Back in graduate school, I spent one winter living in a remote cabin not far from the Blackfoot River. I choose the location in order to focus and finish up my masters thesis, but like many new-to-Montanans, I became distracted with a rather serious addiciction. From a used tool dealer, a mechanic working out of his shipping-container shop, I purchased a rebuilt Stihl chainsaw. It was my first, and it was expensive. To pay off the debt, I figured I'd sell some firewood. This began a descent into a rather unfortunate pattern. I'd drive up to the Potomac bar with large rented dump truck filled to the brim with freshly cut rounds; rather than make it back to the cabin (and back to that thesis), I'd wind up selling firewood right away, either while catching up with the locals at the gas pump or fueling up on free peanuts at the Highway 200 Bar. And before I knew it, I had a business with about 30 customers all demanding firewood during a harsh winter. I didn't finish my thesis that winter (or even the next), but in the deliveries to home after home, I had a chance to see how an entire cross-section of people lived. While I certainly delivered to many well-equipped homes, I prided myself on giving good deals to those in need: people, well, like us: without enough insulation, some inadequate housing, and those in need. There was a time or two that I got more than I bargained for, for instance, when an elderly woman told me I had to stack all the three cords of wood; that was apparenetly what we agreed. On those nights I didn't even make the gas station, let alone last call at the bar. And, in driving around one valley, slowly, in a large truck, you hear things. You get to know how people are really doing. People whisper to you at the bar, or at the town pump, or when you are invited in, to warm up in someone's space, on a minus twenty degree day when either your bar oil won't flow or your dog (that's right, I had a husky then too) dug into your lunchbox and ate all the food in the truck.
It started out as an innocent question, a business proposition, really. How does your neighbor get his firewood?, I'd ask.
That's when I'd start hearing of the people who just couldn't afford firewood. It shook me. These were people who I'd met. They'd hunt, fish, or eek out of a living doing logging or guiding, or welding, or building, or a combination of all of it. These were the people who taught me how to process food, sharpen a chainsaw just right, put on tire chains, and get out of any kind of jamb that rural living could offer up: how to put out an electrical fire on quick notice, how to jumpstart any vehicle, what glowplugs were, how to dismantle a building in short order, how to stack hay. These were people who let me listen to them, hear their stories, and photograph them.
So, I did what anyone would do. I became a firewood elf of sorts, delivering a few rounds, a Suburu trunkfull of firewood here and there, quitely, well after dark when I needed a break from my thesis, or I just needed to get out.
This cold winter, when Mary and I got the farm truck stuck four or five times in one day when trying to get wood up the West Fork, and then down Highway 43, somewhere over the pass between here and Wisdom, I thought of those jambs we've all been in, and those we got out of. As any enterprising farmer may do, I got on facebook, and proceeded to make deals to trade my wood saw cutting time, to cut off other people's log decks, in return for some firewood. We had a hard run at this, cutting about 11 cords of firewood to get about 3 cords. Mary single-handedly stacked six cords of someone else's wood in one day. With our cold winter, and working in the shop, and keeping the barn warm, we are now again, a bit low. We'll figure something out, as we always seem to.
But let me be honest. During these darkest times of the year both Mary and I were in a bit of a funk. While we always fielded farm calls, and the egg hotline (as we call it), the voicemails from friends got harder to return. It's not just because we were probably fixing something, working on tractor wires or puzzling over projects. It's really because answering that question, 'How are you doing?' seemed harder and more complicated than it should be. And at times, when we were scared, or frustrated by our own living, thawing the pipes, or other projects, we didn't want to face the truth. We didn't have a good answer.
And get this: it turns out that in our own search and asking others what they do when they find themsleves in a dire firewood shortage, we found out that there are firewood elves right here, in our own valley. There's at least one community firewood bank, for those in need, and possibly more. There are neighbors who lend us their log splitters, and all you have to do is ask at the gas station about firewood or The Bitterroot Brewery and someone will share their coveted source with you. This makes us feel like deep Bitterrooters, like whatever we burn or what we believe, we are all in this darn melting pot of a valley together. It makes us proud really, to farm here.
And lately, as we turn from gathering wood, we are in the shop and at the desk: making, building, designing, creating. From an appliance scrap yard, we purchased a standup freezer and wired in a temperature and hunidity controller to create a germination chamber. We've organized the shop with oodles of bins, from salvaged plywood, for all kinds of farming hardware and tools. Our crop planning is deep underway, and we are doing germination trials. We are busily designing the new garden and bed layout, and today, when we sat down with Dan at Bouilla over coffee to go over our growing plan, our varities, and announce another hoophouse build, we were all brimming with excitement. I could barely hold down my coffee.
You see, we farm because it changes us. Before we knew anything and long before we became Bitterrooters, there was one weekend when we stopped neighbors from burning leaves, and brought the leaves (for mulch) over to our rented plot. That was the fall I knew I really wanted to farm with Mary; and back when we thought it was all much easier, I found myself falling in love with her wide eyed amazement of surprise harvests.
And while firewood, and the way it forces us to connect to the land, and to one another, has a certain magic, it's the realization that we all rely on natural resources that hits home. We all shape this community. This landscape is the real power and mystery. Our best endeavors make us foolish at the worst times, and while we stay young, these hard lessons help us grow, and we believe, help us grow up, better, stronger, to give us hope, heart, if not sore muscles and backbone.
Despite the fact that it's raining, stuff is outside and that our kitchen is literally freezing, there is a lot of innovation, planning and work here. It's a good work, and a good life. Even if it's rough right now, we see ever-increasing possibility of it all getting better, or making a good living, of providing good food, and being part of a community.