Old Friends and Seamless Reunions

A Cherry tree has overtaken an old farm utensil in an abandoned field
A Cherry tree has overtaken an old farm utensil in an abandoned field

The short piece below is from What We Hold In Our Hands: a Slow Road Reader. The “friend” it speaks of I had not seen since the early 80s. He was just here, and it was as if we’d had our last conversation over coffee a week ago instead of 25 years ago. I’ll hope to tell you more soon.

One summer not long after college, a good friend and I were backpacking through the sunken canyons of the Bankhead Wilderness in Alabama.

We laid out our sleeping bags that afternoon in the humid shade in a half-cave of sandstone, looking out on the Sipsey River close below us. A summer shower sent sheets of warm rain sweeping over the narrow swath of forest between rocky rims. The sound of it hissed softly like the surf in a seashell.

Lying on my back with my hands clasped behind my head, a serene and wordless five minutes passed. I blinked away a speck of sand, and then another. A few minutes later, my friend reached up and wiped at his eyes. He turned to me with an amused chuckle in an instant of mutual comprehension. In that twinkling we grasped the cosmic scale of single grains of sand falling from the massive roof of our seemingly immutable stone shelter.

So this is what becomes of mountains, we said, and laughed, the irony of the moment appreciated.

Later that afternoon, we sat on a ferny boulder above the river. Deep in its warm green waters small fish held their place, barely, against the current.

“They use up a lot of energy just to keep from being swept to the sea” I remarked.

“We all do, Fred. We all do” my friend said.

And as we sat quietly watching, listening to the remnants of the last shower still dripping from the tulip poplars, the sandy bottom of mountain bits beneath those bright fish washed, speck by grain and foot by foot, towards a distant Gulf Coast beach.

Rites of Passage: Growing Down

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.