In town I’ll soon be known as the Kindling Lady.
And with good reason. Even in a coastal Maine community where individuality is revered, I may be going too far.
Fallen branches, pine scraps from construction sites, dead limbs – I can’t resist taking them home for our wood stove. The pickings are so rich in my community that I can afford to be choosy, harvesting only the ones I consider gorgeous: clean, straight, no moss, just the right size for our wood stove. According to what I’ve been told by townspeople, soon I’ll be able to harvest only what’s sticking out of the snow. They probably will be the gnarly, asymmetrical ones, hard to carry and harder to make behave in a small firebox.
So on certain days, the ones where the air is nippy and sky is gray and I see whitecaps on Penobscot Bay, I figure I had better scoop up an extra armful, good for two or three more fires. On those special walks when I’m at the apex of my wood-gathering fervor, my husband strolls a good 25 yards behind me. He will have none of my pastime; his body language announces, “I’m not with her.”
When I’m out walking in my now-hometown, I carry my booty in a canvas bag or, if just a handful, in my hand. I’ve seen more than one Castiner look at me with puzzlement. “Is that kindling?” one bearded gentleman called to me across the street. I couldn’t tell whether his smile was one of incredulity or admiration. Others that pass me on the street with my canvas sack full of sticks just smile indulgently.
I think I’m being frugal and a good steward of the Earth. I fear, however, that I’m becoming a minor topic of dinner
And I wonder why I’m seemingly alone in this endeavor. Why isn’t everyone picking up kindling? This fall I have seen Mainers young and old digging clams and picking up apples fallen from trees near the road, taking advantage of the state’s bounty. But not foraging for kindling. After all, Maine is the most wooded state in the nation. (It’s a sentence I highlighted in a promotional brochure we read in our Colorado home, as enticing as all-you-can-eat lobster.)
Wood is a free resource that provides heat and light and doesn’t have to come from a store. Isn’t that part of the Maine spirit, part self-reliance, part defiance, part pride and devotion to the soil? I would no more buy supermarket fatwood to start my fires than I would ask where the local grocer stocks Oregon blueberries.
Maybe it’s just that Mainers take all that bounty for granted. Maybe some have their secret kindling source, some business that sells them wood scraps for $5 a pickup load. But that’s information too precious to share, especially with someone like me, “From Away.” Either that or there’s a neighbor with a small business selling wood they would rather support. And it’s even possible, I suppose, that this avoidance of kindling harvesting is a coastal phenomenon. Perhaps if I go inland, I’ll see whole families choosing just the right branches to start their January fires.
I will admit that in part, my infatuation with wild kindling is just part of my self-imposed education in being a Mainer. I can’t yet identify the kinds of trees from which I gather the limbs; I don’t know whether I’m burning cedar or spruce. And that’s just the tip of my ignorance about this state’s natural world. Perhaps this wood-picking is my apprenticeship. It’s possible that this is some kind of Zen exercise and that in the process I’ll find some kindling spirits, nods of encouragement, even an insider’s tale about a mother lode wood supply up the road.
Picking up sticks is a simple exercise, after all. Hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere. I’m just starting from the ground up – literally.
Jill Scott is a former Denver Post columnist who moved from Colorado with her husband last fall and is teaching writing at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. She is working on a book titled “Why Teachers Don’t Get Respect.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.