“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.”
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

My brother's cords of wood, stockpiled for winter

Shadowplay on a fallen tree

I don’t chop wood, but I’ve looked with pride and affection at jars of blackberry jam that I made from foraged wild blackberries.  Or bags of frozen apples from windfalls that I picked and sliced for future pies.  There is something immensely satisfying about a well-provisioned pantry, especially when it is the work of your own hands.

Thoreau found this kind of satisfaction in gazing at his woodpile, which he loved to have outside of his window to remind him of his “pleasing work.”  As winter approached, he said, “I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast.”  The fire in his fireplace was a great comfort to him — he enjoyed its flickering shadows, which he described as “more agreeable to the fancy and imagination than fresco paintings or the most expensive furniture.”

I love how Thoreau so appreciated the life-giving warmth from his wood fire — something we take so much for granted because heat, for us, is a simple as turning up the thermostat.  He marveled at how, with his fire, he was able to “maintain a kind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows even admit the light, and with a lamp lengthen the day.”  He appreciated cooking so much more for having to forage for his fuel, collecting dead wood from the forest:  “How much more interesting an event is that man’s supper who has just been forth in the snow to hunt, nay, you might say, steal, the fuel to cook with!  His bread and meat are sweet.”

Thoreau acknowledges that something vital is lost when things come too easily and we no longer labor with our own hands for our food and shelter.  Some of the poetry of life goes missing.  Here is what he says about the second winter at Walden’s Pond, when he used a small cooking stove instead of the open fireplace:  “Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. . . . it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion.  You can always see a face in the fire.  The laborer, looking into it at evening, purifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness which they have accumulated during the day.”

I am warmed this dark December by the spirit of Thoreau’s words.  I’ll try to recall them as I flip the light switches on and turn the thermostat up when I return home from work.

 

Wood Fires

October 27, 2009

Fire crackling in my sister's wood stove

Fire crackling in my sister's wood stove

Reading magazines in front of a wood fire at the Snowshoe Country Lodge

Reading magazines in front of a wood fire at the Snowshoe Country Lodge

My husband and I just turned on the furnace at our home in Seattle.  But when I was back in Minnesota earlier this month, I had the pleasure of warming myself in front of several wood stoves.  My oldest brother and sister both heat almost exclusively with wood.  And during our driving vacation in Northern Minnesota, my sister and I stayed at a rustic cabin, the Snowshoe Lodge, which had no running water and wood stove heating.  There is something comforting about warming oneself by a fire.

Wood Fires
by Gertrude Perry Stanton

Within the fireplace the flames leap high;
 Sparks crackle in a meteoric flight,
 Then dwindle to a pale and mellow light —
Soft radiance even where the shadows lie;
For every lovely thing the tree has known, —
 Stanch hickory, or gnarly apple bough,
 Treasured through years, is liberated now:
Bright sunsets, clover ready to be mown;
The flash of lightning, glow of stars serene;
 The opalescent hues of morning skies,
 Leaves gaily colored when the summer dies,
The tinge of purple in far mountains seen;
The strength and courage bred in hours of storm, —
 Peace, stored through long and warmly sunlit days;
 A spirit of content and reverent praise.