Two Tramps in Mud Time
“The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul
I spent on the unimportant wood.”
From the poem by Robert Frost.
By Tim Otis
What do you call that, when a bunch of things that are seemingly unrelated, happening to you at the same time, all come together at once? No, not a car accident. Serendipity, I think. Making sense of our lives takes patience, humility, and maybe a friend who can point out what, to them, is obvious. My wife Kathy did that for me yesterday. Here’s what she helped me see.
Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time” is about his love of splitting firewood, two strangers who want to take his job for pay, and the challenge to find things in life that are both personally fulfilling, and filling a need in the world; The task of combining one’s avocation and vocation. It is something we all struggle with, I imagine. I encourage you to read the poem. I share Frost’s love for splitting wood, and this week, in Oregon’s “mud time,” Kathy and I were out in the woods cutting up, splitting, and stacking in our old pickup, next winter’s supply of firewood. These were three perfect Douglas-fir trees that had blown down in a wind storm about a year ago. Wood splitting is an activity that combines heavy physical activity with a Zen-like state of placing your mind where you can, without thinking, drop the splitting maul exactly where you want, time after time, with an ease and rhythm that defies explanation. It is a bit like shooting free-throws. After lots and lots of practice, the muscle memory takes over, and it is almost effortless. Of course, we have a very nice wood splitter, which runs on electricity, and can do most of the work for me. It is the self-imposed replacement, when my arms tire, for the task I love.
Also, this week, we are hiring a contractor to build open sheds on the side of our metal pole-barn shop. One side will be for firewood storage. It is situated so that the afternoon summer sun can bake this wood down to a nice 10% moisture content, but the winter rains will stay off. My “temporary” firewood storage areas of the last 20 years will finally be dismantled, the tattered tarps thrown away. At this late date, it is a new start for firewood storage.
Part of the motivation for all this firewood activity is the amazing wood fireplace insert that my daughter and son-in-law built into their new home. It is such a pleasure to build a fire in that modern marvel of heating. It has a catalytic after-burn chamber, burns with essentially no smoke, and contains a room-air circulation system. Kathy and I have been assisting, a couple of days each week, with taking our grand-daughters to school and back, and to soccer games and practices. We take them firewood almost every week. I usually keep a fire going in that wood stove. I tell them it is to save electricity, but in fact, it is mostly for the joy of sitting in front of the fire, reading, and watching the rain fall outside the window.
Last fall, we had a party out on our deck, with good friends, good food, and a fire in the wood fire-pit. It had already rained plenty by then, so the wildfire danger was over. This spring we are planning another one, hopefully between rain storms. These gatherings around the fire, have become, I suppose, a metaphor for all kinds of activities that draw us together. Maybe for you it is your faith group, your Fantasy Football friends, or your co-workers. It’s time, I think, to value and bring back whatever it is that creates this community for each of us. I like to build a fire to stare at, warm my hands, and let the conversation go where it will. I can watch that firewood that we cut, split, dried, and stacked give back the warmth that has been slowly stored there by the sun over the decades of my life.
Yet, over the course of our lives, we don’t always get the job we want, the home we desire, and don’t always have our needs met. We suffer the loss of friends and loved ones. We can’t often combine our avocation and our vocation. Sometimes the need to strike out in anger or disappointment can be overwhelming. I know it can be for me. But yesterday I was reminded of what I loved, and what I needed. To ease the stress and pain, I put on my gloves, grabbed the splitting maul, turned off all the noise in my brain, set a round on the chopping block, and let the wood have it all.