Castle Freeman wrote here recently [“Easy Wood,” Autumn 2017] about his prolonged tussle with a major limb that had separated from an old butternut tree in his backyard...a job that proved not to be as easy as he had thought it would be.
“Ease?” Freeman said about the labor of converting the great stricken branch into firewood, “There’s no such thing as ease – or if there is, we don’t really want it.”
That contrarian conclusion, “We don’t really want it,” appeals to me because I’ve been living with a similar creed since I arrived in Vermont in 1968 on a bitter-cold day in March, together with my wife and baby daughter. We began burning firewood that very first day, since that turned out to be the only way to warm the little house that a local friend had procured for us. We bewildered and shivering three.
I was then a migrant to Vermont, committed to stay for six months, but staying on – as matters have turned out – for what has lengthened to 50 years. I have never had the audacity to think of myself as a real native of the state, but out of regard for what I have imagined to be the early ethos of the place, I formed the idea that heating our house with wood was the thing to do – a way to honor and draw closer to the spirit of the region.
I want now to turn back to a key part of Freeman’s paradox.
“Ease?” Freeman wrote. “We don’t really want it. What we want is effort . . . If the world is easy, we’ll make it hard.”
I have recently been reflecting, unamiably, on two key expressions – injunctions, really – in our contemporary American lexicon. “Relax!” is one, and “Take it easy!” the other. Those injunctions with which we encourage friends and family have become a creed here in America, as ubiquitous in our thoughts as the blue jeans we wear on our legs. It is as though we live in a national sanatorium, under clinical obligation to further our health and well-being by relaxing conscientiously and taking it easy. “The Life of Slump” as a universal prescription.
Well. I turned 93 this year. And have gone a little crazy, in consequence, on the subject of taking it easy, with this summer’s very considerable self-imposed firewood project as my existential riposte to the general assumption that we old guys really ought to take it easy ’til we just wink out of existence.
Does anyone know where the phrase “trance of activity” comes from?
No matter. But I’ve been in such a trance these last weeks of summer – nothing new to me – working up the several loads of log-length firewood dropped off for me at a good and reasonable price by an arborist friend of ours who carts away logs and major branches that he lops off professionally from his clients’ unwanted trees and that they pay him to dispose of.
An old friend, Belmont Pitkin, told me in my early time in Vermont, when I began exploring ideas of firewood and wood heat, that a study of the homely logistics of working up firewood had shown that, from tree to belly-of-stove, every piece of firewood you burn has to be handled on average 14 times. I’ve confirmed a figure something like that in my own haphazard reckoning. And the “Rule of 14” – or more – has continued for me through these present days of late summer. “14 or more” because, sloppy husbandman that I sometimes am, I started very late this year assembling my winter wood supply and have had to resort to laborious tricks to help it dry out before the approaching heating season begins.
We did install a supplementary oil furnace in our final Vermont house 10 or 15 years ago, in case any of us here gets really old or sick and we can no longer keep up with the labors of the woodstove. We’ve used the furnace sparingly in the intervening time, domestic wood being more congenial – kosher, as you might say – to us than Arabian oil. The pretty good Jøtul woodstove that has stood by us for 20 years, as a smaller model under the same manufacturer’s name had done for 20 years before that, is our own cozy and intimate hearth through the overly long winters we accept here as ingredient with this region’s Way of Life. We can switch on the oil furnace any time we like, but so far we use it very little, preferring the fine coziness of our woodstove and the plausible, human-scale exertion and discipline that go into supplying it. There is an inimitable satisfaction to be had in kindling and coaxing the first fire of the day – the game of choosing the kindling itself from the assortment of kinds that we keep handy and then coaxing out the first timid start of flame – and on to the Great Blazes that secure us on the coldest days.
I love my midday lamb chop broiled close to the coals of our dear wood fire; the attention I have to pay to the broiling of it, as well as the eating of it – char and fat along with the rest of it. And the warmth of the dinner plates that we heat on it, when we think of it, before dinner. And the cozy warmth that emanates from the stove when I sit reading by its side in the winter nights.
The heat yielded by standard radiators or baseboard heaters is of a very different kind, I find; not so intimate, not so right.
And here now is what comes close to the center of the matter as I spin this yarn of self-satisfaction. I have adopted and practiced with a very nearly whole heart the challenge and rigors of working up my winter wood supply with my own hands and tools – chainsaw, peavey, maul, wedges, pickaroon, and hydraulic wood splitter – because of a frankly romantic idea I have of this, my adoptive state, and because I think my body craves and benefits from that exertion: as much of that in these late days of summer as my aged body can take. Two hours at a time – steady – of cutting, heaving, shlepping, and stacking. And on to yet another session – after a good rest, if I feel like it: my daily routine, these present summer weeks. Catching up. When I shlep – drag behind me – the deep-bodied four-wheeled cart in which I transport load after load after load from the cutting area between our house and the sparsely traveled road that fronts it, 200 feet away, to the storage shed adjoining our house where I stack the wood, cartload after cartload – why, shlepping as I do, I feel like a donkey, all patience and my back bent to the work for those couple of minutes it takes to traverse the distance from where the stove-ready billets lie drying (I hope) in the sun and hill-breeze. I fancy myself, then, not a serf – God forbid – but a donkey who is quietly in accord with his body and his nature. Willing, able, and with thought suspended.
Back bent to the work for those few hours of the day, I feel good – good in my body and good in spirits. And grand, too, at the table afterwards, and sound in my sleep, later, in the nap I take after the midday meal. How good they both are, the meal and the sleep following! And at night, too, much the same. Glad I am that I have the sinews and stamina for this work, and glad to be one of the world’s back-benders, in service to the ancient and humble purpose of keeping my house warm. That much I can account for on this wayward planet.
And glad I am as well for the continuing health of my body, which I enjoy and maintain beyond the expectation of my years...because I moved from the city 50 years ago, and because, honoring the traditions of the region in which I have lived since then, I fell in (didn’t I?) with its traditional ecology; a man laboring, as our species’s evolution laid it out for us to do. And in partial accord, at least, with his environment.
“Ease?” Freeman said, at the end of his essay, “...we really don’t want it.”
At least, I have to add, coming after Freeman, not too much of it. And not a sworn creed of it, either, such as we have been developing here in America in these latter years, without any end of it yet in sight.
Jules Rabin studied anthropology at Harvard and Columbia. Then off the main track, for a long spell in Greenwich Village, New York. All of which qualified him to teach for 10 years at Goddard College. From which he emerged to build, with his wife, a stone-and-brick wood-fired bread oven, in which they baked bread for their local world for 25 years. Now in blessed retirement.