Thursday, November 08, 2007

Musings on Firewood, and Other Earthy Things

A Woman Gathering Faggots
at Ville-d'Avray, ca. 1871–74
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
(French, 1796–1875)
Mr. and Mrs. Isaac D. Fletcher
Collection, Bequest of Isaac
D. Fletcher,
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.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful reflection on life!

Changes in the wind said...

Have never heard of gathering fagots:)I thought when I read it that they were worms LOL
Well, that goes to show you that I am not a country woman but oh how I would like to be, for a little while anyhow. I would probably starve to death as my gardening skills are none but you make it all sound so wonderful. It is true that we often get past a task so fast that we miss the whole enjoyment of doing it.

Anonymous said...

It is beautiful, and a good reminder that smaller things in life can be ritualistic and can be what is really important.
My dishwasher recently broke and I am actually enjoying washing the dishes by hand, gazing out of my front window over the scarlet geraniums I have on the sill. Somehow it connects me to my mother, who managed to raise five kids (one of them handicapped) without either a dishwasher or a microwave. Gasp.

Rain Trueax said...

I totally relate to your post. A few years back, I wrote what I wanted to be like as an old woman and one part was gathering, chopping and stacking firewood. I discovered last year that I could tolerate winter better with a daily fire in the fireplace. For many years this house was heated totally by a woodstove but it leaked too much smoke into the house when I'd feed new logs; so it didn't work, but the fireplace doesn't do that and after I got a glass door for it, I have been using it regularly. It is very satisfying and somehow helps me make it through the winter. I am a champion stacker of cords of firewood and enjoy doing it right :)

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog. I love it and have tears in my eyes.
I love what you do.
I miss my country home so much.
This year built in the city to be near children and grandchildren.
I am your age and thought I did not need to be so isolated in my country home.
I loved gathering wood and having it stacked at back door. Kept my wood stove going every cool morning and evening. Loved my gardening and fruit trees. Even at one time had small game and some cattle. I am starting a different type of lifestyle. But I have brought cuttings from many plants. Many seeds I brought came up while home was being completed. Have a small area stacked out for kitchen garden. I love working in the earth.
I will be checking in often.

Beverly said...

I would love to visit you, to see if my mind has accurately described your garden and wood gathering. Although, thanks to your pictures, i know what some of your life scenes.

I read a blog you might enjoy, not from an elder, but a farmgirl from Missouri. She details her life on the farm...raising sheep, her donkey, her garden, and 100 year old farmhouse. It is (sorry I haven't gotten to links) FarmGirl. oops I will get correct link...beright back

Beverly said...

Here it is!!! I love it...

joared said...

I enjoy your reflections on life, nature and share an inner resonance with much of what you write. I experience a special relationship with the outdoors and treasure time there now. I "hear" what you're saying, but your words trigger other thoughts for me, too.

Having spent some early years of my life with mile high pine trees (too many for too many years,) notching them just so by hand with an axe, then cutting them down with a crosscut saw (people-powered with one of those people being me,) making certain they fell in the right location to do no harm, using that same saw and later a band saw to cut the tree(s) into log size pieces, later swinging a sledge hammer over a wedge placed to split the logs into usuable size wood pieces, loading and carrying them in a wheelbarrow, then stacking them in huge organized wood piles so we would have enough to heat the home in winter, please forgive me if I have no desire to experience that again, especially in my eighth decade. ;-) I can appreciate the romanticism of it all in measured limits, but reality, otherwise, can be quite different.

Elderwoman said...

Thank you all for these lovely comments.
Joared, I wouldn't want to be felling trees and sawing logs now either! I never enjoyed sawing anyway, even when I was young and strong. Back in my own homesteading days, we had a chainsaw and I never could make friends with it. That thing terrified me. I used to clean it and sharpen its little teeth most conscientiously and try hard to love it, but I never could. To me, it remained an ugly, threatening monster that could turn nasty any moment and bite my arm off.
I do still enjoy stacking logs, I must admit. But nowadays, someone else saws them up and all I have to do is stack them. An easy life!

shadows and clouds said...

hello there, i, like Ernestine, just happened across your blog, and i'm so pleased that i did. i just read this post and it is soooo beautiful. so in touch with nature, so alive! i'm 30, but agree totally on the bad feelings to be felt from too many mod-cons, and as we speak i'm sitting near our log stove - the only heating in our house, and where winter-time cooking gets done.
i am off to read more of your blog, with glee! thanks! and have a good day....

Anonymous said...

What beautiful and poignant writing. You had me right there with you collecting that kindling...the sights, the smells, were all so real.
I also feel so much closer to the earth than I did a mere ten years ago. There is a definite connection between the earth and aging, I feel.