The woodstove is no longer roaring, so I step out onto our back porch for an armload of oak before shouldering my way back inside. After restoring the fire, I glance around our kitchen for some sort of fanfare or gratitude from my family. No one seems to have registered my deed. One kid is seated at the dining room table, making her art, another child is in the living room, researching American politics or some such. And my wife, ensconced in a chair that she has relocated to reside adjacent to the stove, continues to read her novel, quite unaware that I’ve restoked her heat source. Anyway, I’m delighted, despite any sort of thanks. I have always, always wanted to own a woodstove. And now I do.
The great Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” I’ve thought about this sentiment repeatedly the past few weeks as temperatures have dipped into the twenties. I imagine him, on his farm not far from Baraboo, stoking a fire and then perhaps fixing a pan of bacon and eggs. It’s telling that he specifically used the word “breakfast,” a morning meal, when in all likelihood, a house is at its coldest. You appreciate the stove, heat, when you’re tinkering about the cold kitchen, the early light of morning sharp and cold, not yet expansive and warm.
The stove represents heat, of course. But it also symbolizes purpose, too. Because these days I find myself constantly thinking about firewood. Do we have enough? Is it stored properly? Is it dry? I become jittery inside the house and peer outside, looking for trees, downed limbs to cut. It is fair to say that I’ve become obsessed with firewood. Often, I will be moving around our forest, having conversations with myself about the merits of certain varieties of wood. “Can’t have enough oak,” I’ll say to myself. “But cherry,” I smile, “smells so good.”
“We could use more kindling, though,” I’ll put it. “A few young aspen would make some real nice kindling.”
As a child, I used to hear old men speak like this, about firewood, and it always fascinated me. Men who seemed incapable of emoting anything, their feelings as unreachable as the farthest stars, talking passionately about firewood. About the merits of oak, maple, cherry, mesquite or apple as if these trees were women they had once loved. Now, I am that man, lusting after firewood.
This hunger for firewood, for heat, has both heightened and warped my appreciation of the natural world. In past years, I have met road crews near my property to lobby for the lives of certain old oak trees in the path of a chainsaw. Now I’m greedily eyeballing those same beautiful trees. I think in terms of cords. I see a thick, straight trunk and my mind begins tabulating the pile of firewood I might transform that beauty into. Suddenly, the forest I saw and still see as a collection of sentient creatures, is now also a lumberyard.
The darkest winters in my life have been those months when my world seemed to close off, seal up around me, as if I was deep inside an ice cave, watching snow stack up and finally seal off my only exit, and then, I knew I was trapped. Trapped inside January, February, March, praying desperately for April to arrive on the scene and melt my cave open, releasing me into spring. Those dark winters, when I think about it, were marked by inactivity. My life had purpose, yes, of course, but perhaps I drew no fulfillment from that purpose. Perhaps I was going through the motions. Not necessarily hibernating, but maybe sleepwalking.
My grandfather lived into his mid-nineties, and even into his late eighties, he was an extremely vigorous man. He and my grandmother lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on a thirty-six-acre parcel of heavily wooded land, and he heated their house throughout the long winter on maple. Some of my best memories are with him, out in that forest. He would run the chainsaw and I was happy beside him, throwing logs into the bed of his 1985 Dodge Ram. We were acutely alive then, doing good work, and doing it together; cutting wood that would keep our family warm. Often, I have wondered how he lived such a long and healthy life and I’ve come to pinpoint his time in the forest, laboring for firewood as a key sort of elixir. Early in his retirement, there were years where he was lost in place, anchored to a chair, staring into the depths of a television. But eventually, I think he found that work, that firewood was his purpose. Something to do. A way to keep warm. A way to both use and store energy.
The first house my wife and I owned was a Sears-Roebuck kit home. A little bungalow with almost no insulation. We had no money back then, and many nights we crawled into bed with the inside temperature hovering in the fifties. We went to bed early not because we were tired, but because in bed, we could pool our heat. I’ll never forget my father-in-law visiting one winter and joking about taping a five-dollar bill next to the thermostat so that we could temporarily crank the heat.
Yesterday, my father-in-law sent me a text. He’s been eager to pillage a pile of oak out towards Eleva. Loading all that wood will take a while. Unloading and stacking it, too. That time, with my father-in-law will be time well spent, time we’ll talk and labor together. Then, the firewood will become heat and comfort. I can hardly wait.