I harvest the river for warmth

A minor revolution has occurred in my home. In a fit of self-sufficiency brought on by reading Thoreau, I recently bought a used woodstove and, with the grudging help of my teenage son Alyosha, hauled it into the very heart of the house. "There," I said after the miserable work was done.

"There what?" pronounced Alyosha. "You don't have any wood to burn in it."

That's where he was wrong. I had wood all right, but I had not acquired it in the traditional way.

Wood is a big cottage industry here in deeply forested Maine. Owners of wood lots hawk their wares in the newspapers with all the panache of carnival barkers: "Wood! Dry. Seasoned. Split and delivered."

By summer's end most folks have mountains of the stuff in their driveways; by first frost it's been neatly stacked, each stick lying in state as it awaits its turn in a fiery maw.

An accident of geography has exempted me from the customary means of obtaining wood. Long before I installed my woodstove I noticed the abundance of wood that washed down the Penobscot River behind my home, especially during the spring runoff. Once the waters receded, much of the stuff was left high and, eventually, dry, baked to perfection by the summer sun. By autumn it was time to harvest.

A couple of months ago I began making daily excursions in my canoe, setting out either early in the morning or just after work. I preferred the mornings, when a mist drifted upon the water and the canoe seemed nothing short of airborne as it silently nosed its way through the riverine clouds, as if sniffing out the objects of my delight.

I had a favorite spot picked out: a shoreline clearing about half a mile upstream, just south of a stretch of rapids called the Orono Rips. As I eased the canoe along the shore eddy, my anticipation quickened. Long before I reached the clearing I could see what the river had sown those many months before, when the ice melt had turned the Rips into a ferocious, thundering torrent: wood strewn everywhere, ripe for the taking.

By now the mist had lifted and the sun was skirting the tops of the pines. The canoe crunched ashore and I got out, feeling as if I were setting foot in undiscovered country. But the wood! There it lay, all about: beached above the high water mark, jammed into rock crevices, stranded in tree branches. All of it cured to a doughy whiteness. I could envision the fire that lay within, a fire that would be quick and hot.

A few feet from the canoe was a pile of what looked like laths - beautiful strips of pine, weathered and wormholed, filigreed by the river's hand. I knew these to be leftovers of the great log drives which, 100 years ago, had made Maine the lumber capital of the world. I fingered the history for a moment and then laid the wood in the canoe.

Moving inland I found several pieces of drift planking, bone dry and smooth to the touch. Into the canoe they went.

Then came the commoners: chunks of wood that had been so long worked by the river that it was hard to say whether they were the products of some defunct sawmill or simply the remains of trees or logs that had been shredded by the Penobscot's crags and then worked into anonymity by the gentler angels of its waters.

My canoe was soon nearing capacity. With little time remaining before I had to head home with my booty, I decided to hike to a thicket of wild honeysuckle to see what might lie within. My curiosity was rewarded when I came upon several stout lengths of river-washed timber. Each was about six feet long and six inches on a side. From a distance they looked like limestone supports from some ancient entryway. Closer inspection showed them to be the remains of an old timber crib, once used for securing passels of logs on their way downriver. One of these would heat my home for the better part of a day. I dragged it down the beach and laid it in the canoe with particular reverence.

As I guided my load downstream, I didn't even have to paddle, for the current knew the way home and hurried me there. The sun had finally burned off the mist and was now rendering the water transparent. I looked over the side and watched the bottom of the river glide by. It was dense with waterlogged wood, layer upon layer, history overlying history. In depositing a smattering of its abundance on the shore it had once again made itself useful.

Now we are deep into November and I have amassed a sizable pile of wood in my backyard, all courtesy of the river. I sit near the stove and watch as the first early snow comes down in great, sodden flakes, gathering on the window ledges. When my neighbors ask how the new stove is working out, I tell them that it heats well. But its work will last only a season. In the long run, it is the river that warms me.

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