Lessons In Rewilding the Herd –
Chop Wood, Carry Water
Winter came sudden and succinct to the valley, after a long and lulling autumn. Where do I begin? The crisp, low, golden light heaving itself over the snowy mountaintops? The squeak and crunch of light snow on the driveway? The curious and guilty sensation of bathing in woodfire heat, while outside the horses eyelashes and whiskers freeze into tiny icicles? The way dry, frozen logs jump apart with a satisfying crack when you surprise them with the swing of your axe? The new appreciation for 5 gallon buckets when the outside hose and faucet freeze?
Or maybe I’ll begin at the boundary between life and death, which grows thinner and thinner as the world sinks deeper and deeper into sleep around us. Like the rest of British Columbia, we’re having a cold snap. For us in the North West, that means -20 to -30 degrees Celsius, where your nose hairs freeze on the in-breath and stick your nostrils together, and your face hurts, and the car won’t start, and the horses have poo frozen solid into their hooves, and the chickens huddle miserably under the heat lamp cursing your cheerful ministering. There is both the calm understanding that deep cold is something very normal that countless beings survive each and every year, and the quiet churn of something like alarm (sometimes exhilaration) that surviving requires attending to, and that a missed step can erase that boundary one moment to another.
I could just as easily call this piece, Chop Water, Carry Wood, because the water freezes so hard some nights that only an axe will punch through, and the two wood stoves require armloads, boxloads, truckloads of wood to be moved, cut, stacked, burned, repeat. It’s new to me, coming from a temperate climate to here, and it’s interesting to watch my assumptions, ideals, and dreams change shape as they merge with reality. “Chop wood, carry water” used to be an adage to me, a poetic way of referring to the work we all must do in our lives, even when it’s mundane or inefficient or repetitive. Now, I don’t chop wood and carry water to be good, or to be dutiful, or to be humble, or as part of a pastoral scene – I chop and carry because if I forget, the cold will make short work of us all. It’s not, as it turns out, particularly romantic. But how could I have known until I’d lived it?
Change is an untameable beast. As 2016 came to a close, I looked back at the wild time we earthlings have been through. In a short 12 moon cycles we’ve all, undoubtedly, been through significant shift, turmoil, loss and regrowth. Those of us lucky to be living outside of war and protest and disaster zones are still feeling the universal theme of destruction and creation reverberating through our cells. No one is untouched. Grief and uncertainty weave together with possibility and delight. We stand on the brink that we prayed for and feared equally.
In the space of a year, I have come from a small southern island to a big, frozen north. From boarding my horses at the umpteenth uncertain location to holding the deed to oodles of land still dizzyingly unexplored. From ending a nearly nine year relationship with one man to diving headfirst into something fresh with another. From the slow foggy depression of concussion-recovery (I hit my head last year and am still unraveling the lessons of that) to a new sense of grounded empowerment. From working in a grocery store to working for an innovative, inspiring non-profit. From living independently to living in family and community. We have a new dog, a new horse, a new truck, two new goats (hopefully newly pregnant) and of 16 new chickens, 14 that remain. New fences, new boots, new routines, new priorities. None of these seem dispensable; each and every new thing is dear to me. They have cost a lot, in time, energy and money. Much of this has required leaps of faith and big losses. Very little of it has been specifically happy, calm, or stable.
Even so, I wrestle with my incredible good fortune as I hear of hardship, abuse, illness and suicide in my own community, as I watch Canadian leadership approve crude oil pipelines and fracked gas terminals, as rubber bullets and tear gas fly at Standing Rock, as bizarre and troubling politics unfold for our American friends, as heartbreaking reports come in from those besieged and abandoned to terrible death in Aleppo, as I wonder how much of the world’s suffering can pass through my one little body…
I remind myself daily to relax into the warmth and love of my home and the staggering beauty of the full moon. I feel the horses calling on clear nights, when Spero dances my strange, spontaneous dances with me and then lets me kneel in front of him and bury my face in the impossibly thick pelt of his chest while the other three graze in clouds of frozen steam all around. I watch my mother delight in her new yearling, an awkward little feral Quarter Horse who had been through more than his share of life already. She calls him Falcon and he comes to his name. He lets her touch his neck. He doesn’t like carrots but nibbles them politely anyway. She wants nothing from him and thinks he is beautiful, and so he is. The world around us is shocking and gorgeous.
And so with no real conclusion to come to, I’d like to pass on winter’s blessings to you all. May you simplify, receive, and let go. May you know what is important and what cannot be done at this time. May you embrace the entirety of it all, or at least try to. May the wild that calls to you be gentle and generous as much as it is fierce. And may your wood-chopping and water-carrying, whatever that might be, get you through the hard times and keep you hale and hearty for the good times.
And now I must go help defrost the car and learn how to install a block heater and check on the chickens and haul some more water and look at the mountains…
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