“we’ll do the best we know…”

firewood gate2
An hour ago, while swimming, I caught a thread of autumn in the morning air. That slightly winey scent of leaves, a riffle of cool breeze unheard of a week ago when there was sun on the sand at 8:30. Maybe I noticed it because earlier I’d been reading the Autumn section of Bruce Hutchison’s A Life in the Country with my first cup of coffee. I’ve always loved his books and I found this copy at the Friends of the Sechelt Library book sale a few weeks ago. 2 bucks. It’s an elegant memoir of the author’s home-building in North Quadra near Victoria (the same neighbourhood my parents lived in), garden-making, renovations at the cabin he owned at Shawnigan Lake. He wrote so elegantly and beautifully of the dailiness of keeping a place intact, of welcoming visitors, of the strange and wonderful cast of characters who peopled his world. But back to Autumn. His meditations on the woodshed rang a familiar bell.
….If, occasionally, our politicians turned from rhetoric to reality and grasped an axe instead of a debating point or photo opportunity much social damage might be avoided.
   For those who can read its message, the woodshed rebukes such errors. Neatly piled (a high skill in itself), the contents, unlike all paper assets and printed money, are real wealth, an honest measure of value never diminished by the legal counterfeiting known as inflation. And when the chopper inspects the drying wood for next spring’s fire, he must be a little surprised by his own morality. His work, his sweat, his muscle and ache have created that wealth, or at least preserved it. He has asked no wages and he has toiled while his guests revelled in summer idleness.
   There is a darker side to the lesson of the woodshed. A moral chopper should ask himself what right he has to nature’s generosity when multitudes of human beings are cold in winter and hungry in all seasons. A nice question, especially for Canadians who, possessing a transcontinental treasure, grossly mismanage it by defying the woodshed principle.
   The moral question remains, and it has baffled philosophers of every faith since mankind left its caves—how much of nature’s yield does any nation or individual deserve? What volume of wealth are we entitled to hoard for our own use in woodshed or written contract?
We burn a lot of wood over the fall, winter, and spring. We buy some now that we’re past middle age and we cut what we can on our own land. We’re eyeing the dead young cedars, victims of two years of hot dry summers, and once it’s safe to take a saw into the woods, we’ll spend some time taking down what we can. When our older son visits in October, he may be conscripted for some woodcutting too. It’s good work, if hard on the muscles. But it also makes you grateful for a warm fire made with logs you’ve cut, split, and stacked yourself. Last year, in November, we had a load of dry pitchy fir delivered to supplement what we’d brought in ourselves. And the delivery coincided with two things: an emergency surgical procedure for John; and the visit of our Edmonton family. While he convalesced, I stacked wood in the shed; and Cristen, Kelly, and Henry filled the woodbox and kindling bucket in the porch as needed. Mostly John does these jobs and it was good for the rest of us to take them on, to know the luxury of a fire afterwards.
Yesterday was the first day of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved since the beginning season, 14 years ago, with a break of a couple of years in the middle. It’s always a fabulous weekend of intimate chamber music in the most beautiful setting—a restored Forestry building on a little hill above the harbour, surrounded by big trees. The opening event was this year’s Rising Tide, our annual celebration of young performers; the concert is a gift to the community. We were treated to a programme ranging from John Dowland to Leonard Bernstein. It was during the duet “Make Our Garden Grow”, from Bernstein’s operetta Candide, that I reached for my husband’s hand and squeezed it. It was our life, in a way, in the way that music can reach into your heart, play it as deftly as any instrument, in the words of Richard Wilbur, the poet who wrote the lyric for this particular version of the libretto:
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

finding my way into winter

November 1st. After morning chores, we’ll go over to Anderson Creek today to see if the chum salmon are running. These are good days to be outside. Leaves are falling, the last of the geese are heading south, and our woodshed is slowly filling. Slowly, because our division of labour has shifted slightly due to a rogue medical adventure of John’s last week so I’m the one stacking the fir chunks into rows in the woodshed, trying to keep my stacks as tidy as those behind them—the alder already cut and stacked earlier by John. It’s a kind of learned skill, how to choose pieces that will fit snugly against their neighbour, how to wedge and balance. Not unlike other things I do, not unlike the patterns I look for when I’m eyeing a stack of fabric and thinking about quilts, though I have to say that stacking firewood is a bit more physical.

I took the wax out of the final length of indigo-dyed fabric the other day. I confessed in an earlier post that I realized before even unwrapping the length after its immersion in dye baths and long period of overnight oxidization that it wouldn’t look the way I’d hoped it would. And it doesn’t. But it has moments. This one, for example:


And the eel-grass areas at the four corners of the fabric, because of the way I’d folded and wrapped and bound the sheet around a length of pvc pipe:

eel grass

I’m glad to have done it, to have learned things, and to have something now to work with. And there are pieces from this last dye lot that have surprised me with their beauty. This one will be a single-cloth quilt on its own, maybe backed with deep red cotton, and quilted with red sashiko stitching:


Once the woodshed is filled and I know I can count on a winter of warm fires to work by, I’ll begin the process of turning this into a quilt. And all the other fabric I dyed? Well, it’s waiting too. Everything is gathering—the imagery, the ideas, the hours themselves, and my own need to spend time stitching and thinking, finding my way into winter.

the firewood gate

I went out to try to photograph the morning sky, pink suffusing the eastern and southern treelines, and everything so rich and autumnal. But the colour wouldn’t show up. But while I was outside, I could smell newly-split fir. (John spent the last few days splitting and stacking two cords of wood.)

firewood gate.JPG

Our woodshed was built with bits and pieces of cedar posts and beams more than 30 years ago. When you live where we live, you burn a lot of firewood and the woodshed was an essential structure. There’s a magnificent wisteria climbing up the right post, the one you don’t see, its trunk as thick as a good-sized tree.

The last week has been strangely stressful. A medical adventure for me, world events filling the airwaves — or at the radio airwaves; the ones outside are loud with wind and birds — and (maybe as a result of the medical issue) Time’s Winged Chariot whirring dangerously near. But the firewood is somehow comforting — its sweet smell, the quick winter wren that is busy investigating its new geometries for insects. So settle in, I tell myself, and remember where you are, who you are. Long conversations with my children have been a solace. News of Halloween: granddaughter dressed up as a garbage-truck driver (her current heroes, the guys who wave to her from the alley as they pick up the weekly garbage and recycling), clutching her plastic garbage truck as proof of her dedication; one grandson a pirate; the other (the youngest) a monster.

I think of Du Fu, that poet-sage of the Tang dynasty, who wrote of political corruption and the passing of time, and whose home had a firewood gate; he was nothing if not grounded in the particulars of home and hearth, all the while lamenting the injustices of the larger world. Time to do as he did, meditate on Autumn and its touchstones: the smoke and cold water, the song of a tiny bird among the logs, and the sound of the mountain.

I’ve heard them say that Chang’an seems like in a game of chess,
A hundred years of world events have caused unbearable pain.
The palaces of the noblemen all have their new masters,
Civil and military dress and caps are not like those before.
Straight north over mountain passes, gongs and drums ring out,
Conquering the west, carts and horses, feather-hurried dispatches.
The fish and dragons are still and silent, the autumn river cold,
A peaceful life in my homeland always in my thoughts.

(Autumn Meditation 4)