D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     August 2005

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Sisyphus and the Grasshopper

What better time than mid-summer for a winter woodpile?

From the summer solstice until just after the metaphorical zenith of summer on the Fourth of July, through a triple-digit heat wave that every afternoon turned the blistered landscape into God's convection oven, we toted firewood for winter.

We transplanted nearly six cords of wood, hefting each and every log from one neat stack into the back of the pickup, driving into our backyard, and unloading each and every log again into our own increasingly un-neat pile. Then back to do it again. Sometimes we'd tackle one load in the morning, before the sun took on its razor edge, and another in the evening, during the slender twilight interval between still-too-hot and getting-too-dark. Through the sweltering heart of summer, the original stack slowly shrank and the sprawling woodpile in our yard mushroomed like some sort of woody tumor. Winter? Bring it on.


I realize that the true winter-preparedness ritual around here involves going into the forest and cutting your own firewood, not merely relocating it—however perspiringly—from one woodpile to another. But we're not quite ready for that yet, still preferring our extremities attached to our bodies rather than subject to backwoods chainsaw-accident surgery. And, given the mountain of firewood newly sprouted, volcano-like, out back, we're unlikely to have to unlimber the chainsaw any time soon. I think we're set for a winter or three, thanks.

This mid-summer frenzy of getting ready for winter all started when I learned that our Ramblin' Outdoors columnist, Larry Lightner, had sold his house. He didn't plan to take his woodpile, lovingly assembled over the years, with him, preferring the convenience of a pellet stove in his new digs. We have a pellet stove, too, but I've insisted on keeping the fireplace to warm the other half of the house; the steady, sterile drip of pellets to feed a bland, behind-glass little blaze simply doesn't satisfy the Neanderthal firebug in me. I need a real fire, with the frustration of will-it-start? and the triumphant conflagration that (usually) follows, the flames like hungry tongues licking skyward. . . . Let's just say that if this whole journalism thing doesn't work out, I could have a very satisfying career as an arsonist.

Hence our hunger for wood. In preparation for last winter, we had one batch of mostly oak delivered—about three-quarters of a cord, all they had at the time. As we burned through that, we spotted a house down the road that had a cord of juniper for sale. Juniper, we thus learned the hard way, though easy to light, burns at roughly the rate of a box of toothpicks. No matter how huge a log I'd put on at bedtime, by 2 or 3 in the morning the sudden silence of the fireplace insert's fan shutting off, with no more heat to give us, would wake me up. Trying to restart a fire in the middle of the night, not dressed and half asleep, is at best a recipe for aggravation and at worst an invitation to burns on body parts that, on the bright side, at least don't normally show.

This winter, I'd vowed back in spring when we cleaned out the fireplace for the final time, we'd be prepared.

So when we learned of Larry's dilemma, we struck a deal to take his homeless firewood off his hands. The only catch was, of course, that he wanted us to move it. That seemed like no big deal until we'd hauled a half-dozen loads and Larry's original woodpile looked only marginally smaller. Was he sneaking out there and rebuilding it with more wood, in between our trips? Was the firewood breeding, like the quail in our backyard who seem to have produced offspring in poultry Red Army-like proportions this year? (We await the day when, their numbers at last sufficient, a phalanx of quail appears at the back door with a list of demands: "Better birdseed. Evian water. HBO.")

Tonight, though, we'll finally fetch the last of the wood. Wearily, we'll add the final logs to our pile—piles plural, really, since the sheer volume has forced us to diversify—and toss any straggler sticks onto what now looks like a movie set for the last scene of Joan of Arc.

Is it winter yet?

Building a woodpile in the blast-furnace middle of summer is an act of faith, in a way. We'll be here come wintertime, it announces to the universe, and for many winters to come. It puts us in the role of the ant in the classic fable, rather than that of the profligate, live-for-today grasshopper.

But that's me—a planner. I've never been very good at living a "be here now" kind of life. Part of me is always somewhere, somewhen else.

The downside of that mindset makes me a worrywart, much like my father. He could always envision the bad things that might happen down the road, and sometimes let those dark possibilities spoil the present. As a teenager, if I wasn't home by 11, in my father's imagination I was surely sprawled in a pool of blood somewhere, my twisted corpse illuminated by the strobe of police cars and ambulances.

"Plan for the worst, hope for the best" can leave you thinking far too much about the hideous forms the worst might take. Hope turns into a small, hard nugget buried deep within the black blanket of how things could go wrong. Spend too much time planning for rainy days and eventually all you can see is the possibility of storm clouds.

Yet building a winter woodpile in the midst of summer can also be an affirmation. We're not afraid of winter (at least not here in the Southwest—but talk to me later about Minnesota). We're ready to embrace it, knowing that the abbreviating days and bracing temperatures will bring relief from summer's sweltering. And winter has its own pleasures, like the glow and crackle of a well-built fire.

Looking ahead, like the hard-working ant of the fable, avows not only, Scarlett O'Hara-style, that "Tomorrow is another day," but that there will be a day after tomorrow, too, and another after that. Living only for the here and now, the grasshopper proves faithless to the future. The ant makes plans. The ant believes. Sure, the worst might happen, as my dad always feared, between today and the day after tomorrow, but it probably won't—and then we'll need wood.

My dad could look at the world that way, too, I know. When we first moved into the house I mostly grew up in, he planted pine seedlings. Barely more than twigs, they presented a challenge to me in my hated chore of mowing the yard, lest I mow too close and scalp them or even closer and turn the seedlings into mulch. Over the years, though, those spindly pines grew into respectable trees and eventually towered into conflict with the overhead power and telephone lines.

Planting trees is an act of faith, just as is cutting them down for firewood against the sting of winters several seasons hence. Tomorrow will not take care of itself; we need to give it a hand, and thereby avow our belief in its eventual arrival. If we want our world to be green with trees someday, somebody's gotta plant them—today. If we want to be warm tomorrow, we'd better gather the firewood here and now.

"In the depth of winter," wrote Albert Camus in a quote I've used on this page before, "I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." But the reverse is also true, it turns out: In the burning core of summer, winter awaits, with its insatiable hunger for firewood.

As we lugged our loads of firewood from one pile to the other, I thought not only of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, but also of the story of Sisyphus. Condemned for all eternity to roll a stone uphill, only to have it roll back down again when he reached the summit, Sisyphus would have been an excellent gatherer of firewood.

Our task, of course, only seemed to take an eternity. Someday, though, even that volcano of firewood we've haphazardly constructed will be exhausted, the last log thrown into the inferno, and we'll have to take up this chore again. Back to work—not unlike Sisyphus.

Camus wrote about Sisyphus, too, as it happens. "The fight itself towards the summit suffices to fill a heart of man," he concluded. "It is necessary to imagine Sisyphus happy."

Eternally lugging tomorrow's firewood, indeed our hearts are full.



David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

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