (we) might be considered 1 percenters then?

  • Doug W. says:

    I love March, esp. if it’s a snowy one, there is no such thing as a bad day. On cold days I can cross country ski my brains out, and if it is mild, it is sugarin’ time. Worst case scenario is cold weather with snow. Then what?

  • Doug W. says:

    Meant to say worst case scenario would be cold weather with NO snow.

  • […] a few sections of this blog that have inspired us both.  These are experts from three articles (here, here, and here) that articulate so much of what I’ve come to love about farming, and want to […]

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