“My mind is never so pleasantly empty as when I’m chopping wood.”
— Arne Fjeld, quoted in ‘Norwegian Wood’
When I moved into Innisfree, there was a cast-iron beast brooding in the center of the cabin. I was both terrified and intrigued by it. I’ve lived in numerous houses with fireplaces. Never one with a wood stove.
The seller explained in detail how to operate the stove, where to get wood, which chimney sweep to use. I glazed over, a tad overwhelmed. My only real experience with wood stoves was the Jam Hut in Missoula, Montana, where a few chucks of wood allowed us to listen to music and hang out late into the night no matter how cold it was outside.
But this was different. This was my stove. And I had no idea how to operate it. So I did what any geek would do: I started Googling. I found a lot of great sources on YouTube, including Life In Farmland, which has a lot of great info.
I was incredulous as I read the gushing reviews. It’s about wood. And stoves. And Scandinavia. How the hell could this be worth the time it would take to read? But still, something about it intrigued me, and after letting it sit in my cart for several weeks I finally pulled the trigger.
When it arrived, I started reading. And didn’t stop until I was done. It’s incredibly engaging and interesting, even though it does dive deep into the weeds at times. I picked up a lot of great info and even if I didn’t have a wood stove or fireplace, I still would have found the book delightful.
“Eg grev ned min eld sent om kveld. Naar dagen er slut, Gud gje min eld alder sloka ut.” (I damp down my fire, late at night, when day is done. God grant that my fire never go out.)
The quote above is a fire prayer from the Norwegian Middle Ages. One of the cool tidbits I picked up in Norwegian Wood. There are a lot of gems in here. For instance:
“A minor point worth noting is that local green energy is not a contentious issue on the large political stage. Countries that depend wholly on oil, coal, and other forms of fossil fuel guard their resources carefully. But no one has ever gone to war over a firewood forest, and no species of seabird has ever been drenched in oil because a trailer load of firewood ended up in a ditch. A woodpile might not stop a war from breaking out, but simple, local sources of energy are not the stuff of violent conflict.”
And this wise observation, part of a warning about exercising caution when wielding a chainsaw:
Wood won’t warm much when bits of your body are lying in a container outside the emergency room of your hospital.
There are great photos of wood piles throughout Scandinavia. I never realized they could be a form of self-expression, to the point where Mytting dedicates a page to explaining how a man’s woodpile can be the window to his soul.
The elephant in the room, of course, is pollution. I remember living in Albuquerque, where frequent “no-burn” days were declared in an effort to stop the city from strangling in a smog-filled bowl between the Sandia Mountains and the volcanoes on the West Mesa.
I’ve come to equate wood fires with pollution and carbon dioxide. But that’s not necessarily the case. As Mytting explains, trees will release the same amount of carbon whether they’re decomposing on the forest floor or in your wood stove. And with modern stoves, very little particulate pollution is released into the atmosphere, especially if you know how to manage the fire.
So I’ve learned to love my wood stove. Mytting’s homage got me moving. I dragged in seasoned ash from the woodpile, loaded the stove, and lit it. Once I started seeing it as a complex grill, with multiple ways to manipulate airflow and maintain a steady burn, I started geeking out.
For the past few weeks, I’ve heated Innisfree with nothing but wood. And we’ve gone through several sunrises that dawned in the upper teens. The heat from it is amazing. And as commanded in Norwegian Wood, I’ve learned to operate my stove so no smoke can be seen emerging from the chimney. Just heatwave ripples through icy air …
The cabin also is amazing. The southern exposure is nothing but forest, so in the summer, when the sun is punishing, oak, maple, birch, and beach leaves protect Innisfree from the heat. I think I ran the AC only two or three times this past summer. Now that winter-fall is here, the leaves are dropping (though my oaks cling stubbornly to theirs) and the sun streams through the windows in the back room, creating passive heat and complementing the warmth of the woodstove.
Three things during an incredible fall evening at Innisfree.
1. I realized I have a shagbark hickory just outside the cabin. I hadn’t noticed it previously because a massive white oak obscures it from the deck. As a bonus, I discovered the tree next to it is a mockernut hickory. I wasn’t certain on the IDs so I foraged around until I found nuts from each tree and used those to ID them. The shagbark was a bit tricky but after consulting my Identifying Trees of the East book I’m confident it’s not a shellbark hickory and it’s probably not the southern shagbark.
2. The coyotes were unhinged last night. A group went off like an air raid siren just east of the cabin at sunset. They were close enough to make me doublecheck to ensure Sunny was in the house. Then a second pack started wailing in the distance to the southwest. It went on for a solid 15 minutes before they got bored and went on their way.
3. After dark I heard an odd scurrying and whirring noise at the foot of the stairs leading down into the woods. Suddenly, the ears and muzzle of a raccoon popped up and eyed me warily. He didn’t try to climb the stairs, and when he realized I saw him he ducked his head back down. Every few seconds he’d pop up again, especially if I whistled or made a clicking noise. So I started whistling “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which definitely freaked him out. Poor thing had no idea what to make of this situation, and I suspect he knew there were chunks of plum nearby that Sydney had ripped up to get at the pit. But my Nat King Cole inspired version of “Mood for Love” apparently sent him searching for a saner meal.
I’m watching insects through an entirely new lens on this autumn day, bathed in October Light (as John Gardner would have it). Crows raise hell in the trees on the other side of the ridge. Stanton Moore’s tribute to Allen Toussaint rolls out of the cabin in a funky tumble of brass and drums, rattling widows that I just squeegeed clean.
And the insects. Stink bugs queue up on the screendoor, waiting for opportunity to knock. Hordes of small white butterflies flutter about, seeking a taste of nectar from fading wildflowers. Bugs blur by on translucent wings, too fast for me to discern details.
It was cold last night. Not freezing, but close enough at 37 degrees to try the cabin’s fireplace for the first time. As I sit on the deck at Innisfree, I sense their insect urgency. Winter is coming. Time to breed and die. Or burrow. Or suck the life juices out of one last aphid.
I suspect much of the info might be dated, given that the book is more than 50 years old and scientific research never stops. For instance, Teale notes praying mantises have flown to the rooftop deck of the Empire State Building, which he refers to as the tallest building in the world, a title it lost to the World Trade Center in 1971.
But it’s still a delight to read, delivering gems like this: “The dragonfly nymph is a bloodthirsty ogre, stalking endlessly for living prey.”
My copy is old, perhaps a first edition. Every time I open it, that wonderful old-book smell drifts upward, whisking me back to the Carnegie Library in Swissvale that was a key contributor to my lifelong love of reading.
The insect drawings by Su Zan Swain are wonderful, and the black-and-white photos give the whole thing a noire feeling. I picked up numerous interesting tidbits while reading Teale’s book, including:
The period between an insect’s molts is called the instar.
Chitin is the substance insect shells are made of
The scientific name for mayflies is ephemerae, after the Ephemerides in Greek mythology, who live only a day. Ephemeris means daily journal in Greek.
Ephemerides is the Greek god of celestial mechanics “The mayfly stands in literature as a symbol for the swift passing of life, for the transitory nature of existence,” Peale writes. He also references Benjamin Franklin’s amusing letter on the ephemera, which I Googled and enjoyed thoroughly.
Dragonflies — a.k.a. the mosquito hawk — eat the larvae and the fully developed mosquito, and it’s not uncommon to find a dragonfly with a hundred mosquitos stashed in its mouth
The corn-root aphid’s eggs are carried by ants into their burrows to winter over. As the thaw comes, the ants take the aphides through tunnels to the roots of smartweed, where they can feed until the corn is available as a food source. Then the ants carry the aphides to the cornstalks, where they can spend the summer milking them for honeydew. This blows my mind. The ants are treating aphides like a herd of goats they are raising for milk …
Fireflies aren’t flies; they’re beetles.
Aphides can reproduce with no male. The males emerge in late summer to fertilize eggs for overwintering, but during the summer, the females are able to reproduce without any males and the spawn don’t turn out to be male until it’s time to lay eggs for winter.
Ever since I participated in a fungi hike at Rural Action, I spend a lot of my time watching the forest floor for interesting mushrooms. I’m going to use this page to keep a running list of the ones I’ve found and identified. The iNaturalist app has been invaluable in helping me keep track of what I’m seeing …
(Note that these IDs, for the most part, aren’t definitive. iNaturalist has a cool system where other people confirm (or contradict) what you think you’ve uploaded.)
The more I read about trees, the more convinced I am that they possess a sort of intelligence. In the Paris Review, Cody Delistraty’s article “The Intelligence of Plants” summarizes a lot of the current thinking on how “smart” plants are. It’s interesting and compelling.
I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Peter Wohlleben‘s “The Hidden Life of Trees.” It blew me away, and several of the anecdotes from that book are included in Delistraty’s article, including the one about the stump of a tree that was felled about 500 years ago. The stump is still alive, despite the lack of leaves for photosynthesis. Apparently, surrounding trees have been keeping it alive, supplying it with the nutrients it has needed for the past 5 centuries.
I don’t think we’re anywhere near the dancing, singing trees of H.R. Pufnstuf fame (bummer), but the fact that trees care for their young, warn each other of threats and exhibit other behaviors that suggest some sort of sentience makes my walks through the forest much more interesting these days …
(A) reporter interviewed me over the phone. “You write so much about Eskimos in this book,” she said. “How come there are so many Eskimos?” I said that the spare arctic landscape suggested the soul’s emptying itself in readiness for the incursions of the divine. There was a pause. At last she said, “I don’t think my editor will go for that.”
— Annie Dillard,
Afterward to the Twenty-Fifth Edition
of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I just finished A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It took me a while. Almost three months. The book is fewer than 300 pages. So I was averaging only a few pages a day. But it was so dense, so lush, that I quickly shifted from reading it like a book to reading it as if it were poetry. It is, in fact, poetry. The writing is beautiful. The meditations percolated in my head each day as I proceeded with my life.
The fact that I’d never heard of Annie Dillard or A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek embarrasses me deeply. But the way I found out about this remarkable work is the reason for this post, the first in a while. It’s not that I haven’t been up to anything. Quite the opposite. I have a new job. I’m the “storyteller” at Rural Action, a nonprofit here in Appalachian Ohio whose “mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in socially, financially, and environmentally sustainable ways.”
That’s how I met Annie Dillard. During my first week as storyteller, which basically means I get to tell the tales of how Rural Action is making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, whether it be through cleaning streams afflicted with acid mine drainage, or encouraging entrepreneurship, or providing fresh, local produce for Appalachians living in “food deserts,” I met with many of the key people who propel the organization, and I talked to them at length, trying to figure out what makes them tick, looking for stories and tales demanding to be told.
These conversations were fascinating and confirmed my belief that Rural Action is an organization that acts to improve things instead of whining about what’s wrong. One of these talks was with Joe Brehm, director of the environmental education program. That means he spends much of his time showing children (and sometimes adults) how much more gratifying it can be to peer into the squirming muck of a pond rather than to stare dumbstruck at a flickering screen. It produces stories like the Instagram photo above. It doesn’t take a storyteller to make that fascinating. A picture = a thousand words. Indeed.
In talking to Joe, he mentioned some of his influences, including A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. And Dillard is a Pittsburgh native. That sealed the deal. I went straight to the Athens Library and borrowed a copy.
A few days later, Joe showed up at my office and generously gave me a “spare” copy he had. I returned the library version and have been nibbling Dillard’s words most mornings for a half-hour or so before rising to feed the dog, clean up after the parrot and get ready to head in to work (a process that took me a while to re-adapt to after having been free range since my teaching stint at Ohio University ended and I declared myself “semi-retired.”)
But semi-retired wasn’t really working for me. I need something to throw myself into, and I’d been casting around in vain to find that something here in Athens. I tried a site dedicated to bikes and breweries but lost interest when I ratcheted back my beer consumption. I served on a local committee for several months but felt as if we spent most of our time talking about what needed to be done, not doing it. Then I came across Rural Action’s listing on Indeed.com. They were looking for a “storyteller.” I really wasn’t hunting for a job so much as an avocation. Something I could lean into. I knew vaguely of Rural Action, and most of what I’d heard was good. The deeper I dug, the more interested I became. So I sent them a résumé, not really expecting much to come of it since I knew I’d be competing with younger, more driven candidates and a tendency of most organizations to be understandably leery of overqualified old dudes seeking rank-and-file jobs.
But somehow we clicked. And three months later, I’m spending my days on tasks that range from assembling the Rural Rambler, our twice-monthly newsletter, to telling stories like the one about a pair of 13-year-olds who met Joe at 4H Camp one summer and became so inspired that now, 9 years later, the two young women are working in Rural Action’s AmeriCorps program, using nature to inspire youth as they once were inspired. The students become teachers. And two young people who might not have seen any reason to remain in Appalachia after graduating are still here, making a difference.
I’m starting to view Joe as Rural Action’s Johnny Appleseed, sowing his fascination with nature in everyone he encounters, leaving us all better for the encounter.
I still bristle occasionally at having to head in to the office each day, but even that is mitigated by the fact that my supervisor states emphatically that she doesn’t care where I work. I could work from home. But at my core, I really don’t want to. I love going in each day. Without exception, I work with inspired, smart, dedicated people who really want to make a difference in a world that seems to grow more indifferent daily.
But I digress. Back to Annie Dillard. And why I’m obsessing about her work. I knew intuitively as I read the book that she was wrestling with two views of god — one caring, nurturing, benevolent, the other indifferent, dark, perhaps even cruel. As Dillard notes, “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc.; that God possesses all positive attributes. I found the via negativa more congenial. Its seasoned travelers (Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth) stressed God’s unknowability. Anything we may say of God is untrue, as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God. Thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.”
I was deep into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’s via negativa when I received news that a childhood friend died. Curt was more than a friend. His three brothers and his sister were our next-door neighbors. They were like family. His oldest brother, Jim, was one of my dearest friends. I attended his funeral 30 years ago this October. Now another of the brothers was gone. Too soon. Senselessly. I was reeling as I drove to Pittsburgh for the funeral, and the meditations in Dillard’s penultimate chapter, “Northing,” ricocheted around my mind as I slipped into West Virginia, then back into Ohio, and finally into Pennsylvania, crossing the Ohio River multiple times before skirting southeast to avoid the dreaded Parkway West/Fort Pitt Tunnels at Friday rush hour and slip into Pittsburgh by following the Monongahela River up into McKeesport.
As I sat in St. Anselm’s — now renamed Word of God after the steel industry that was the Mon Valley’s rib cage rusted out, leaving a desiccated string of Catholic congregations clinging to the river’s steep banks, able to continue only by being mashed into a combined parish — I tried to remember the last time I had been there.
The organ rumbled solemnly as they guided Curt’s casket down the aisle, making Emily Dickinson’s words bubble to mind as she observed a shaft of light on winter afternoons that “oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes.” This is the Catholic church I grew up in, where I had my first confession, served as an altar boy, watched my brother marry. I long ago drifted from the faith, but my fascination with Catholicism’s medieval pageantry never waned. The stained glass. The robes. The sharp odor of incense. The splash of holy water. Autumn Pittsburgh sunshine streaming through stained-glass saints while the non- and lapsed-Catholic funeral attendees tried to remember if it was time to stand, sit, or kneel.
The priest bemoaned our discomfort at uttering the words “funeral” or “death”; we prefer instead to hold “celebrations of life.” It is important to remember, he told the mourners, that death also is worth celebrating. For Catholics, it leads to eternal salvation, the image of Curt and Jim hanging out around a campfire in Heaven, watching Gunsmoke and listening to UFO, waiting for us to arrive.
For Dillard, it conjures Eskimos.
“I had a curious dream last night that stirred me. I visited the house of my childhood, and the basement there was covered with a fine sifting of snow. I lifted a snow-covered rug and found underneath it a bound sheaf of ink drawings I had made when I was six. Next to the basement, but unattached to it, extended a prayer tunnel.
“The prayer tunnel was a a tunnel fully enclosed by solid snow. It was cylindrical, and its diameter was the height of a man. Only an Eskimo, and then only very rarely, could survive in the prayer tunnel. There was, however, no exit or entrance; but I nevertheless understood that if I — if almost anyone — volunteered to enter it, death would follow after a long and bitter struggle. Inside the tunnel it was killingly cold, and a hollow wind like broadswords never ceased to blow. But there was little breathable air, and that soon gone. It was utterly without light, and from all eternity it snowed the same fine, unmelting, wind-hurled snow.”
As I transcribed that passage, Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” filtered into Innisfree, the cabin I call home. The days are growing shorter. Acorns and black walnuts bounce off the shingles like popcorn kernels in a microwave. Leaves flutter gently earthward in the late September breeze. Stink bugs queue up on the screen door, waiting for opportunity to knock.
I spent last weekend in Pittsburgh visiting family and meeting my niece’s amazing baby boy. While I was in town, I also wanted to do a little research on The Book I’ve been grappling with, but time was short.
To make the most of it, I took my bike along for the trip and rode from Homestead to Point State Park on Friday. Initially, I was going to take the kayak and paddle it, but I couldn’t tell from Google Maps whether the boat ramp in Braddock would be viable. (Turned out, it would have been, though it is in rough shape … next time.)
Total ride was about 22 miles roundtrip, and the biggest reveal was just how massive the Homestead Works must have been. I rode for a while before I was even off the original mill footprint. From there, I rode toward Pittsburgh and crossed the Hot Metal Bridge to the Eliza Furnace section of the trail, named in honor of the J&L Works that used to wow me as a child. It’s mostly sprawling office complexes now.
I spent time at the Pump House in Homestead and stood at the Homestead Labyrinth, which is at the site where the Pinkertons landed in 1892 and were met by thousands of enraged Homestead residents. I dawned on me that the next day — July 6 — is the day 127 years ago that Homestead erupted in chaos.
It was a great ride. There were baby bunnies everywhere during the Homestead stretch, though they seemed to have the sense to stay off the bike path. I also passed a group of goats who were lazily munching on the weeds between the path and the river bank.
I got a bit turned around when I hit downtown, but the folks at Golden Triangle Bikes pointed me toward the Mon Wharf route, which mercifully kept me off the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh.
When I got to the point, I spent an hour or so at the Fort Pitt Museum, checking out the exhibits. It prompted me afterward to drive by the George Washington statue in Braddock that marks the spot where Gen. Braddock was killed during the French and Indian War. Just as importantly, it’s also the location of the Whiskey Rebellion.
And while I was in Braddock, I stopped to say hi to Joe Magarac, the mill hunky folk hero. A key part of The Book is a recasting of the Magarac tale, so it was good to spend some time with Joe discussing it …
We’re settling in to Innisfree, which means we’re also meeting our neighbors. Sydney is getting particularly up close and personal since the back porch he inhabits feels like its more part of the forest than the house.
On Thursday morning, Sydney and I watched as doe walked cautiously past the porch. Syd was nervous but took his cue from me and shifted from being anxious to curious. Just then, a fawn darted past, trying to catch up with mom. Instead of screaming, which was his reaction when a squirrel got too close for comfort several weeks ago, he leaned in, trying to get a better look at the fawn.
This morning I walked in to to see Syd leaning off his cage toward the windows. Then I looked down to see a squirrel eyeballing him. I couldn’t believe Syd was so calm during the encounter. He’s feeling much more secure in his environs.
While there are no howler monkeys here, there is plenty of wildlife, much of which I’ve never encountered before. While cleaning out the area where the propane tanks are stored, I flushed out a ringed-neck snake that seemed more worm than snake. I gently nudged it off into the woods.
I also encountered a big, gnarly spider later that day. I thought it was a wolf spider at first, but after researching a bit I’m confident it was a fishing spider. Apparently, they’re water spiders, primarily, but they’re also found in forests. There venom is more like a bee sting, so I left him be only to see him again an hour later in the kitchen, where he was curled up into a ball. I thought he might be molting, but he rolled out into the middle of the kitchen so I kicked him, gently, I thought, outside where he curled up under a chair. But apparently my kick was fatal. When I checked up on him later, I found this grisly scene, with gore leaking from the dead fishing spider’s abdomen, which an opportunistic ant was feasting on.
Speaking of ants, I’ve been watching them swarm the trumpet vines as they flower. Apparently, the vines attract an aphid that leaves a residue called “honeydew,” which the ants love. They love it so much, in fact, that they protect the aphids from predator bugs.
And here are few more random photos of life at Innisfree …
While sitting on the deck with Sydney and Sunny, I noticed my neglected Kindle Fire and iPhone SE sitting screens-up on the table, reflecting the white oaks above them. So I reached over without moving the gadgets and took photos of what they were “seeing.”
I can’t think of a better way to enjoy “screen time.” The only right wing trolls on my screens were a band of red bellied woodpeckers who noisily swarm in each night like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.
I finally broke down and bought a book on tree identification, but not without some misdirection. I downloaded the Kindle version of “Identifying Trees of the East” after reading the rave reviews of it. The book merited the praise; the Kindle version did not. The book is predicated on narrowing down what type of tree you’re trying to ID by referring you from page to page until you find the specific tree you’re after. But the Kindle version isn’t paginated so the entire organizing structure of the book is blown up. After whining about it on Amazon, I returned it and ordered the print version, which is fantastic.
This morning Sunny and I went out and started trying to ID trees. Well, I was trying to ID trees. Sunny was just patrolling her property to make sure no coyotes or deer were stomping around. I also came across a great story in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch about the largest sycamore in Ohio.
Otherwise, I’ve been working to impose order on Innisfree and Dove Cottage. Yesterday, I used a self-propelled push mower to cut the grass for the first time. It took about 2 hours but wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Hardly sore at all this morning … Har.
The episode uses several versions of “China Cat Sunflower” — one from 1968, one from 1972 and the third from the Wall of Sound days in 1974 — to illustrate the impact the wall had on the Dead’s live music. The difference is astounding, even taking into account that playing and touring constantly for several years also contributed to the group’s improved sound. I knew there was genius driving this but wasn’t fully aware of how revolutionary it was for live music. It’s also sad to live in a time when bands spend more time faking their live performances than obsessing about how to deliver the ultimate sound experience to people who cough up big bucks to see their favorite musicians live.
Sadly, the care and feeding of the wall prompted its demise. It just got too expensive to cart all those speakers around the country, especially during a time of rising gas prices and shortages. The documentary focuses on the success of Owsley’s wall but doesn’t dwell as much on some of its spectacular failures. Lots of moving parts there, and I’ve read in several Grateful Dead memoirs about frustrations with the wall.
And speaking of Owsley, apparently a guy who was restoring a vintage synthesizer ending up tripping balls after touching LSD that had been stored in it for decades. Fascinating story. No indication how or why it was there, or whether it was Owsley acid. But the poor tech who was working on the synthesizer spent about 9 hours weathering the trip …
And since we’re talking about Bear, apparently he had a run-in with Rory Gallagher during a show I saw at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in the ’70s.