Thursday, January 03, 2008


Chop wood, read books

Well, we're in the thick of it, here in Maine. Four below zero this morning when I arrived at the shop for the first time since last Friday, after being kept home by a combination of three snowstorms, the New Year's holiday, and a hefty dash of sloth. Bitter cold and three feet of snow on the ground in back of our house. So the snow piles, where we've shoveled and shoveled, are up over my head in places. Everyone around here's saying it, and I will too, "I haven't seen a winter like this since I was a kid." Remember? Massive snowstorms, and afterwards sledding all day with the neighbors' kids, digging tunnels and forts in snowbanks, coming home at dark exhausted and red-faced and wind-burnt but supremely happy? When I was a kid we heated our house with two big woodstoves and cords of wood we split and lugged ourselves. (We also had no running water. Hence an outhouse. Have I mentioned this before? Character-building!) To this day I still love radiant heat, something you can put your wet boots and mittens under and they actually dry, something you can cozy up to and feel instantly warmed.

I didn't go sledding this time around, but I did some snowshoeing, and took several long walks during the brief sunny breaks between storms. The town we moved to is small, with several streets that loop around each other, and we can usually walk right down the middle of the plowed road for two miles without seeing another car. I spent my time off indoors, too, reading - Santa brought me some good books, and I also had a few lying around the house. (Just a few...) One was the elegy for Molly Malone Cook, long-time partner of poet Mary Oliver, entitled Our World (Beacon Press 2007). The book combines photos by Cook and entries from Cook's journals with some prose by Oliver about their life together. It's a lovely book, both from a physical standpoint - how wonderful to see a good book bound completely in cloth, as a good book should be! - and regarding the carefulness and respect of the chosen content. It comes across as a token of deepest affection, of highest regard, and it somehow retains privacy for the both of them while still allowing a view in.

One of the other books I read this week was Wendell Berry's collected agrarian essays, The Art of the Commonplace (Counterpoint 2002). Editor Norman Wirzba says of Berry, and it could apply to Mary Oliver just as well:

"Authentic and responsible thought, while not restricted to the local or regional, depends on the clarity and precision that comes from sustained attention to the particular."

Both of these authors closely observe and report on, lovingly, the particular. In doing so, with their gifts, they transcend the particular. To bring this back around to the joy of lugging wood, in a way, I will quote Berry, when he says (p.80):

"I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts."

And I will quote Mary Oliver, as she chose this from Molly Malone Cook's journals (p.81), just because I love it so much:

"People travel to keep from crying in place."

I read Wendell Berry's Collected Poems 1957-1982, too (North Point Press). Both authors give their readers everything, even while choosing carefully what to say. Both are vulnerable in the best sense. Without self-righteousness, they state their beliefs - all of them - if we care to read the lines and then between the lines. This is why I love poetry, and poets who write essays, and these two poet-essayists in particular. I could go on. But I've got a shop to run...

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