Every time I go outside since the frost came, I get a whiff of wood smoke in my nostrils. That hasn’t always happened. Much of my life was spent on an asphalt-covered sandbar, where cookie-cutter homes are heated by the oil that isn’t powering the SUVs parked alongside every curb. If we smiled fire in my youth, it meant that some kids set the weeds in the vacant lot ablaze again.
As a young man, I spent several years in the northern wastes, and I lived in much quieter places where wood stoves were the norm. This was before pellet stoves, mind you; folks had to split wood or hire someone to do the work. At nineteen, around the time when I periodically ran out of food, I also learned the value of an honest day’s work. A sixty-something year old man, a woodsman and farmer all his life, taught me to split wood – or tried, anyway.
Placing a thick log on the stump that was flatter than the frozen ground, he waved away the maul. “You just have to look and see where the grain is going,” he told me, “so you know which way the wood wants to go.” With a blur, the ax came off his shoulder and the log exploded, three pieces of firewood newly-born skittering across the ice. He handed me the ax. “You try.”
After carefully sizing up the piece of wood he placed on the stump for me, and testing the weight of the ax, I brought it crashing down with all the vigor of Bobby the Barbarian. Once it reached its mark, the blade came back up nearly as quickly, careening off the wood as if it were rubber instead. “You hit the knot,” he explained, pointing out the offending swirl. I peered closely, but my fifteen minutes’ experience didn’t show it as clearly as this man’s half-century or more.
The lesson was more about patience and observation than it ever was about splitting wood, although the wood did need cutting. The sharp smell of smoke on a bitter cold day always makes me think of that time, and of the other people I have known who brave living in chill places where a cheery fire is the first line of defense against an inhospitable winter.
Winter scares me, because it reminds me that if I don’t use the only gift I have – my mind – I won’t last in the natural world. It’s a good sort of fear, though. If one is aware that death is always a heartbeat away, it makes the living a bit more exciting. I can see why thrill seekers do crazy things – it’s because they have lost touch with that lesson and want to remember how precious life is.
Somehow I managed to get the same wisdom by trying to keep the wood stove full.