A fine art: "messing about"

"Believe, me there is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats," says Ratty in "the Wind in The Willows." True enough, but what do you do in winter? In spring there is the garden. In fall the leaves. But in winter, unless you're into igloo-making, futzing with the snowblower, or caving out figure eights on the pond, what is there to mess with? There are things to do, of course, but "messing about" doesn't actually classify as doing anything. You don't have to row or sail or paddle to be messing about in a boat. You can just be looking, or standing, or walking, or lying down in the vicinity. "Messing about" is a fussy, loving occupation, indulged in mostly for its own sake. Fixing an oarlock, if you take long enough doing it and use improper tools, can be classified as "messing about." Varnishing the wheel counts, though not the hatch covers. Considering, planning, investigating; these are the purest activities.

But what takes the place of boats in winter? For a long time I was sure that nothing could. But then I discovered what others have known since the days of the cave man. What you mess about with in winter is the wood stove. Consider wood. (Of course, you must get it for nothing.) Many people have no interest in wood, neglect it, discard it, even. Develop a wood-scrounging mentality and immediately rewards come your way. An ice storm here, a tree-trimming project there. And if there are woods around, there is wood aplenty.

But this is all preliminary. "Messing about" doesn't properly begin until after you have installed your wood stove. Have you seen to the damper, adjusted the flue, opened or closed the various valves that let in the air? At what distance, if any, doesone crack the loading door? Is the room too hot or too cold? You seek out various opinions. You purchase thermometers. You have cranked up the stove -- a good, hot, roaring fire. The stove pipe loses its shine nd throbs with heat like a city street in mid-summer. Could it melt? You close off everything and gradually the crisis passes. Now you've got it. Two full turns on the bottom knob. The stove begins to come to life once more. Enough. You open the top to inspect. Smoke fills the room.

You must love a wood stove. Morning is feeding time. And so is noon, and evening, and night. If the weather is bad, there are in-between meal snacks. You pamper, you coddle it. Does it have enough air? Could it be hyperventilating? You cast admiring glances. You linger in its company. Its glow must be steady, its warmth assured. You want to bask in its presence, neither roasting in too hearty a fellowship nor feeling the chill of indifference. And there is no one really to teach you. You must find out for yourself. If you begin to place too great a premium on pure performance, you risk everything: impatience, neglect, ultimate fury and abandonment.

You cannot sail or paddle or row a wood-burning stove. But you can mess around with it -- all day and half the night, if you have a mind to.

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