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More Than Warmth

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Our planet hurls through time and space, tilting and spinning on its axis making certain that in some town near or far it is winter. A cold slowly descends and the days become shorter and darker. People pass the time in their homes by sealing the windows and doors against the falling temps and reaching for the thermostat. With the gentle push of a button or flip of a switch, a furnace whirs to life, sending warmth to fill the rooms like solid walled balloons. There is a comfort and ease to it and most people simply pay a bill each month for the luxury of using electricity, oil, natural gas or even coal to stay warm through the long winter months year after year. For others, it is an act of diligence. 

               When the chill comes down, as it does here in these Western North Carolina Mountains, there is a ritual that begins, one of necessity and one of history. Some of us bring the warmth to our homes using fire. Inside a small metal box positioned carefully in homes across the world, wood and kindling is artfully placed and lit, and it stays lit and burning, sometimes for months. There is something about a fire burning and the feeling of its heat radiating that touches me in a primal place. I feel that this is the way it is supposed to be. This is what warmth is supposed to feel like and it is different than the warmth pushed into homes by air, forced by the electric current that singes it and dries it as it races through ductwork and into each room. It is different than burning fossil fuels mined from deep within the earth, processed and cleaned and carefully contained in a cautious, managed flame.

               Wood burning is part of the world, part of the balance of the planet. Forests catch fire and burn themselves out to grow again, clearing the underbrush and signaling the seeds and cones that it is time to begin again. It is death and birth and so it is with this fire that I burn with a reverence that has been inside me all my life. It is not as easy as flipping a switch and I do have a switch to flip if that is what I chose to do, but no, as long as I am able, I will tend the fire and honor the process. The process….

               It begins in the forest with the trees and I live among them, so dense in some places that the sun never touches the ground while the trees are awake and the summer sun is high. When a tree begins to die, its branches weaken and drop, the leaves fall away and these are the signals. The tree is passing, its life fading slowing, so slowly, and part of respecting the forest includes using the wood, so through careful consideration and with respect, a tree is felled and it comes crashing down with a terrible thundering rumble. Sometimes, the wind will catch her brother and do the job herself, but for each and every tree, the time comes when it must fall and waiting for the right time is part of the process that has endured through all time. I do this. My neighbors do this. We watch. We wait.

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The small branches, the bark, the leaves, the fodder that was the heart of the tree returns to the earth to build a new layer of rich soil that will feed the future generations of surrounding plants and animals. For the parts of the tree that are to be burned in our homes, this is only the beginning. The wood must season, laying outdoors as if in state during an extended respectful wake, sometimes for years while the water evaporates from the core. Large chain saws are used to cut the tree into carefully measured lengths that will fit each stove, and then split into manageable sections. This is done by hand using razor sharp axes or powerful machines but it must be done or the wood will rot before it is able to dry completely. Once split the pieces are stacked together and raised slightly on pallets to keep each piece clean, keep bugs away and so that air can circulate. Then, the stacks are covered and protected until the seasons change once more.

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Today, on this last day of January, the sun shines brightly, melting much of the snow that has been with us for so long. It has been colder than it has ever been here, the mercury dipping far below zero and the wind pushing it further into inhumane regions. Throughout these days, tending the fire has felt urgent as every living thing hunkered down, waiting for this terrible blast of arctic air to pass. But today is different. Today is almost balmy and the thermostat on the porch confirms that it is indeed 45 degrees. I watched through the glass stove front through the morning as the flames died down and the embers faded until now, and I am able to carefully scoop the fine dust from the bottom of the stove pan. It is still hot and laced with chunks of unfinished charcoal, and as I sift each scoop into the metal bucket, the dust explodes into the air, spreading throughout the room covering everything with a thin grey veil. Part of this dust will go into each chicken coop as part of their dust bath, and the rest is spread along the berm behind the wood pile, and will slowly wash down the hill and feed the stand of rhododendron and mountain laurel that has grown there for a hundred years or more.

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           As I return to the house I know the circle is complete. Every part of the tree has meant something and done something. Since it was a seed it sent its roots deep into the earth to gather water and nutrients. It exhaled life giving oxygen and shaded the forest floor. Over the course of its life it provided food and shelter for thousands, maybe millions of insects, scores of birds and animals, its leaves falling to the ground each year and breaking down to form layer upon layer of soil. The twigs and branches that released from its body became nests or kindling or art, or walking sticks or dams at the end of a pond. And now, as I brush the dust from my clothes and wash the ash from my hands I have played my part in this circle of life, and I thought I was only keeping warm.

When The Dark Comes Calling

It has been an interesting year in many ways. How redundant for me to start that way. Every year is interesting and brings learning, loss, newness, hellos, epiphany and more.  Death is on my mind right now because there is always so much of it. It is the only thing that is certain and we all share it, from the tiniest microorganism to the biggest forest to the longest living things… we all die.

On our farm we see it unexpectedly when a hawk comes hurling from the sky and flies away with a chicken in its claws, leaving a skewed pile of feathers as the only remains. We see it in our field, where the incessant rains have carried away our crops for the second year in a row. We see it in our lives too, with a startling phone call or a neighbor stopping by as they go by the house.

July begins with excitement. Summer is in full swing. Patriotism is winding up for the annual grand display with fireworks, grilled food, much flag waving and gratitude. Then it begins with a phone call and suddenly Candace has lost a brother and I a brother-in-law. Just a few days later and a friend I have known since I was a young teen has passed just as unexpectedly. He was part of my second family growing up and was the closest thing I could have had to a brother at that time. Even though I had not seen either of them in some time I am transported to times when we were younger, remembering times both good and bad. How did the time pass so quickly?

Time. Another phone call only days later. Our social circle is cracked to pieces as word spreads of the death of a friend. Young. Gentle. Caring. Surgery and recovery gone horribly, inexplicably wrong and a true light is snuffed out. The grief is palpable now. I can taste it and I am filled with sorrow and rage. How. Can. This. Happen.

I remember my 20s, 30s, 40s, and feeling like I had so much time. I was wrong.

Now it is September and my neighbor Bill and friend Ruth have both passed and I find myself in tears at random moments… when I am digging in the garden, or folding laundry. When the phone rings I cringe and wonder who else has passed, what more has gone wrong.

Death is not the only darkness… people disappear from out lives for many reasons and in many ways, some leaving me dumbfounded, some leaving me broken, all breaking a piece of me away to roll to a dusty corner. A loud voice tells me to flee, to hide, to keep all away, to build a wall to protect me from the pain of goodbye… from the pain of silence when the words don’t come and I am left with only questions.

Some days like today, the darkness is calling to me from my past, from moments in time that linger like flies over carrion. Today, when nothing makes sense and trust has a bitter taste that I spit out and grind into the dirt with worn wet sneakers. Where do we go when the darkness comes, when we feel that hand on our shoulder, know what it is, and not want to turn to see it. Where do we go when everything stops and all that is good and right and sure drains away like the blood drains, crimson and thick from a deep wound. When the dark comes calling, like fear, uncertainty, or a speeding train…. where do we go. Where do I go. What do I do now.

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Which came first…?

Spring is coming. The land doesn’t show it, the air doesn’t feel it but the time is passing and the days are slowly getting longer as the sun comes closer in her orbit. The ground is still cold and hard but the farmers are turning the winter grass over in preparation for planting. It is too cold to smell the dirt. Spring has a way to go before I will be convinced when I step outside. Inside though, things are a bit clearer.

When I got up this morning, the wood stove was full of embers, glowing red chunks  pushing their heat toward me as I slowly open the door. It feels good as I place two pieces of wood to bring the fire back up to warm the house through the morning. The wind has been blowing for days, and the stove needs more attention in these times. It seems that the cold wind reaches down the pipe to beacon the fire to burn faster and hotter. It does. I don’t mind a cooler home. I am more comfortable in the cool but I have other things to consider besides myself. You see, Spring has arrived in the next room.

In the dining room the furniture is pushed aside to accommodate a brooder. A brooder is like a well heated day care for baby chickens. We use a special heat lamp clipped to the side to keep them warm like their mothers body would. This plastic storage container is their first home and I imagine it is quite confusing to these tiny babies, but they bond with each  other and with us and with a little coaxing they learn to eat and drink and soon begin to grow from tiny, boney balls of soft fluff to feather covered birds. The transformation is extraordinary.

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We have ten chicks in the brooder and we purchased them from two different local farmers to expand our flock with breeds that we want to raise. There are many different breeds of chicken and all are different in size, look, disposition and egg laying capability. Some are less common and some are highly sought after based on what they offer. We enjoy offering eggs for sale, so we like hens who lay big colorful eggs. Colorful. That is a word that you may not think of if you buy your eggs at the local supermarket. Their offerings are white and sometimes brown but the true spectrum is broad and interesting.

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Those are real colors. Chickens are amazing creatures.

We also have an incubator that has been home to 24 eggs for the last 21 days and we are watching and waiting for the first baby to “pip”. The pip is the first crack or hole that the chick makes in its attempt to begin the hatching process. They each have a tiny “egg tooth” on the tip of their beak to help them cut a circle around one end of the egg so that they can stretch and pop the egg open. This is how they begin life, and once they are hatched and drying the tiny egg tooth falls off without leaving a trace. Each baby works hard  to be born and once dry seem huge compared to the egg  they were in, but I digress…

Chickens, if nothing else, are predictable, and the gestation period for the eggs is 21 days, even though they lay a clutch of eggs over a period of days, they all hatch rather close together, with our experience being less than 24 hours from start to finish each time we have hatched them. This time, however, is not going quite like that. These eggs were purchased from a local farmer, a perfectly lovely man who raises chickens for eggs as we do, as well as selling some to other back yard farmers to hatch. The eggs are big and pretty and healthy in appearance, and that is why we are concerned today. There are no pips yet. There should be pips but there are none on day twenty two and tonight we will open one egg to see if we can determine what is happening and why. There are a million things that can go wrong during gestation when a hen is sitting her clutch… and just as many in an incubator. Seldom do all the eggs hatch. It is just part of the process, but when 24 eggs don’t hatch or show signs of hatching on the 22nd day, I feel a sense of doom. My hope is that they are simply late bloomers, and tomorrow will be full of life and excitement, photographs and phone calls. For now, we will just have to wait and see.