Monday, December 22, 2008

Sticks in the Snow

I bought a house a few years ago from a man who had lived there nearly all his life. He built the house, adding on as his family grew. He built the pasture fence, out of heavy boards and wooden poles. He built a chicken coop – a big one, with roosts, nesting boxes, multiple compartments, and a little chicken play yard. And, he built a playhouse for his daughter. I don’t live in the house; I bought it for the pasture, adjacent to mine, and I rent the house out. I knew this man for the final few years of his life, and I knew his wife, for the final few years of her life, which ended a few years before his. I used to visit them, since they were neighbors, and hear stories of the neighborhood and how it has changed over time from an orchard to a quarter horse training facility to homes and cul de sacs.

The site of his house was an old bootlegger cabin. My other rental (also purchased for the pasture) was one of the first houses built, in 1915, and my house wasn’t long after, in 1920. He knew all the people who’d ever owned my house. His wife told me about the willow tree she planted, that still grows in the yard, huge and shady. I sat with them at their kitchen table and looked out the window at my horses grazing in their pasture (by arrangement, of course).

I have always appreciated all the little details; how he organized his garage, built the shelves in the hallway, lived his whole life without a bathtub. He died this year, so it’s the first year since I’ve lived here that I’m not sending him a Christmas card, updating him on the horses, chatting about the flood irrigation problems.

This year, I’m trying to heat the house with a fire and save on energy costs – and it’s working. Bills are down by 2/3rds and I like the fire. I’ve moved the bed into the living room; it’s almost too hot falling asleep, and crispy cold in the morning or mid-afternoon before the fire gets going. It’s not freezing – I have the thermostat on 64, but it’s 78 or so with a fire (in the living room –it stays very cold in the rest of the house). All this fire building takes newspapers (which I collect at the office from co-workers), kindling (which I am short on), and wood (which I have gathered over the years). So, I decided to raid the woodpile at the old man’s former house. He collected and organized the wood by size and stacked it in the chicken coop yard. I doubt he had a fire during the last 10 years he owned the house, but old habits die hard. The renter doesn’t use the fireplace. And, I need kindling…so I decided to start bringing over the smaller wood to my house.

I walked across the frozen pasture with the dogs. When I got to the wood pile, I marveled again at his carefulness. The wood was organized by size, and carefully cut and stacked. Cardboard boxes tied with twine contained twigs he’d collected from the apple tree out back. These little twigs are the type most people rake up with leaves and toss. But, he lived through the depression. Leaves were compost. Sticks were firewood. Everything had a purpose. Everything got recycled.

I thought about the current recession, vs. the great depression, which my parents lived through as well. I admired the old man’s frugalness, his patience, his attention to detail. I imagined him stacking all that wood. Every scrap of wood, from whatever source, was there. I could see remnants of home projects, pallets, shelves, fence boards, tree branches, sticks, twigs and more.

As I picked the sizes I wanted, I thought about how it would be nice to clean out all the wood over the next couple of years and maybe have chickens in the coop again. I love my house – but I also love his. I love that out his window you can see the pasture, whereas out mine I see a big tree. I like his coop better than mine. Not that I need more chickens – but I do love having them. And although I live in the city, with a busy city job, I have always wanted to live in the country and have a ranch and tons of animals. This is a good compromise, but I am always hoping I can live the ritual of life without the ritual of work. I wouldn’t mind gathering twigs, growing food, feeding the animals, and taking care of the property all day. There is a certain peace that comes with that lifestyle vs. the one I have; I can glimpse it now and then but never seem to hold onto it long term – my job doesn’t let me.

Walking home across the pasture again, I missed my dad, who had the same kind of old guy organization and the same kind of depression era saving stuff habit. I was happy to be able to make use of the wood for its intended purpose, right down to appreciating the convenience of being able to carry a twine tied box of twigs to my back porch for use with fire.

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