At this time of year I light a fire in the stove every day.
To light those fires, and others, I’ve made firewood most every year of my life, excluding infancy and a few years while residing in a downtown Minneapolis condominium. It’s always been dangerous and hard work. Today, as I was working to fill the pick-up box with blocks and logs to take to the firewood lot, I wondered about the wisdom of a 70-year old continuing this kind of work.
The great Japanese mountain climber, Tamae Watanabe, seemed to be suggesting that making firewood builds character when she wrote these words:
“We as children went up the mountain to find feed for livestock, like goats, cows and horses, and because in the wintertime we would light the fire in the house, we would climb the mountain to collect firewood as well. Because of that, I suppose I became used to climbing mountains.”
I wonder if my dad had in mind teaching us boys how to climb our life’s mountains when he took us out into the woods to cut, split, and stack firewood. I do remember those outings for how they taught me how teamwork can accomplish a lot in a short time – even if more is demanded of you than you think you’re capable of.
But, do I need more mountain climbing at age 70?
Over the years I spent quite a bit of time in the woods with my dad and brother making firewood, fence posts, and saw logs. I imagine that hard work was character building for all of us; even my dad. It was companionable, too. To this day my brother and I have common memories of that work with our dad.
But I’ve spent a lot of time working alone in the woods. Felling a tree with a chain saw, or even bucking it into logs or firewood, is dangerous work. I’ve seen seriously injured men carried out of the woods by their co-workers. But there is a deep pleasure in listening to your own breathing and your own heart beating while you move a heavy log or load a truck with blocks. There is no need for conversation. There is your beating heart, and the work and that is good enough. Besides that, there is the deep silence outside of yourself where, in the punctuation between one task and another, you stop and hear the raven, see the squirrel, or hear the neighbor harvesting a crop in the distance. Why, just yesterday, after loading the truck, I stopped. And listened. Trumpeter swans were flying overhead. They were above the gray clouds. They sounded like whooping dogs.
But at my age, should I be working alone in the woods?
Like my dad, I taught my son how to make firewood and how to make a fire. Now he is teaching his son those things and the child is a good student. I enjoy my grandson’s companionship and am honored to be the assistant instructor.
We start first with lessons in gathering kindling. It seems like child’s work but a fire is only possible with good dry kindling, well placed on top of crumpled newspaper. My grandson is learning that and his dad is teaching him how to carefully stack the split firewood so it will dry. We three enjoy each other’s company as we do these things together, just like I enjoyed my dad’s company all those years ago.
Soon, a time will come when my grandson, like his dad before him, will want to learn how to use the saw. His dad will teach him that but I’d like to be in the woods with them when that happens. Perhaps I’ll have something to add. And meanwhile, we’ll work together to make the firewood. My grandson, as he grows, may pick up some slack for me. That’s ok. I’ll just keep doing what I can and enjoying the companionship.
And I think I’ll need to keep climbing mountains. Their contours will just be different than they used to be.