Friday, July 02, 2004

The Fire

The first 14 weeks of 1978 I spent serving a fire. I was as ardent as a new lover in my tender care of the fire for we had a bargain: I would spend hours each day planning for and working towards its health and longevity while the fire in its turn would keep me alive.

I was alone deep in the mountains of Eastern Washington, winter-caretaking some casual friends' recently women-built summer cabin. This cabin had unfinished walls, not-so-clear plastic on the windows, an upstairs bedroom with a roll of plastic for confining the heat to the one-room downstairs living space, and two stoves, an ancient wood-burning cook stove and a converted 55 gallon-drum main heating wood stove. About five years earlier I'd sat in a mountaintop outhouse in Aspen, looking at the Rockies through the glassless cutout window, thinking, "I'd like to live like this." So here I was, up a long dirt trail off a little-used road, without a car, without a phone, without plumbing or water, and without electricity. I certainly was "living like this."

The large stove would, when filled to capacity, hold a fire for about three hours. As evening temperatures rarely went above 20, and often were zero or lower, this three hour limit, like death, wonderfully concentrated the mind. I cut kindling on the porch with a hatchet, developing a stroke that could sell knives at the fair, resulting in nearly translucent slices of wood that sprang apart under the hatchet, releasing their bonded tension with a satisfying "ping!" I cut the logs that were left for my use with a chainsaw, then further separated them with a sledge and wedge and again with an ax, sweating and stripping in the bright snow with Bob Marley and the Wailers singing, "If you are a big tree / We are a small ax," on the cheap cassette player. When the logs were gone I pulled up the ones that insulated the underside of the cabin and cut them, too. I frequently reminded myself, "You're cutting wood with a chainsaw in the middle of nowhere so if you make a mistake you will die." When the logs from underneath the house had been consumed by the fire I went logging in the nearby gully where many fallen trees had settled over the years. These trees held their tension against each other and closely observing these relationships was critical. I remember standing on a slowly bouncing tree while shearing off another tree above and saying to myself, "You'll be all right if you always pay attention." I thought, "This must be how climbers feel."

So I fed the cook stove, which gave me my daily hot meal of brown rice with butter and cheese and canned vegetables which, with alfalfa sprouts, constituted my every dinner, and on this same stove I heated snow that I shoveled and carried into a ten-gallon galvanic basin which allowed me a kind of bath every three days. When I needed drinking water I hiked up thtough the trees to a slow-running spring about a half mile up the hill from the cabin. I carried two five gallon containers, resting while they slowly filled from the stream, then carrying their forty pounds in each hand down the hill, 50 paces at a time followed by a brief stretch, until I reached the cabin, emptied them into a drum, then turn and repeated the pattern until the drum was filled.

The cabin's owners were in the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to feed the fire (to beat the three hour limit). After one night of that I instead settled into the routine of rebuilding the fire each morning and after a time I ceased to marvel that the four inches of water in the dogs' bowl had frozen solid overnight. Of course, after a time spring came and instead of constantly keeping the fire I could sit outside next to the snag and watch its American kestrel inhabitants set up nest keeping. In May I was relieved of all further fire keeping when one of the cabin's owners came to stay and I took the first bus I could find to Tucson to visit my Bob Marley friend.

I never returned to fire keeping and I never talked about it much. When I went places with a group of women I didn't join the (sometimes friendly) competition for best fire builder honors. The fire had given me generosity freely offered. I had nothing to prove.