It never occurred to me until lately that this odd medium of time has a kind of reverse gear, a peculiar force of gravity, if you will.
Growing “up” we look forward to with great anticipation. It promises new opportunities as we become stronger physically, new challenges as we grow smarter intellectually, new perplexities as we grow wiser of spirit. We welcome rites of passage that mark our moving up into new and richer territory. We take control over larger boundaries, shoulder bigger loads of responsibility and opportunity, go a little farther into the unknown of adulthood than we’ve ever been before.
This week, for the first time since I cut my first trunk-load of wood with a bow saw in 1975, I’ve paid other people to cut my firewood, and this has been a rite of passage, an early marker of a new age.
Now I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you. But for me, this has been a first occasion to relinquish control, to hand the wheel in this small way to another who drives a part of my life in a place where I have always been master. It is an acknowledgment of dependence. And it has not passed by unnoticed.
If there is a growing up in life, there also is a growing down. It always seemed a concern for everybody else, for our parents’ generation, not mine. It’s not that I haven’t known to expect a latter-day senescence on the back side of things, but knowing hasn’t made it any easier to adapt, now that this one small need from others whispers that my time is coming.
With “store bought” firewood, we will be warm next winter with a higher quality woodpile than we’ve gotten on our own, cutting culls and windfall from our own place or those places that nature and weather and the kindness of friends have brought us since 1975 as each winter approaches and I’ve wondered if I could gather enough. I always have. And I could tell you the history, some connection with person and forest season and events in our lives from every piece of wood as I loaded it in the stove of a January morning.
“This piece of oak is from the Sharps who gave us their wood when they moved from the house in Check to the apartment in Blacksburg. I wonder how they’re doing.”
“And this big split came from that tall maple that collapsed back up the valley along the New Road, broken off rotten at the base after we had a little ice. Mostly, it’s as solid as it can be up top. See all the sapsucker holes?”
“This is some of that locust without the bark on it that we dug out of the leaves up on the ridge. It must have been on the ground since our first winter burning firewood three decades ago, still solid as it can be. Took us a lot of miles to the cord to fetch it down off the hill, up out of the creek to the truck to the house to the stove. It heated us at least a half dozen times, didn’t it?”
It was as often the wood itself as it was the suddenly interesting news item or photograph (sometimes, my own picture!) that jumped off the crumpled newsprint page that gave me momentary pause in my morning fire-building. But not any more.
The wood we burn next year will be generic. It will be anonymous, rootless, unplaced oak and hickory, locust and cherry. It will have many BTUs of heat, but it will not warm me in the same way as what I have located, lifted, loaded and split myself. I will not know this wood. It will be mere commodity. And I have to learn to let it go.
“Lord be with us and guide us in the temptations of youth, the challenges of middle life and the indignities of age.” This was the way one of our former ministers often phrased it in his prayers with the congregation. I gave that third stage of life little thought when I was forty.
Twenty years later, I’m thinking more about a different kind of rite of passage and beginning to learn a new kind of opportunity that comes as we grow down, to let others do for us what we’ve always done for ourselves. To everything, there is a season.