Monday, October 15, 2007


Jill and I sleep under an old musty featherbed with the baby, little Jenny, between us. It’s warm there.

The gray light through the plastic sheeting sealing out the worst of the drafts from the old badly fitted windows, tells us that the day is overcast. When we get out of bed, we know the old wood burning furnace in the cellar is out. The sweat freezes to ice drops on our skin. Even when it works, our breath mists. We bundle quickly into layers of wool and cotton over the long underwear that we've slept in. Socks and boots and mittens go on right away before the warmth of the bed fades.

I unravel a wire coat hanger and stab through the thin ice layer in the toilet bowl. Unzipping, I pee, idly trying to melt the floating chunks of ice and thinking that the man who built this house must have enjoyed hardship; the bathroom is as far from the single heating duct as possible. I hear the thunking of wood as Jill feeds the wood stove in the kitchen. Later when the furnace is going, we’ll run water through the copper coils inside it and try to wash up.

There’s still three feet of snow on the ground from the last blizzard. The drift against the side of the house covers the attic window. A week ago I opened the kitchen door, and there was just a flat cold white imprint of the door facing me. We had to tunnel our way out, shoveling the snow into stew pots and buckets, then melting it on the stove. No snowplows have come by. The town always does the dirt roads last. The power and phone lines won’t be fixed until then.

I go down to the cellar and open the furnace. There are just enough embers to get it started again. I rake them into a pile and stack a pyramid of kindling and some small splits of maple and oak over them. I twist some paper into a spill and push it into a gap then blow until the paper catches. When the kindling starts to char and crackle, I close the door and go back up to the kitchen.

The room is starting to warm up. Jill has the stove lit. I warm my hands over it and look into the firebox. A few sticks of kindling are in the bottom with some maple on top. The kindling is burning from the middle forcing the sap out the ends. It has frozen into icicles only inches from the fire.

I go out to the woodshed. I still have a couple of cords of oak, maple and birch, but the cranky furnace doesn’t light easily. I need some softwood kindling to get it going. I bring an armload of wood to the kitchen. Jill’s started some oatmeal and pulled the table close to the heat. Jenny’s wrapped up in so many blankets that she looks like a fuzzy blue ball. Jill pokes the baby bottle into a gap. From the slurping sounds, I figure she’s found the right spot. I go back to the woodshed and open the chute to the cellar. I throw splits and logs down the hole for a solid ten minutes. There's not much room down there; just enough for the wood for a day or so of heat. I pull the cover over the chute and go back inside where Jill is still feeding the baby. It's warm enough now for me to take my jacket off.

I go over to stir the oatmeal. I ladle out some for Jill and sprinkle sugar on it. What little milk the old cows are producing is for the baby. I ladle out another bowl for me, drop a lump of butter into it and reach for the salt and pepper.

“I’m going back to the wood lot and cut down a pine or two,” I say. “Maybe I’ll bring us back a Christmas tree.”

“Do you have to go?” Jill asks.

“Looks like snow again and we need the kindling.”

“Taking the tractor?”

“No gas ... I’ll take Bob.”

“Be careful.”

I finish my food, zip into my coat and stuff gloves in my pocket. I head out to the barn, walking carefully, trying not to break through the icy crust.

Out in the barn are the three cows and Bob, an old gray swayback farm horse. It’s warm in here. The bales of hay above insulate the stalls below and the animals put out a lot of heat. If worst comes to worst, we could move into the barn for a while. I fork some hay into the feeding bins for the cows and sprinkle some oats over it. Bob gets more oats. By the way he moves I see that he knows there's work today.

I get the harness and sit on it to warm it up while I wait for; Bob to finish. The cows look over at me placidly from time to time. I listen to the water trickling into the cistern of the gravity pump from the spring further up the hill, and thank the foresight that made me bury the feed line deep enough to keep it from freezing. I hear a gurgle and know that Jill is washing the dishes.

I fill the buckets and hang them on the nails where the cows can get to them. I give another to Bob who snorts briefly. When he's done, I put the harness on him, and walk him out. I hitch him to the the sledge and let the reins hang free as I go back inside for the twitching hooks on their chains, the buck saw and my axe. There's no gas for the chainsaw so this will have to be done the hard way.

Back outside, it has started to snow. Bob has broken the sledge free from the ice, and started trudging along the fence to the woodlot. The sledge is heavy and packs down the snow. I catch up and dump the hooks, chains, and saw onto its platform, then walk behind on the compacted snow. Bob has the worst part of the job, but there's not much I can do about it. He knows where to go, so I let him make a path for me. We start across the back pasture.

The wind kicks up and the loose snow starts to swirl. It gets up my coat sleeves and down my neck. I pull up my hood and pull the drawstrings to cover most of my face. It gets heavier. Now I can’t see the house or even the fence posts anymore. I can’t tell how far we’ve gotten. Suddenly Bob’s hooves clatter on stone. We’re at the rock ledge near the spring.

Three steps later I hit a patch of ice and sprawl backward.

Lying on my back I feel the pain in my right ankle. A sprain? Please God, don’t let it be broken. I roll over and get the good foot under me. I flail my arms for balance and use the butt of the axe handle to get up. I try putting my right foot down. It hurts like hell, but it’ll bear my weight.

I can’t see Bob, but I hear his harness jingling a short distance ahead. I limp along the rut in the snow using the axe handle as a cane. He has stopped near a small stand of evergreens. I tie him up and choose two of the trees, a pine about 9 inches across and a spruce near 12. My ankle is killing me. I can’t get a good stance with the buck saw, so I just use the axe.

I take down the spruce first. It comes down sweet as anything. I sit on an old stump to rest my ankle. The top of it will make a nice Christmas tree. I wrap a short length of chain around the bases of two of the large lower limbs, jam the sharp tips of the twitching hooks into the the wood and set them with a sharp blow from the poll of the axe. Then I unhook the sledge from Bob's harness and clip on the chains. I leave the axe by the stump, sling the saw over my shoulder and we head back to the woodshed, where I knock the hooks loose. The throbbing in my ankle is still bothering me, but I guess I'll be okay.

I take Bob back to the barn to warm up. Then I go to the woodshed and saw off the top four feet of the spruce and hammer an X of two by fours onto the base to act as a stand. It doesn't want to go through the door, but I get it in in a shower of needles and clumps of snow. The house is warmer now. Jill and Jenny watch as I yank the Christmas tree through the door to the living room and set it up. on the wooden X.

I peel off my gloves and jacket. Jill puts Jenny in the crib where she lies quietly babbling to herself, then pours me a tin mug of coffee. I sit at the kitchen table warming my hands around it.

"Are you done?" she asks.

"Not yet ... there's one more to go."

She kisses me, and unbuttoning her thick flannel shirt, takes my hands from around the mug and puts them on her warm bare flesh under her arms, and holds them there tightly to warm them.  I lean my forehead on her breasts. After a few moments she releases my hands and, stepping back, buttons her shirt.

"Just take it easy, will you." she says.

"Jill ... I'm sorry I got you into th ..."

"Hush," she says, "We'll make it."

The snow has half buried the sledge when we get back to the woodlot. About 25 feet up the pine there’s a big black crow, hawing down at me from a shattered old branch. I pull the axe free from the stump of the spruce and smack its poll axe against the trunk of the pine and the bird drops out of the tree. I think he’s going to hit the ground but at the last minute, out flap the wings and he’s off, deeper into the woods.

Bob stands placidly waiting for the next load. It feels colder. I just want to get this over with and get back home.

I make the first cut. As the notch gets deeper I can see some rot. That should bring it down easier. My foot hurts, I’m cold, and I’m lonely. I move to the other side and start the felling cut. One chop, two . . . I hear a crackling sound. I back off from the tree fast. You never know.

My ankle twists under me and again I land on my back. The tree is falling towards me. The crow’s perch, the shattered branch points right at my heart.

Waste not

Today is Blog Action Day

In an earlier post, I reprinted a recipe for brawn, a dish similar to head cheese. The recipe used to be a common one, but these days, here in the US, it is a rare cook who will make it. There are several reasons for this; people don't cook on the scale they once did, butchering is no longer a local activity and the cost of transporting the raw material is exorbitant, factory farming and the disturbing feed given to the animals have created new diseases to be wary of, factory butchering and the filth of the process makes even the most pristine looking cuts of meat suspect.

These are all factors that must be kept in mind. But there is another overlying factor that keeps these processes in place. Even the poorest of us is too spoiled by distance from reality to understand what we are eating.

Let me be clear. I am neither a vegetarian nor an animal activist. I like both tofu and beef. I am as happy with a meal of barbecued short-ribs as I am with one of tabbouleh, hummus and pita. I have no philosophical or religious aversion to having an animal die to make a meal for me. What bothers me though, is the waste and the disrespect for the life lost that is at the base of our thoughtless consumption.

Tony Bourdain talks, in one of his books, about visiting a farm that belonged to the family of one of his cooks. In his honor they decided to have a feast and, to that end, shortly after his arrival they slaughtered a pig. His description of the process, to many people would seem horrifying and even perverse. To me it was beautiful.

Every part of the pig was saved and used. Nothing was wasted. The blood, the internal organs, the feet, the head, all of it was salvaged for use. The idea of throwing out any portion of an animal that had died to become their food would not have even occurred to these farmers. The greatest honor you can give is to use it all.

I like Bourdain, and after reading that description I liked him even more. It was obvious that he was going for the shock value, yet at the same time he made it clear that this was the way it SHOULD be done.

How have we become so insulated from the very food that nourishes us, disgusted by bits and pieces of animals that were the main source of nourishment for our grandparents?

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

I suspect that the culprit is greed; the greed of corporations wanting to sell only the products with the highest mark-up and our own greed nurtured by a perversion of the American Dream that each of us, can live like the rich even if we are not.

The term "conspicuous consumption" first appears in Thorstein Veblen's book "The Theory of the Leisure Class". and originally described how members of the upper class used their wealth to demonstrate their social standing.

These days it describes how those with expendable incomes buy products to enhance their status rather than to satisfy a true need. There is a theory that the industrial age changed our lifestyle and created a habit of fashionable consumption.

In China, not so long ago, women's feet were bound and their ability to work destroyed, in order to make them more attractive. But what was the attraction? Uselessness. A woman with bound feet was, or at least was intended to be, an unproductive luxury for the well-to-do. She was a drain on resources that only the wealthy could afford to have in their household. In the United States, we have the same fascination for the 'dumb blonde', a rich man's plaything, a status symbol. I guess that there must be some deep and complex set of psychological triggers that attract us to the luxury of being able to reduce others to mere furniture for our lives.

Much of this degradation of women has become diluted in real life, although the various media seem to cling to the ideas tenaciously.

But even though women may be freeing themselves from these idiotic archetypes, the notion of showing power through waste and uselessness still pervades today's society. Limousines and SUVs guzzle gas. Huge masses of fertile land are chemically treated and lie fallow as lawns or golf courses, trees are pulped to create newspapers that are barely read before being discarded ... the list goes on-and-on.

Less than one hundred years ago, our grandparents would have been horrified. For them, thrift was a virtue, a useful object was one that was durable, one that could be used again and again.

Let's take, for example, a simple item. We drive to the supermarket to buy a glass jar of spaghetti sauce, drive home park on the driveway next to our front lawn, and take the jar into the house. We dump the contents of the jar into a pan. If we're diligent, we pour some water into the jar to get the dregs out and consider ourselves frugal. We throw the jar into the trash, or, if we consider ourselves 'green', we put it into the recycling bin.

Now let's look at it a different way.

We use a dollar or more of gas to get to the supermarket where we buy some spaghetti sauce that has been made from ingredients that required fuel to plant, cultivate, harvest, transport, refrigerate, cook, and package in jars that required fuel to make, sterilize, transport, fill, label, pack (in boxes that have gone through a similar process), transport, store, transport again, store, display in a buidling that requires even more fuel for temperature and lighting. Then we dump the pre-cooked food into a pan and use more fuel to re-cook it. Then we throw the jar away or recycle it. The first wastes the energy that went into its creation, the second wastes the energy that goes into its recreation.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm not even going to get into the energy that goes into creating the machines that do the processing, or heating the water for washing dishes. I could also rant about the savings in energy if we were to grow the food in our backyard, but the fact is that it's like a huge line of energy consumption growing and sucking down the fuel so that we don't have to expend the effort that our parents and grandparents did.

Are you going to hear a call to action? A list of simple things that you can do to stop this insane waste?


There are no simple solutions ... no one size fits all. I'm not going to tell you to grow tomatoes in your backyard or get a smaller car, or re-use the glass jars you normally discard.

That would be too easy. You will get into the habit and it will become a kind of knee-jerk, feel-good action that might or might not have any effect.

No. What I want you to do is much harder than that, and much easier.

I want you to think.

When you cook the spaghetti sauce, when you drive, when you wash the dishes, when you take a shower, think about the fuel and resources that you are using. Ask yourself about the plastic, the soap, the food, the fuel, the storage think about it all.

Try to justify it. You're a logical intelligent person who has been seduced by having things made easy, by having things done for you, by having it made easy to NOT think about what supports your lifestyle.

I'm not going to make the same mistake.

Think about it. Understand what powers your ability to waste, justify it, rationalize it.

... and if you can't, I'm sure you'll figure out for yourself what you need to do.