Under cozy plush sheets and a thick comforter, I wait for heat from a newly lit fire to reach me. Chilly mornings in Lakewood Township, and by chilly I mean winter cold, have a different meaning to me than to most. I didn’t realize how accustomed I had become to this way of life until a visitor asked why I get ready for bed with a light winter hat nearby. I show my guests how to start and feed the fire. I tell them the alternative to rising from their warm cocoon is to simply yell through the blanket, “My head is cold,” and I will resolve the situation.
Mornings aren’t tough here. There are no winter boots that get put on to tend to livestock or sled dogs. I do not crawl into a chicken coop to gather breakfast. There is running water, but I don’t drink it. Instead I fetch water from the natural spring off Highway 35 and Midway Road. There is electricity, but no Wi-Fi or television. Life here is a little, alternative, I shall say. Alternative in a slightly archaic fashion, but by no means, difficult. I only notice my gradual slip into this alternativeness when I open the door to the outside world and along with it comes a want for “normalcy” that has become unfamiliar to me.
This morning I feel the chill of February, light the fire, and crawl back under the covers to wait for the cabin to fill with a heat that is opposite of the bone chilling cold. The cold up here is biting, cruel, and with the accompaniment of wind that fuels it’s wrath, freezes exposed skin. But the heat that radiates from this cast iron stove is bone warming and dense. It walks in and with a deep voice announces itself, “I’m here.” This heat, this wondrous gift, came from the woods out back. Every piece harvested from labor these hands wielded thoughtfully. Trees have been systematically chosen applying minimal impact to the environment. The blow-down of 2016 assisted and taught me more about how quickly poplar becomes punky, and how to fix a chainsaw, than I ever thought I would know.
I had always wanted to live in Duluth. I’ve had a fascination with this part of Minnesota since I was a child. From the Twin Cities, we would drive north to visit grandma and grandpa in their large house that occupied us children with offerings of secret nooks and cubbies we would crawl into and investigate like explorers. Now, I realize I continue to do the same only with this land I temporarily claim. I can’t truly call it mine, it seems more appropriate to say it has adopted me and she reveals her secrets slowly, as if she’s telling me a long drawn out story of love and death, decay and rebirth. I know where the swamp areas are, where dreaded mosquitoes breed in force. If you walk straight east about 800 feet and jaunt to the left, a grove of cedars will meet you. Poplar is the most prevalent, sugar maple the most captivating in the fall, and evergreens of all sorts keep their color year round which brings balance to the white coat of winter. Getting to know these woods has been like learning Braille I imagine, only I use my entire body. Feet learn to walk on the tops of mossy rocks through the shallow swamp areas, knees find refuge on mounds above spring puddles, hands dig into dirt removing rocks that seem to be born annually from winter freeze mating with earth.
I’ve been forced to learn about house maintenance as well. Some lessons I hadn’t set out to learn but couldn’t find a reason to pay someone to do something I had the ability, or stubbornness, to do myself. I’ve learned to wait for the wind to die down before carrying a four-by-eight-foot piece of sheet rock from the garage to the house. I’ve learned to always, without a doubt, no second thought, cap off dangling electrical wires. I’ve learned old 2x4s are truly 2 inches by 4 inches and will not marry up evenly with the new and improved 1½-by-3½-inch boards. I’ve learned I can disassemble my compound saw, find the little black electrical line that became disconnected, secure it, and carry on with the task at hand. I’ve learned to mud and tape drywall, and sand, and sand, and sand when mud was not feathered appropriately. And I’ve learned that copper pipe erodes when in contact with concrete causing propane to escape and alert the nose senses into panic.
Which brings us back to heat, one of the most important elements in the Northland it seems. I try not to use my furnace, not when the forest has provided me with an ample supply of minimal cost, labor intensive, time consuming, bone warming, heat. I try to explain this position to folks who do not heat with wood; they don’t always understand. But when they join me in the woods to help, or seek a new adventure, or simply get lost for awhile, I watch the feeling flow over them like a winter comforter. It is the feeling of accomplishment. A sense of pride that comes from tender, yet aggressive, purposeful work. It is earned sweat that drips over itchy mosquito bites and a compulsion to stack wood as organized as need be. For a moment, they become attached to the world in a way they hadn’t before. And when they come back in December, when they stoke the fire and pick up a log, I hope they hold a piece of wood in their hand and wonder if this particular one held a bead of their sweat. Or maybe, they wonder if this knot was the one the maul fought with; strength and stubbornness prevailing in the end.
This land has become my cubby, a secret nook in grandma’s stairwell. I fold in here and get lost amongst the trees. Not lost in direction, I know the woods and its paths, and share memories with the forest. There is where I had a campfire and burned brush. There is where the trees were tangled and I crawled up, chainsaw in hand, to clear foliage. There is where the wolf tracks were, there the deer, and there is where the dogs cornered a porcupine and learned, though did not absorb, a valuable lesson nature tried to impart. I get lost in thought, lost in task, lost in a breeze that brings the scent of fall. This kind of lost, I hope to always find myself in. And, I hope, others find themselves as lost in what they love as I do when I’m in the extended arms of this world.
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