West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Chop wood, carry water

I’m not much for Zen—I have too much fondness for the world’s rough-and-tumble perpetuity to ever wish myself above it all—but there are some great koans. Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. And it’s true; no matter how great or terrible the event, the necessary details of life continue in the background. Nothing particularly great or terrible has happened to me lately, which I suppose I should count as a blessing. I have been thinking, though, about how much the details of life have changed since the Zen masters set that one down. Who chops wood any more? Who carries water? Most of the world, probably, but not here in the Land of Plenty. The modern American version of the koan would probably substitute drive to work, pay your taxes.

I’ve just finished reading Baron Wormser’s beautiful memoir, The Road Washes Out in Spring. It’s about the years he spent raising a family in a tiny cabin in the Maine woods, with no electricity and no running water. I was struck by how similar it was to my own childhood. We had electricity (in three rooms of the sprawling downstairs) and running water (after my sister was born—my mother drew the line at carrying water to wash out diapers). But we did grow much of our own food, and we heated with wood. As Wormser eloquently describes, heating with wood is a kind of meditation in itself. It anchors you to the place where you come from. When you burn a log, you’ve already handled it seven or eight times: felling the tree and lopping off the branches, hauling it out, cutting it to length, splitting, stacking. In the backwaters where I grew up, wood heat was still common enough that a household would be judged on the merits of its woodpile.

Even if you bought cordwood, there was still work. The first winter after my parents divorced, my mother lived with the three of us daughters in a poorly-insulated little house that went through five cords in a winter. She bought 4-ft lengths—slightly cheaper than the pre-cut wood—and every day after school, my older sister and I would saw the logs into thirds so they could fit into the stove. We’d stay at the sawhorses until dark, telling stories and joking and chucking sawdust at each other when the jokes got too bad. I suppose I could look back at this episode as evidence of some Dickensian, uphill-both-ways, barefoot-in-the-snow, terrible childhood. But instead I treasure those memories.

Today I live in a house with an oil furnace in the basement, like most people in this part of the world. I’ve never liked oil heat. You don’t have to think about where it comes from. Every month or so a giant truck fills up your tank; you nudge a little lever on the thermostat, and presto, your house warms up. I guess the convenience is what appeals to most people, but to me, it seems like a loss—one more part of our connection to the earth gone missing. You don’t have to think about the giant swamps of the Carboniferous Era, all the eons that that carbon lay buried beneath the earth, all the work of extracting and refining and shipping. It’s really weird, when you think about it, that the vast majority of us here in the Northeast depend on fossil carbon mined on the other side of the world to heat our houses.

And one thing about wood—you can count on it. You do your work, splitting and stacking and hauling, and you light the fire, and you get warm. Not so with oil. This morning when I woke up, the morning of my 28th birthday, it was six degrees outside and 45 degrees in the apartment. I could see my breath. Some time during the night, the furnace broke. My first thought, when I rolled out of bed, was “time to light the fire.” But when I came fully awake, awake enough to poke around in the basement checking the breakers and the emergency override switches, I realized that there was nothing I could do, short of calling the landlord.

Sometimes I hate how dependent I am on technology I don’t understand; on long, untenable supply chains; on oil. Sometimes I’d like to just move to a little cabin in the woods, and have nothing around me that I can’t repair with my own two hands. Of course, if I ever did, I’d end up bemoaning the loss of my academic life, my career, my chance to reach the wider world and make a difference in more lives than just my own.

A minor change: in the time since I began writing this update, something great has happened to me. I won the Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest. I am still wavering between elation and denial—I have to re-read the email several times a day to convince myself that I really won. It’s a huge honor. In mid-March I’ll be reading one of my poems on the same stage as Adam Zagajewski. It just takes my breath away.


At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jackrabbit, How are you! I just discovered that your AT adventures have been recently published. I'm almost finished with the first book and looking forward to the next one. Congratulations on you recent poetry award and botany book. You (and Isis) always had a way with words. I miss you both and hope that all is well. I feel bad for not staying in touch with mt AT brothers and sisters during the past 6 year (WOW, I can't believe it has been that long...I guess time has a way of speeding up as we get older). I'm still in Asheville getting ready for a PCT hike in April. I can't wait to get back to that lifestyle...I kick myself for not going back sooner. Anyway, Just wanted to let you know that the Barefoot sisters are always in my heart. Talk to you later, Tiki

p.s.- Let me know how your life is treating you if you get the urge.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Tiki! I've missed you, brother. I'll be in touch.


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