Friday, December 26, 2014

Tender and mild

So, about the Christmas story . . . I've had a strange relationship with it, and I think it just got stranger. You be the judge.

For years, the Christmas story saddened me. The image of Mary traveling in the cold, bouncing along atop a donkey while she labored, and the poor confused guy, who wasn't the father of her baby but loved her just same, trying his best to find shelter for her, then being flat-out rejected and winding up in a barn -- all this seemed terribly brutal. No midwife, no creature comforts, no community surrounding her. Just hay, critters, and knowledge that she bore something amazing and bright and beautiful and soon would bring this child forth into the world.

Having birthed 3 babies myself, it was Mary's pain I could not shake in this account of the birth of the Christian savior. That, and the lack of kindness the community showed them, which pained me in a different way.

In the 1990s, some dear friends of mine who were trying to rejuvenate the Women's Guild at the parish we attended asked me to join a Bible study group. Maybe it's changed, but when I grew up, Catholic kids didn't spend much time actually reading sacred texts. It was interpreted for us, which at the time was AOK by me. But as an adult, I began to feel illiterate when it came to this book. So I was intrigued by the idea of reading the Bible and I signed up. Around Christmas time, I agreed to host the group in my home, and we decided to read the birth stories in the New Testament for our discussion.

I'm SO glad I did that, The stories were not nearly as grim as I had built them up in my mind. In fact, they were quite beautiful, inspiring, and yes, full of grace. So thank you ladies of the Women's Guild for that!

Also about this time that I begin to feel a lifting of the sadness that had draped me each year since the death of a beloved uncle 4 days after Christmas in 1984. For the first time in a decade, I began to see the colors, smell the scents, hear the music, and feel the joy of the holidays.

Since then, my love for this holiday has grown bigger and rounder every year, and because our family does not exchange gifts in the traditional way, I am not troubled by the crowds at malls and the traffic jams. Instead, I look forward to the annual Christmas party we attend, complete with carols, dancing (in an area about 6 ft X 6 ft) to "I don't wanna be a duck," polkas, and "Hava Nagila",  little paper cups of some power spirits that whatCarl the tree farmer calls "elixir,"and then on Christmas Eve ordering takeout for dinner and playing the "dice game" as our present exchange, which is filled with plenty of merriment and silliness.

I shipped one gift this year -- via overnight delivery. The workers at the US Post Office were incredibly cheerful on December 23, after dealing with thousands of dorks like me shipping things at the last minute. I overheard one of them bemoaning the fact that she had to come to work on Christmas Eve at 4:30 am. So since I tend to rise early anyway, on the morning of Christmas Eve I took a basket of baked goods, fruit, and nuts to the postal workers to show them how much they are appreciated. I didn't get to see them, but I spied a janitor working, and he responded to my knocking and took the goodies inside to set on the counter for the hard-working clerks.

Driving away, I reflected on how much I loved training my sled dog team on cold crisp mornings like this, mornings when the stars were burning bright but the sunrise was nigh.

And that's when I had the strangest epiphany about the birth of Christ, something I believe will forever make nativity scenes hauntingly beautiful to me. It has to do with food.

Image by James Insogna

So let me back up a minute.

About a year after I had to give up my 6-dog team, I read 2 books that altered how I eat. One was by a man named Marc Beckoff who in his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, asked readers when they ate meat to ask themselves this simple question: Would you do this to your dog?  He was referencing what is done to the livestock that
Image by Mark Peters via Wired
through the magic of modern agriculture techniques end up tidily on Styrofoam plates covered in plastic wrap in the meat section of the grocery store. (Ever noticed the welling up pink liquid in those packages?)

The answer for me, of course, was no, I could not.

For some time, I had begun detecting a vile taste in meat. The only way I could describe it was it tasted like fear. And that begin to make sense, because, undoubtedly, animals on their way to slaughter must feel absolute terror. Maybe I was tasting the biological byproduct of fear --  adrenaline. Who knows? All I can say is the taste was incredibly unpleasant, and I never knew when I was going to encounter it. Little by little, meat started disappearing from diet for one reason alone: it tasted rank.

I won't regale you with the details of slaughterhouses; far better writers than me have done that plenty well. But suffice it to say that even humane techniques just give me the willies. And apparently, I can taste the result.

In one of my favorite novels, a brilliant piece of speculative fiction, a group of Jesuit priests embark upon the first interstellar voyage to discover the source of music that has been picked up from an array of telescopes on earth. Upon finding the planet, they encounter a species of inhabitants who are sweet and gentle and simple. They are great companions, not the horrific images of aliens that have filled our screens. Members of this species have expressive tails and soulful eyes and they experience the full range of emotions that humans do. Living in hunter/gatherer communities (actually, more gatherer than hunter), they make their dwellings in caves.

The human explorers help them find ways to build their food supplies, and before long the new species is procreating far faster than before, which, as we come to find out, greatly upsets the natural order of things on the planet. See, it turns out that the species was, in fact, livestock for a more sophisticated and carnivorous species which enslaved them to serve as a food source. The humans are shocked to learn this, because the gentle species seems to live so happily and peacefully. The predator species is none-to-happy about the what the earthlings have done, and things go south pretty fast, and the rest is history, in a futuristic sort of way. One Jesuit survives and returns to earth, eventually to tell the story.

As a former anthropology major, I found this novel both beautiful and cautionary. But I didn't quite understand how personal it would become one day. And that was when I read another novel by a quite famous science fiction writer, Dan Simmons, who penned an incredible story about the doomed fate of bold 19th Century explorers who were trying to find the mythical "Northwest Passage" through the Arctic Sea. (It actually becoming not so mythical nowadays). Two ships eventually become trapped in the sea ice. Again, things go poorly for our adventurers, and only one makes it. That man owes his life to a mute Eskimo woman who teaches him to hunt for seal, and nourished by the meat of the sea creature, he survives. But readers learn quickly in this novel that hunting for seal is no easy task. In fact, our survivor comes to find out that the Eskimo woman's people believe that no seal can be caught unless it chooses to be caught, choosing, as it were, to sacrifice its life to preserve another's There is a spiritual exchange between the hunter and the hunted in this novel that can only happen in a setting of free choice.

Reading that book snapped together some powerful thoughts that irrevocably changed me. I realized that I could no longer eat the flesh of animals enslaved for the purposes of feeding the mindless masses. I also realized that I could eat meat that had been fairly hunted. So long as the hunting ground was "level." When one creature's wits are pitted against another and both are able to flee the scene as needed, such consumption seems part of the natural order of things. No fences, no industrial killing machines, just a fair fight.

We are such a predatory species - to the point that I often think we are a plague on this planet. We lost our way at some point in our evolution. We've managed to engineer so many things in a way that has brought the natural order terribly out of whack in our world, particularly with our food system.

Most mammals, humans included, have a built-in system for scaling back baby-making during lean times.  Females stop ovulating and develop what is called amenorrhea when they get too skinny. Today, we associate the phenomena with gymnasts who work out so hard that their first menstrual periods are delayed or with young women who develop anorexia nervosa and starve themselves. But amenorrhea actually can serve the species well -- when everything is in balance. Not enough food to feed everyone, slow down the reproduction until the food supplies rebuild. Wolf packs for example, will split up and individuals will go their separate ways when food is in short supply. When the number of critters they can eat increases, wolf packs are know to reassemble.

I wonder at what point we humans tipped that balance so radically that rather than slow down our reproduction we just came up with new, increasingly radical ways to boost our supply of livestock to keep up with the exploding populations. How did we ever get to the place where we found it necessary to enslave animals to fill our bellies. When did we get so cocky as to believe that we have dominion over the world, to the point that we have changed the climate of our planet, shipped so much waste into the oceans that whole drifting islands of trash have formed, and made ourselves sick?

As far as I can tell, this belief that we have a God-given right to whatever we want on this planet, comes from certain creation stories.  (I'm intentionally using the term God here, but you can substitute what makes sense for you - Higher Power, The Universe, the Source.) The one I know best is from the Judeo/Christian tradition whose sacred texts speak of the original man and woman created in God's form. As it happens, the first man and woman arrived on the scene after all the other lovely animals in Eden did. Made in God's likeness, this couple is given permission to hold dominion over other creations. And the rest is history.

Although I was raised in the Christian tradition, and will most likely always feel a little bit Catholic, you might say that I've come to reject a more than a few central tenants of Christianity, while holding on to certain others.

I absolutely no longer believe humans are superior to anything on this planet. 

Yes, we've figured out a lot of amazing things, though precious few of those things have been in praise of a creator. More so, we have put ourselves in the role of creator and we've forgotten all together just how humble our beginnings were.

Song of the Stars illustration by Allison Jay

But the Christmas story brings us full circle. 

It is a brilliant reminder of our lowly beginnings, a perennial example of how the holiest of one major faith on this planet began life in the humblest of ways.

So consider this: What if God sent his only son to remind us of just this fact, that we, too, are animals: beautiful, two-legged, scruffy, and often unbathed.

This baby was born in a stable, a place where beasts of burden are housed, often for the purpose of slaughter. But what if one of the born-in-a-manger messages is a reminder to us that what we enslave so enslaves us?

I believe that our salvation and our freedom may come from centering our lives around what is most beautiful in our species -- our language, our music, our dance (so far things plenty of other animals are also capable of doing), our ability to conceive of a creator and to praise this creator and our ability to feel compassion for all of creation.

If there is any hope for our species it will be in reminding ourselves that we are part and parcel of creation, that though we may believe that we have been made in the image of God, we are not God, even though we have been bestowed with the most remarkable ability to create.

This man called Christ went on the provide examples of living humbling, of forgiving the sins of the most scorned of peoples, calling attention to hypocrisy, and reminding anyone who would listen to love one another.

I choose to believe his birth in the stable was our creator's elegantly simple reminder that we are born together with the beasts to love together and to be kind to one another, animals included. I like to think that none of these animals nearby where this babe was born ever saw the tools of the butcher, that each was liberated as surely as each of us who have received grace as a result of this humble birth.

I applaud those people who humanely raise animals. The lives of these creatures are so much better than the lives of any animal raised in commercial operations. But these animals are still enslaved. And no matter how humanely, they've lived, I'd wager that the vast majority of them are not choosing the time of their death, not dying of their free will, not offering themselves up in sacrifice. Happy chickens headed for slaughter do not have the option of a fair fight. And that reduces our humanity. We are enslaved by what we enslave.

Am I tempted by the smell of burgers on the grill? Yes, at times. But seriously, it's one of those weird deals where one's body and mind resolve to overthrow the spirit. I simply can't bring myself to eat flesh. I get nauseated thinking about putting it into my mouth. I fully realize how extreme this point of view may sound, especially when I say I do not want to eat slave meat. But the truth is I simply cannot. I will eat some seafood (Lake Superior herring comes to mind), but only if it's wild caught. And even commercial fishing operations trouble me, so who knows if seafood will come off my diet at some point, too.

I must say how grateful that that I've never been forced into a state of starvation. (Sadly, there was a brief period when I starved myself, enslaved by the conventional wisdom of what beauty is.) I'm grateful for incredible abundance in my life, with access to all the beans, rice, kale, and quinoa I can stand. A shockingly small percentage of the people on this planet are so blessed.

As liberated as I like to think I am, I'm know I am very much an animal. But maybe that's a good thing?

So, that's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Kwanzaa, Gentle Solstice, Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men and women, creation and Creator.

I close with the amazing script on a tattoo of a barista I encountered as I was composing my thoughts on this topics:

"I wanted to hurt you,
but I found I couldn't
stomach it."

Image by Florian Seiffert

Friday, July 4, 2014

What do peacetime, Netflix, and Prince have in common?

And on this fine 4th of July . . . 

I spent some time this morning looking at amendments to the US constitution.

Yes, I know the day is about the Declaration of Independence, but it still felt patriotic to do this.

Couple fun facts I missed during civics classes:
  • Thanks to the 3rd amendment, in peacetime, you don't ever have to "quarter" soldiers in your private home. 
           So, are we in peacetime? If not, I do have a nice peaceful guest room.
  • The 13th amendment abolished slavery -- except as punishment for a crime. Jeepers.
           I am so beginning to understand Orange is the New Black now.
  • Whew! You can still accept a title of nobility from another country and retain your US citizenship. Since 1810, only 15 states have voted yay or nay on stripping citizenship from folks who've gotten too big for their britches -- but the case isn't closed yet! 
        I suppose this shouldn't worry Prince, but maybe it explains why he changed his name to a symbol
       at one time.

Couple ways to be a good citizen today:
  1. Be kind to each other
  2. Welcome a newcomer to the country (cuz truth is most of us have family or friends who were newcomers at some point)
  3. Pray (because you're allowed)
  4. Read some US history (I'd recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)
  5. Make sure your firearms are locked away (so no little kiddies get hurt)
  6. Drink in moderation, if you're going to drink (cuz you're allowed)
  7. Jot down a few lines to an elected official about something you want to see change (cuz it's a right and a privilege)
Pip, pip, cheerio!

Image by Loreen72

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mudder's Day

Mrs. Kimball, aka The Big Mudder

My little sister, Lisa, used to scold my middle sister, Erin, when she was trying to boss her around: "Shut up, Erin. You're not the Big Mudder."

Well, we three sisters are all Big Mudders now. And one of us is even a Big GrandMudder. Not me yet, but maybe someday.

In the meantime, I'm a lucky woman to be a Big Mudder. Very very lucky indeed.

May you each enjoy Mudder's Day blessings today.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A little heresy indulged

"Humans have enormous power to affect
the world any way we choose."
~ Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals

Once upon a time I was an anthropology major. A quirky little field of study that to this day shapes the way I think. The most profound discovery early on in my studies was this simple statement from one of my professors: The study of humans makes clear that there is no one right way to solve the "problem of living."

There are, in fact, so many it's mind boggling.

His point continues to be the framework from which I see most everything. It was liberating to hold such a view, to be able to look at behavior and beliefs with as little judgement as possible, especially as a freshman college student! I could observe so much more without jumping to a right-or-wrong point of view. Instead, I saw "different," "original," "interesting" and maybe even"shocking, but fascinating."

I didn't end up opting for a profession in anthropology. Although a wonderful professor took me under his wing my freshman year to groom me for a future graduate student, I couldn't see myself narrowing my focus of study the way one must to get advanced degrees. Frankly, anthropology expanded my worldview so largely, I knew that breadth of knowledge would be my pursuit -- not the depth of it.

And that's why I became a journalist and, for all intents and purpose, a Generalist with the capital G.

The long and winding road of my career has taken me through the fields of news reporting, mental health, higher education, medicine (primary care, sports, orthopedics, obstetrics and gynecology, and geriatric), youth development, disaster preparedness and response, and emerging infectious diseases.

A year ago, I came across Marc Bekoff's thought-provoking book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, and it yanked into place threads from many fields I've dabbled in and studied, including my passion for dogs and mushing.

As I pondered Bekoff's point about the power of humans to affect the world any way we choose, I had to wonder how we got to this point, which is so far beyond the days when we had to worry about mastodons and being gobbled up by big hulking carnivores.

It's interesting to think that while humans are now at the top of the food chain in the grander scheme of things, having killed off or safely removed ourselves from environments with predators that can hurt us -- the large ones like bears, tigers, lions and such-- we have increasingly made ourselves vulnerable to the tiniest of predators.

I'm talking about viruses, bacteria, and insects like mosquitos and bedbugs. If we keep at our present pace of development and environmental destruction, we put our species at greater and greater risk of being preyed upon by the tiny predators.
Haven't read it but I plan to!

The human approach always seems to be first to wipe out our predators, rather than learning to live in balance with them. Why is that?

When you look at the natural world, it seems like nature finds a way to achieve balance and homeostasis. It's not as if plants and animals ponder how to reach this balance. It just happens. Or does it?

I know some of you will see this as heretical, but I've come to believe that humans are no more God-like than any other animal, and yet we, by virtue of our brain development over time, seem to have removed ourselves by and large from the natural order of things. In doing so, we've created damage. A LOT of it.

So, falling back on my original biological sciences/anthropological world view, I find myself with so many questions.

I have to ask whether this destruction is, in fact, the "natural order of things."

Is what we as a species choose to do simply part of the inevitable evolution of our planet?

How have we managed to drift so far away from our connectedness to all of creation, to the point of thinking we are the master creators.

How do we move ahead as a species?

Do we simply allow nature to take its course as we wreak havoc on our planet and ultimately on ourselves?

Is it arrogant to think any of us can stop this "progress" of humanity?

Is it really just incumbent on individuals to live their lives morally and hope we each regain connectedness to the natural world and make peace with it rather than trying to hold dominion over it?

Will the microbes and tiny creatures ultimately alter the course of human development? (They sure seem to be right now!)  Will it be that the tiniest of predators ultimately hold sway over the world, rather than the creatures whose brain development has led to a belief that their species has the God-given right of dominion over all life on this planet?

Ebola virus electron micrograph
What if the tiny predators already do? Is it possible that microbes are responsible for our aging, for the deterioration in our joints, our organs, our ability to reproduce, our brains. We think about aging as a cellular process with input from the environment. But if we accept the concept of connectedness and the predatory power of microbes, isn't it possible that more is going on here? Are cells really microbes that learned to organize and cooperate in such a way as to create this species called humans?

Is it possible that these tiny cellular forms that have organized themselves for so long now grasp on some level that the organism they've collectively empowered to function homo sapien has drifted so far from the natural order of things that they've got to do their part to restore a universal balance, as in, take us down a notch or two? (I know, talk about the ultimate conspiracy theory!)

And here's where all this "unsupervised thinking" leads me: that, ultimately, the best thing any of us can do is to quiet our minds and bodies, in meditation or prayer, and try to plug into to that universal energy, balance, order of things, God, if you will, and try remember that we're all in this together, we're all connected, and that the only way out is through, together.

And so with that peachy-keen thought, I believe I'll take a stroll through the beauty of creation still available to me. And pet my dogs.

May you, too, find such beauty.

Easter Island by goccmm
Wooly Mammoth by Johnny Lightning
Book cover of Wicked Bugs
Ebola virus from CDC
Ginsberg by Kathleen Kimball-Baker

Monday, May 5, 2014

A big beautiful mess out of everything

Thoughts on aging . . .

My mother used to say: It's hell getting old. Mostly she'd grin when she uttered that thought. But more often than not towards the end, she really meant it.

I couldn't stand it when she said those words. She had such a big influence on my life, and I didn't want that sentiment to influence my own thoughts on the inevitable march of the years.

I understand her point of view. The joint pains, the rolling forward of the shoulders and the rounding back. The need for reader-cheaters and the frustration of not finding them when you need them. Having to ask people to repeat themselves because hearing just isn't has sharp. The color fading from hair. The immune system that takes 3 times as long as it used to once upon a time.

I had a birthday last week. A nice quiet birthday, because truth be told, birthdays just don't feel like a big deal to me. OK, I do have a problem saying "April 28" without saying "April28-my-brithday" like it's one word. But hat's just habit. I don't really measure my life in years. I'm more prone to use for the context of my life things like this: moments of joy, epiphanies, big losses that break open my heart and mind, wintry scenes, encounters with wildlife. Those are my punctuation marks. But years? Meh.

Still, I reflected not too long ago on how I was feeling about aging . . . and much to my surprise, my mother's words were not as salient as my own experiences, my own patina.

Here's how those thoughts spilled out . . . do they resonate with your experience?
. . .

Edges smoothed and sanded

No longer wired by expectations

Able to sleep through disappointments,
knowing the bend follows a bend,
that something will lift that which connects the heart,
-- and that what hurts also breaks open like the egg
released from a shell
a flow, a newness, and end.

It doesn't matter, and it all matters.

Time suspended in its deluge forward

A hint gleams like pyrite, like hope
whether real or simply desired,
enough to flutter something inside,
enough to make it through a night,
or an afternoon,
or a morning,
or a shower.

Few words required
Less interpretation needed
The softness and quiet of simply being
in a spot, a place, a thought, a breeze,
a sunset, or a sunrise

Distastes left aside
to be as they may

The impulse to change, mold, perfect
too tired and threadbare
to observe or entertain

In fact, it's the imperfections
that stand in relief to the perfection
in every way

. . .

The boy in the cafe
fidgets, entertains the
baby in the highchair
"Was I good baby?"

Same cafe
Bespeckled grandpa
eats breakfast with
his dandelion-headed
who sits like a cotton fluff in a highchair

. . .

Once more, the cottonwood trees
are going to crack open
their seed and blow away
and make a big mess out of everything,
a big
beautiful mess

Cheers my friends. It's all good.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On carrying wood

I worried about using too much.

The stack of logs in the woodshed was shrinking, and somebody had chopped and split all those logs and it wasn’t me. I am just a city girl pretending she knows how to live in the woods all by herself with sled dogs in a cabin 25 minutes from the closest filling station along twisty roads rutted with snow, not far from the biggest (and mostly frozen) fresh water lake in the world.

I’ve been experimenting for a while, with living deep in the woods, often alone, and with fire for warmth. I’ve played with different arrangements of newspaper, egg cartons, birch bark, and misshapen stumps of wood to see what lights fastest, burns longest. I never learned such things as a child. I heard about evolution, the earliest molecules of life, and cancer research from my father, and from my mother, all about Egypt and antiques and how to head straight to the back of fancy stores to find the sales racks. But nobody showed me how to make a fire or carry logs or drive on icy roads far away from civilized people. So, I’m teaching myself. At my age, I realize I have to make a few mistakes before I’m “good enough” at anything new. I prefer blundering by myself, laughing and swearing at myself by myself. I guess when you’ve mastered certain life skills after so many years, you’d just as soon your humble efforts to learn new tasks not have any judgmental company other than your own.

So for days, I carried the logs in my arms, their hairy splinters and crumbs of bark clinging to my outside clothes. They filled the crook of my arm and balanced under my chin and I had to walk slowly so as not to trip and fall into the snow drifts or hit my head on ice, which I’ve done before and know too well the consequences. It was important to be mindful, so that I not default on my promise to care for 13 wild puppies, one fading elderdog, 5 adult sled dogs, and one tabby, all of whom belong to mushers who were running a race in Wyoming, nice people who entrusted their homestead to me. I may have dropped a log here or there, but not that often. I got pretty good at carrying wood and keeping my balance. Usually I waited till all the chores were done, till all the dogs were fed, which was around sunset. I had to wear a headlamp to make my way to the woodshed and then back to the dark cabin.

When snow was falling and I looked upwards, my beam spotlighted a thousand or more flakes drifting down like a blur of swans. But on clear nights I found the stars. I don’t understand how these tiny specks of brightness can hold their own against such impenetrable darkness. I loved how, with my neck tilted back, the plume of my headlamp widened and vanished somewhere up there, a reminder of how little we really are. I stood for I don’t know how long, arms full of prickly wood, inhaling the sub-zero air, and gawking at those stars. Sometimes they made me cry. I caught the Big Dipper once showing off, curving itself into the dark bowl, dangling its long handle as if daring treetops to take hold.

And then I’d remember the logs in my arms and the funny sled dog inside who had skin troubles, who scabbed and lost his fur, and how he lived to loll by the wood-burning stove, rolling on his long narrow back, slowly stroking his snout with this paws and bending his pointy ears forward. He often wiggled, feet upwards, closer and closer to the stove till I had to attach a short leash to him to ensure his safety. I knew he was sitting in the cold dark cabin on a big plush easy chair waiting for me, the big dog on two feet with the light on its head, to drop the logs into the canvas holder, kneel, and begin sticking things in the black box till it got nice and hot.

And so I aimed my headlamp at the cabin door and walked up the wooden stairs, careful not to drop the precious load I’d hand-selected for the evening, the different shapes and sizes culled from all parts of the stack to even out the appearance of the dwindling supply.

Choosing logs probably shouldn’t take so long, but the variety fascinated me. So did the sounds the woodpile made. I opted for gnarly pieces that looked like they might burn a while. I chose stumps of birch whose bark was peeling, in hopes they might ignite quickly. I picked short, skinny pieces that could serve as a base upon which to lay bigger, fatter sections of wood. I wondered whether I should set the sharp wedge side of the split logs toward the flame or place them bark-side down. Sometimes when I removed a log, others would roll to fill the emptied space, rumbling as if a marimba player haunted the place Each log I added to my pile had its own voice when it joined the others: clunk, plunk, or rip-scratch when bark caught on bark.

I always had arrangements in mind, ways I would start the fire, cheating with combustible wafers from
the hardware store and inserting wads of newsprint I made from throwaways I picked up when I was in town. The paper roared and blew bursts of warmth, but the real trick was to coax a union of logs and fire that delivered flames and hot coals to keep heat going as long as possible. Such a prize took practice, patience, and an iron poker to move, lift, and settle logs into the perfect perch. I swept out a fair amount of sooty ash in the mornings and thought about how I should use it – but never did.

It was intoxicating to play with fire, and I have a few scorched pinholes in some shirts from tiny meteorites the stove spit out while I absently pondered its flames. I always managed to snuff these sparks fast enough not to set myself ablaze. But those moments reminded me just how tenuous life is deep in the winter in the woods by oneself. So I always kept the matches far away from the wood-burning stove.

Lynx by Nace Hagemann Photography
Eventually, when I got practical, I started using a child’s sled to drag my wood supply to the cabin. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying to pull the loaded-down plastic thing, not like cradling lumps of old trees against your breast. But it was more sensible, and I was able to stack the deck against frozen nights more efficiently this way, which matters when you’re alone in the North Woods, where timber wolves prowl and lynx saunter about in what look like oversized footy PJs, acting for all the world like they own the place, which clearly I did not.

Whenever I made a late-night dash to the outhouse, only a few feet past the woodshed, I could never return without a few logs in my arms. Nor could I resist staring up at the stars or the flakes or sometimes into a firmament of nothingness, inhaling the reassurance of woody smoke if the wind were just so.

Maybe that’s why the woodpile shrank so fast.

Woodpile image by kallinahandandbasket
Night sky image by chasedekker
Wood-burning stove image by jkleeman


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