History's smoke

MY chain saw has never been a decent worker. It's had its moments, but of late it's been more like a person in the indolence of youth, requiring prodding and acting temperamental even when I get it running. I took it apart, cleaned it, and when it didn't run, I took it apart again. Now it's half-assembled in a cardboard box on the floor in the kitchen. I've replaced it with my old ``Made in Norway'' blade and my arm, which is growing stronger. Since I've made the switch, I look forward to cutting time. I have gone from panting to relaxed breathing in the pure, piney air of this 8,000-foot valley in the Sangre de Christos. However, doing it by hand requires smaller logs than the telephone-pole size I traded a neighbor for last summer for taking care of his dogs in the shimmering, luxurious heat of the pinon plateau while he and his wife went cross-country.

Now, that heat is pure cold, shooting-star-viewing cold, and my source of coveted thermal units is a 1932 unairtight stove, the only furnishing in this adobe when I moved in three years ago. I kept it, as I love a puzzle.

I solved the secret of long burning in such a contraption: ashes squeezed up against the bottom pan and a quarter turn open on the damper, then after the fire is going, shut it down. It took me half a winter to figure that simple formula. Now you can crank it up to bake bread on my 14-inch brick walls. I did find some small cottonwood from blow-downs by the river; but my stove ate short pieces as an incinerator devours paper.

Then I remembered wood I have around the property: cedar from a collapsed picket fence, pieces from an old corral in the meadow, splinters from the blown-off roof of the original cabin up the hill, all part of the history of this land. Some stories I know, the family with four children here during the Depression, who, with a horse for hay, a cow and a calf, beehives, and a garden where the stones are still piled, ``never lacked for a thing, or at least I don't remember it,'' says a daughter who came back from the city to see it, to show her grandchildren and pick pinon nuts in the forest.

A schoolteacher lived here and, as the isolation got too much, she ran off to Denver; they still talk, ``You're living in the house of the prettiest girl who ever was in the valley.'' It has never been my house, always referred to as hers or someone else's.

And what about the people who built this sturdy domain ``beautiful for situation,'' to use a phrase from Psalms, after the Civil War, with its view of peaks and the wobbly old glass front windows that have let in thousands of morning suns like today. Did I owe them a debt? These scraps of wood, though the structures still stand partially in natural dignity, were part of their history I was cutting for the stove.

As my blade cut through the cedar, juniper, and pine, avoiding a flattened nail here or there, I stopped after each cut to smell the seasoned fragrance of the old wood. Did I hear children laugh as they skipped out the long-fallen picket gate? Ah, that was an evening prayer going up through the first cabin's noble beam. I gave thanks for wood.

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