By Richard Wagamese
I’ve come to love the idea of firewood. At our home in the mountains we have a woodstove we use for heat. The flame from it casts our world in an orange glow that spells comfort, home, and contentment. It means, of course, that there’s chopping to be done, splitting, piling and ensuring there’s kindling around when mornings are frosty and cold. It’s a chore but it never feels like it.
In fact, the times I spend in the yard working at the firewood have come to be contemplative and relaxed. In the heft of the maul and the swish of the axe through the air there are profound recollections of a younger man working to achieve a sense of order. I can fall into them and be lost and the work is never really ever work.
Firewood has become poetry. There’s something elemental in the act of gathering that strikes deep to the core o f me. Not simply my native, Ojibway, soul but the essentially human depths. All of us, at some point in our cultural histories have a relationship with a fire in the night and the warmth and comfort of home.
My friends Ed and Ron and I headed up the logging road to cut fir a month or so ago. We took the trucks and drove the heavily rutted road up to where the air was clearer and fresher. We were up a long way and the country was thick with trees and the view was amazing. The air was crisp and there were no sounds except for the chains saws and the solid whack of the axe and splitters. We spent the whole morning working.
They’d come to help me get the winter’s wood in. Ed and Ron were farm boys in their youth and their industry, even in their retirement, astounds me. When seasonal work begs doing, Ed and Ron and their wives are the first to get at it. Their wood piles were high and deep and it was time to make sure we had enough to see us through. There were truckloads when we were done and the work was galvanizing and the talk was good and filled with humour.
Ed and Ron are Ukrainians. They’re older than me by a handful of years and their lives settled on different tracks than mine. They grew up in predictable ways, surrounded by family and friends and they built regular careers then retired to the lake and the mountains. They’re grandfathers and uncles and fathers.
My life was far from that. As a displaced kid I never really had a chance to settle anywhere. I was moved so often that I came to expect the feeling of being uprooted as a matter of course. When I grew older, that pattern seemed to follow me. I roamed the country looking for a peg to hang my life on and a place to call my home. I lived in most of the larger cities in the country and a number of smaller towns and hamlets as well.
As native people we’re descendents of a nomadic culture and it sometimes feels as though I spent my life wandering. I felt like the proverbial round peg in the square hole most of my life. But here in the mountains, friends like Ed and Ron and the simple act of getting together to load in winter wood, makes all differences vanish. There’s only the change of season and the labour required to see it through.
There’s a charm to that. There’s a rustic sense of an older, more settled Canada. A place where community was a verb and not a noun. Neighbours being neighbours and chores getting done. Walking to the house with an armload of wood takes me back to the sense of that.
I think we all crave it. There’s a part of us, particularly in these desperate financial times, that pines for a return to a simpler set of values. Aches for a reclamation of a more fundamental sense of order. Wants those over-the-back-fence conversations and living room get-togethers where the linkages were food, music and good, straight-hearted talk about important things.
Community creates that. Stepping out and away from the insular nature of our living and reaching out a hand to help or shake or organize breaks down the barriers that separate us. It’s a tribalism of sorts, one we understand at the contemporary heart of us.
There are no Ukrainians or Indians when you work together. There’s just neighbours. Just community. There’s just the very real sense of belonging and order and hope that a simple thing like firewood might bring us back to that. It can if we let it. Unity is the kindling of community – my Ukrainian friends taught me that.