• by Robert P. Barsanti •
I left the island for supplies last week. My island economy is hard fought and learned from years of stepping into an on-island hardware store or a clothing store for “just one thing…” and emerging with five things, each one markedly higher than their brothers arrayed in boxes off-island. So, I start lists of things that I could get off-island for less than I would pay on-island. The list begins in dry goods, extends into clothing, touches onto tools, and finds its way, eventually into golf balls. Someone in my house, with a sense of humor, tacked the L.L. Bean Catalog along with an Amazon Prime Gift Card beneath my list, but that person clearly doesn’t understand the importance of going off island to go shopping.
Especially, when the last word on the shopping list is cordwood. Nantucket is known for many things, but firewood isn’t one of them. In the early days of settlement, for Native Americans and whites, firewood was rare, precious, and generally involved a trip to Coatue. Today, you can buy cordwood at the grocery store with your cat food and your paper towels or you can have any number of old salts deliver it to your house for a healthy Nantucket price, but with the mother-in-law’s backyard full of fallen timber just there for the taking, you would be foolish not to take your car off island for an afternoon of lumberjack fun.
I left on one of the extra days the yacht club must have ordered up for Race Week. The wind blew steady and warm out of the southwest, scooting doodles of cloud high overhead. Out of the wind, the sun warmed you just as it would on the best of the August days. The harbor, the beaches, the water were all empty, save for the occasional fishing boat and the Endeavor. Under full sail, the Endeavor heeled over enough so the passengers could hike out and feel the singing power of a sailboat. August’s leftovers fill up September’s weeks; we enjoy the surplus wine from the summer feast.
In Central Massachusetts, the season had slipped ahead of the calendar. Standing in the shadows of the pines, winter tickles your back and arms. The storm clouds of mosquitoes have fallen into the needles and mud. The motorboats last longer, taking one last long spin around the lake to burn off the gas before they go up on trailers and into storage. The ducks remain, as do the deer, the rabbits, and, at night, the coyotes. They live deep in the woods and howl at the unblinking stars.
In the familiar past, ice storms knocked down a platoon of birch and pine in the back yard of the lake house. One spring brought out a chain saw to cut up the trees into logs, and then to cut the logs into a spilled pretzel bag of nuggets, where they stayed, piled up, and drying through two years of dry summers and soggy winters. And now, they wait for my axe.
In the card catalog of my childhood, I found that my father had taught me how to split wood sometime after I lost faith in the Red Sox but before I wore shoulder pads. The key was in placing the wedge, and then splitting the wood into triangles. We split several logs before he slipped inside to watch football and left me with an axe handle and a scrum of wood. I split all that wood that afternoon, and I set about splitting all this wood today.
My middle-aged muscles remembered the rhythm and the swing. The first few logs went squirting and rolling about, then I refreshed myself with old knowledge and set about dispatching them into chunks the size of an overweight tabby. The rhythm built into a slow dance; one round splits into two; those split into four and they all land on the pile.
Time slows to the swing of an axe. The wood reduces itself to a geometry problem and the years become a loop. Age has not stolen everything. The wedge, the hammer, the axe continued cutting and solving as they had many years ago. At the end of several hours, I stood in front of an accomplishment of wood and a victory for age. The pile reached to my waist. I had wood for the winter, I had a bulwark against the cold, and I would sit, warm and proud through the blast, in the heat of my burning sweat.
If only it would fit in the car. I stacked and restacked the wood three different ways, until the springs dipped down and the bumper came perilously close to the backyard dirt. Even with the wisest organization, I could only fit one third of the wood pile into the back of the car. For a moment, I thought about renting a pickup truck before the better angels of my nature stopped laughing, handed me a beer, and helped put a tarp over my waste of wood.
Nature is a profligate. She doesn’t clip coupons or re-use the old. Instead, she replaces one useful part with twenty exact copies. In September, the farms usher us all out into the fields so we can pick our fill of tomatoes. Corn rots on the stalk for lack of pickers. Apples fall from the trees and coat the shoes with apple mush. Dozens of apples hang ripe from just one tree, amid the dozens of trees in this one orchard, amid the dozens of orchards in New England. In September, we shop Nature’s end-of-season sale; we pick up whatever we have time for, be it apples, corn, tomatoes, or cordwood. I could spend hours and thousands of calories splitting the wood in this one yard and still leave plenty for the next ten winters.
In the cold light of September and the checkbook, an afternoon spent splitting wood ranks somewhere above playing a round of golf and below cleaning the gutters. Any heating money saved by the wood stove gets paid to the Steamship Authority, Sunoco, and TrueValue Hardware. The wood would burn, surely, and the house would get warm. However, time and money burned much faster than this cord of birch and pine. I stood waist high in my own Yankee myth.
Truth, however is a hard meal. The truth is that we are all sand fleas under the beach. We bide our days until the waves wash us out of our comfortable holes and into the waiting bluefish. Until that happens, I will gorge on the tasty myth of self-sufficiency and honest sweat deep into the winter.