the art of stacking wood

I don’t know what I was expecting at the contemporary art museum, but a wall of stacked firewood? No, I was not expecting that.

I was immediately intrigued. It reminded me of home, all the firewood I had cut and stacked behind the ramshackle house with the big fireplace where I raised my kids in Colorado. The house wasn’t so much home, as the fire was. Story time together on the couch, the fire snapping softly; cuddled in a cozy chair with a small boy in jammies, little feet warm and sleepy head nodding. The firewood brought all those memories back as I slowly stepped along the length of the indoor woodpile. It stood cordoned off with a silver cable, my earlier robust life held two feet at bay from where I walked now.

This particular woodpile was built through a long-distance love affair of sorts. Two artists, both indigenous women from opposite sides of the Earth, connected through their written words an idea of hearth and home and family. One envisioned the woodpile for the other; the other chose and laid the wood in neat rows, supporting the one’s offered vision. It was a simple gift, split cedar given and received, given by both, received by both, in physical and spiritual form.

They wrote each other letters, these women who had never met, never seen each other.

The Sami artist in Sweden wrote:

How strange it is, having put you to work without us meeting yet. Not one word spoken.

I am picturing you putting logs on top of the other. Bending your back, lifting…. Small bits and splinters cover the gallery floor…. The sweetness of forest filling the room. An unexpected strength of this sculpture.

She said the exhibit piece, this work, was about dialogue. “An excuse really, for engaging in a conversation, too private for most strangers.”

During these moments,
I perceive the other person as an undiscovered sea,
and I plunge.

It is as a necessity for the survival of our peoples. For the human species. Many men and women of my Nation have drowned alone in their own seas.

I have the urge to talk to another mother. A mother who carries the weight of the past but has her sight on the horizon. Is that you?

What does it mean?

I wish I could see your face. Please tell me, how has it been for you? How old is your child now? Is your body the same?

Is anything the same?

My son is a little more than a year now, and I’m overwhelmed and exhausted.

And all the love. The love!

The Sami artist talked of feeling like she understood nothing before her son came into her life. As if she suddenly woke up with a different brain. “Or is it a different heart?”

The stacked cedar wood holds itself together as if wrapping its arms around itself, holding itself snug, arms to ribs to achingly tired heart. The wood is old, old trees bent to wind and sun, seeking a drink of water and a sheltering hill. The scent is strength, cedar oil preventing rot and insect, giving a soft sheen to the shaggy splits of firewood.

The Dine` artist in New Mexico, the Navajo woman, wrote:

The first time I read your letter I cried. Everything you described is so true to me.

I am so nervous, even though I have been stacking wood all winter – for my grandmother.
And my baby is quiet and calm as long as I am busy and she can watch.

My daughter just turned one year old as well.
I have never been so in love with anyone or could I be as in love, as I am with her.

Indeed I have changed.

She talks of her grandmother. Of it being best her baby never meet the father. Of Dog, her companion and extra guardian of her baby. “Dog and Baby speak a language that I do not understand.”

To me, this is what will make the work complete. After all, who am I stacking wood for, if not my grandma and baby? And what will be our constant from outside to inside, but Dog?

The contemporary museum is a quiet place. I look at the wall of wood, stacked for grandma, for baby, imagining Dog trotting outside to inside.

I remember latching a screen door’s hook, high enough above my three-year-old daughter’s head that she could not reach it. Firewood piled on the front porch. More in the wood shed.

I am indeed changed. It’s good to know.

I feel sometimes like I have been stacking wood all winter. As if I am back there, watching the deer silently cross the snowy pasture, my breath a fog as I bring in more firewood.

That is motherhood. Trimming dead tree limbs and cutting them to length. Splitting the lengths and stacking them under a shelter to keep them dry. Collecting kindling, always collecting kindling. Matches near the fireplace. Ashpit shoveled clean.

Laying the wood on the andirons, a lean-to construction of sticks to get started. Breathing life into the fire in the hearth. Adding more, a little at a time, until it is fully aflame.

It all needs air. The trees as they grow, the woodpile to stay dry, the flames we kindle. The sleepy babies we raise to the scent of wood smoke and crisp snow. The exhausted mothers curled up with babies in front of warm fires.

We learn by stacking a wood pile in preparation for winter, honest firewood become a work of dedication, of love – a work of art. The fuel of a life well-lived. The fuel and the life a dialogue, a conversation we have with ourselves, like our breath hanging visible before us as we step outside in winter.