and Other Tales of a Wood Stove in Maine
by Sheila Long
“Freaking landlord’s crazy,” I mumble as I try for the twentieth time to split a log only to have it, once again, fly off the chopping block thoroughly intact.
I can’t use a maul. In fact, I just learned the word maul. I thought any wooden handle with a wedge at the end was an ax. A maul, it turns out, has a longer handle with a dulled head that may or may not be made of steel and is used much like a sledge hammer. It is also much heavier than an ax. I don’t even want to use a maul but here I am using a goddamn maul attempting to eke out more wood to fit in the wood stove that is my primary heating device this winter.
“Two cords will get you through the winter,” I mumble, mimicking my landlord who took off to roam the southwest in an Airstream for a couple of years the day I moved in. The wood is included in the rent. I eye the depleting piles, which I doubt will survive to mid-February. A good fifteen percent of the logs are too large to fit in the Jotul wood stove that sits in the living room of my rented, oddly-hewn cabin in Downeast Maine. They must be split, splintered, reduced. They must surrender to the maul.
I watch several YouTube videos on log-splitting. One video shows a barefoot teenage waif walking around her yard splitting logs left and right like a neo-hippie/hillbilly samurai. The girl tiptoes in her hippie skirt and BAM! BAM! BAM! nails those logs in seconds, swiftly, deftly, seemingly with little effort or strength while maintaining a sense of sensual femininity.
This is not what is happening in my yard. I look neither feminine nor deft. It’s early January and it is Maine. No one looks sexy this time of year. As for deft, let’s just say my performance is more Mojo Nixon than Yo Yo Ma.
“Freaking landlord,” I repeat as I throw the maul down and head back in the house. Ever since I read that people who talk to themselves are smarter than the general population, I am much more comfortable with my ramblings. I talk to tree trunks. To the maul. To the howling, mid-January wind.
I brew some coffee and worry over a frigid winter with no gentleman callers. I conjure scenes from Jack London’s “To Build A Fire,” the icy cold of Sulfur Creek eking up the man’s body, the building of the fire too close to the fir tree and the snow-laden boughs of the tree dousing what would be his last warmth.
Jack London and I should have been lovers, if life were fair which, as the story indicates, it is not.
If I should die here, would it be more romantic to be found sitting or supine in my bed? Supine is weak; sounds too much like “soup in a tureen.” Although I like soup in a tureen, I don’t want to be found lying down; the icicles would not hang ominously in the air. If one has icicles coming out of one’s nose, one should really be sitting. Ah, sitting by the wood stove, looking at it from my red leather chair. I’ll have to try to keep my eyes open so I can be looking at the nonexistent fire when I am found.
I pick up Essays of E.B. White which makes me feel immediately inadequate as a writer and sentient being. In addition to co-authoring the writers bible, Elements of Style, Elwyn Brooks White also knew everything about every rural thing. He may have written for the New Yorker for six decades and had a residence in Manhattan, but Maine claims him as its own. White’s son, Joel, founded the Brooklin Boat Yard near their family home in North Brooklin, Maine, and the Blue Hill Fair became internationally known from White’s descriptions in Charlotte’s Web. His quote can be found in many a tourist shop here: “I would rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.” White loved the Maine landscape and his farm here. He loved birds and dogs and lakes and ponds and he doesn’t just describe them for you, but pulls you in like an expert fisherman, easing the line in and out. By the end of an essay, I love geese. I want to raise geese. I am a goose.
I turn from his essays and want to describe everything; the cedar shake siding, the lantern on the table, a red wheel barrow beside white chickens…wait, no, not that one. I look around my one room cabin. A near-empty bag of Bachman Bite Size Mini Baked Pretzels catches my eye.
“E.B. White’s an asshole,” I mumble, chuckling at the sheer profanity of the statement.
I congratulate myself for talking aloud again and wonder what would happen if I went to any of the local libraries and made that statement. There are many one-room libraries here. I love them. And I love the librarians. In fact, I love librarians everywhere. I imagine walking into, say, the Franklin Library, a true one-room relic, sidling up to the librarian’s desk and whispering, “E.B. White’s an asshole, don’t you think?” Or the much larger Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor with its lovely wood and spiral staircases leading to the second floor where I might yell: “E.B. White’s an asshole!” and run out. Oh, the horror. The horror. Marlon Brando would be proud. Probably not.
I’m not from these parts. I’m from Cleveland, a town about which very few here give a rodent’s behind. Mainers rarely give a hoot about anyone outside of Maine, let alone an old steel town in what many here believe to be a section of the country filled exclusively with corn. Mainers reluctantly acknowledge the rest of New England and have a love/hate relationship with people from the Bay State because they love the Sox and the Patriots, but mostly they refer to their southern neighbor as “Massholes.” Anything south of Massachusetts and west of Vermont is the hinterlands. The United States map could really be cut off at this point, except for Florida, where Mainers go or dream of going every winter. I have been an interloper in these parts on and off for twenty years. My latest stint has had me in Hancock County, Maine for nearly a decade.
The wood plagues me. I am frugal in winters because I work seasonally as a gardener on the estates of “summer people.” The purchase of another cord of wood takes away many six-packs of Double Chocolate Klondike bars that used to be six packs of another sort before I spared the world and gave up the sordid affair. My landlord is out living “off grid,” (an expression often used by the back-to-the-land hippies in these parts that makes me want to smoke cigarettes inside their houses) so it is up to me to figure this out. I go to the YouTube gods one last time.
There is a man using a mallet to pound an ax (not a maul) into a huge chunk of wood (I later learn there is such a thing as a wedge, which, if I had one, I could have used instead of the ax). After thirty or so hits of the mallet, the YouTube man splits off burnable sized pieces of wood. I mimic his technique and it works admirably and I am very proud of myself. I am a woods woman now. I imagine myself in a red and black checkered wool jacket and a fur-lined hat. As anyone knows, one minor outdoor skill makes one an expert in the entire area of that endeavor. My father saw himself as a “real camper” because he could start a fire without lighter fluid. Not without matches, mind you, but simply without pouring a liquid incendiary on the logs. We also camped in state and national parks with bathrooms and showers.
By late-January I’ve cut most of the larger logs and I build my fires daily, often a few times a day if I go out for groceries or human communion. I pride myself on having only turned on the propane heater for a few hours thus far. I generally ignore the fact that it’s one of the mildest winter beginnings in United States history and that I’m only seven miles from a small strip mall. My friends in Cleveland think Maine is like the Yukon and that I live on the frontier. I do nothing to discourage their perception.
Sometimes I wake up and it’s downright frigid. The wood stove only burns for two hours without a feeding. The first couple of truly cold days, I am afraid to sleep and catch a few hours here and there so as not to ignore the stove’s appetite. The temperature barely registered below 40 for most of November but in my mind, “keep the home fires burning” takes on new meaning. I am now a war/sea widow, stoking the hearth for the homecoming of my soldier/sailor/explorer/pirate husband. I am so many things. To so many people. I do not say that aloud.
I stare at fires a lot now. I stoke them. I build them. Flames find the dry, newer wood from beneath nearly charred logs. They wait in glowing embers, potential flames, for the feeding of a piece of birch or ash. They lick their way up, reaching, stretching incrementally higher and higher until at last the new log is engaged. Strategizing about air pockets and kindling placement and dumpster-diving at the town dump for discarded newspapers and cardboard replace Facebook and Netflix as entertainment or education. The stacking and cutting of wood, the worry about creosote and chimney fires. The fire consumes me, and my daily rituals and rhythms now revolve around it.
I clear the ashes and discard them in the yard. As a gardener, I know their worth to soil. Raising the alkalinity, wood ash works miracles for delphinium and lilacs. Here, though, surrounded by pines, the soil in the yard is likely acidic from the shedding needles, so I take less care in finding spots for the ash.
I look to Emily as my world turns inward:
Ashes denote that fire was
Respect the grayest pile
For the departed creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile.
Emily, the ultimate seeker/seer of meaning in the ordinary, willingly caught in a perpetual state of romantic melancholic euphoria. I imagine myself dangerous and poetic and I begin to speak in American Victorian phrases in my head. I shall go mad if I tarry there too long, as she may have, on occasion. What were the occasions, I wonder? Did fire play a role? Did she stare at the embers too long? Am I in danger of implosion? Am I already “the grayest pile”? Is “much madness” truly “divinest sense”?
Her solitude is her rebellion and mine: “Assent and you are sane/demur and you are straightaway dangerous…”
I am a dangerous poet dressed all in white.
I am far too cynical to remain in this one. I cannot bring myself to use the word Masshole in her presence. And I find I can’t remain long where cursing is prohibited. It is nice there, though, warm and soul edifying, licking patiently upward until it engulfs me and I am on fire in a hush-toned lust.
I pick up Bukowski to feed my inner punk. I worry about the bluebird in my heart and know for certain that Charles and I should not have been lovers. We would have killed each other with booze and cynicism. Cynics seek innocents, like Emily and E.B. The Henry Millers of the world rightly seek their Anais Nins. The adventurous seek the hearth tenders and, lately, I am a hearth tender.
I go back to E.B. White and in his essay “Coon Tree,” I find: “A wood stove is like a small boat; it costs something to keep, but it satisfies a man’s dream life.”
I stoke the fire awaiting Jack’s return from the sea.
Sheila Long is a freelance writer who has worked as a journalist in Ohio and Maine. Her articles have been published in the Akron Beacon Journal, City Reports, the Ellsworth Weekly, and the Mount Desert Islander. Her poetry has been published in ArtCrimes. A version of this essay first appeared in GTK Creative Journal.