A Woman Gathering Faggots
at Ville-d'Avray, ca. 1871–74
Mr. and Mrs. Isaac D. Fletcher
Collection, Bequest of Isaac
1917 (17.120.225) Metropolitan Museum of Art
I've spent several hours this morning doing something that I find marvellously satisfying, and that is gathering firewood and breaking it all up into the right sized pieces for our ancient kitchen range.
I suppose some people would think that is utterly mad. In this push-button age of oil-fired central heating, why would anyone want to go wandering around collecting sticks in order to keep warm in the winter? Don't we pity those poor souls from earlier centuries who had to chop wood and carry water, wash their laundry by hand, grow their own vegetables, sew their own clothes …? Well actually, no. (Except for the clothes, that is. I never did enjoy sewing). When I have to spend any length of time cocooned in indoor spaces and surrounded by labour-saving devices like dishwashers and microwave ovens, I start to feel marooned, alienated, separated from the real world.
I love the physicality of firewood. The satisfying snap as you break a dry stick in your hands or against your knee or under the heel of your boot. Now that we live in a small cottage, all I have to do with those broken pieces is to pile them in a basket. But years ago, when I had to carry the pieces some distance, I used to enjoy making them into sturdy bundles. 'Faggots', as in the title of this Corot painting. What a lovely, old-fashioned word that is. It makes me feel connected with all the other people, all down through history, who have brought their firewood home this way.
I love the physicality of gardening, too, and the deep feeling of connection that comes from plunging my hands into the soil. As I pull weeds or plant seedlings, I see the robin nearby, head to one side, waiting and watching with a black and beady eye in the hope that I shall turn up a juicy earthworm, and suddenly we are companions in the task, each with our own reason for being there. I feel the breeze on my face and in my hair, and in the air I smell the season – right now, the moist, mushroomy aroma of autumn. In moments like that, despite all the problems in the world, everything feels OK.
My back aches a lot these days. Seventy years of walking upright and sitting in badly-designed chairs and all those decades of overriding the deeper needs of my body in order to earn a living have all taken their toll on my spine. And physical tasks – particularly gardening – all bring with them, these days, the possibility that some thorn, some jagged edge, some projecting object will pierce this unbelievably thin skin of mine. The merest bump, like brushing too hard against the corner of a table, will tear the skin on my arm as though it were tissue paper. I stare in amazement at the oozing blood and say "Gosh, all I did was …" Now I understand why elderly patients in hospitals are so prone to bedsores. Our skin has lost its robustness.
Yet paradoxically, as my energy ever-so-slowly declines and my body gradually becomes more subject to aches and bruises, my delight in the physicality of living close to the earth seems to increase. I can't do the hugely physical things I did years ago, like building a house and backpacking around the world. But the small, physical tasks I do outdoors, like pegging out a line of laundry in the garden, spreading compost, planting seeds, collecting kindling for the fire, bring a measure of delight to my days that I would sorely miss.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Musings on Firewood, and Other Earthy Things
A Woman Gathering Faggots