Winter’s Coming, Winter’s Coming

The wide-ranging chapter “House-Warming” seems to center on the concept of leading the simple life. It begins with a discussion of a “humble root” that has been neglected in modern times:

In these days of fatted cattle and waving grain-fields this humble root, which was once the totem of an Indian tribe, is quite forgotten, or known only by its flowering vine; but let wild Nature reign here once more, and the tender and luxurious English grains will probably disappear before a myriad of foes, and without the care of man the crow may carry back even the last seed of corn to the great cornfield of the Indian's God in the southwest, whence he is said to have brought it; but the now almost exterminated ground-nut will perhaps revive and flourish in spite of frosts and wildness, prove itself indigenous, and resume its ancient importance and dignity as the diet of the hunter tribe.

Sounds a little like the argument that scientists are making even today about the reasons why it is important to keep native species from disappearing, doesn’t it?

Thoreau extends his praise of the “humble” to his own cabin:

My dwelling was small, and I could hardly entertain an echo in it; but it seemed larger for being a single apartment and remote from neighbors.

For me, at least, his description of his cabin brings to mind the huge “vacation homes” that are multiplying in the Northwest Forests. You have to wonder why people need that much house out in the forest; isn’t the point of a vacation home to get out in the woods rather than to hole up in some monstrous house watching satellite TV?

Thoreau goes from discussing his modest cabin to the ideal home:

A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird's nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there -- in solitary confinement.

And here I thought the idea of “great room” was contemporary. Of course, the Haida Indians in British Columbia seem to have thought of the idea even earlier than Thoreau. Still, there is something very special about a home that can foster both a sense of family and conserve resources.

It’s obvious that Thoreau shares the feelings about obscenely large houses that I expressed in an earlier entry :

I might visit in my old clothes a king and queen who lived simply in such a house as I have described, if I were going their way; but backing out of a modern palace will be all that I shall desire to learn, if ever I am caught in one.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The chapter ends with praise of the hearth fire, that mainstay of civilization:

How much more interesting an event is that man's supper who has just been forth in the snow to hunt, nay, you might say, steal, the fuel to cook it with! His bread and meat are sweet. Not many people today can take pleasure in such activities obviously, but there is certainly truth in the idea that working out in the cold enhances our pleasure of standing in front of a warm fire.

Like a true conservationist, Thoreau does not take the cutting of wood lightly:

I would that our farmers when they cut down a forest felt some of that awe which the old Romans did when they came to thin, or let in the light to, a consecrated grove (lucum conlucare), that is, would believe that it is sacred to some god.

Our constant exposure to modern conveniences has largely made modern man unaware of the sources of his power, with unexpected results:

The next winter I used a small cooking-stove for economy, since I did not own the forest; but it did not keep fire so well as the open fireplace. Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. It will soon be forgotten, in these days of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes, after the Indian fashion. The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion.

Perhaps we, too sit in front of a fire to stir old memories of distant and simpler times. Sadly enough, there is so much pressure on Western wildernesses that camp fires have been banned in many areas to prevent the destruction of the trees that people have come to experience. A camp stove is really no substitute for a roaring camp fire on a cold night. There is the disturbing sense that some things have been lost forever, never to be regained as man progresses into an unknown future.

Loren

Walden, Chapter 13 House-Warming

When we lived in the country, autumn was the time to stack wood, haul hay for the horses, fill the fruit cupboard with canned peaches, and pears, jams and jellies.

During this earth mother phase I carefully followed my grandmother’s recipes for preserving the harvest. I still use a Kerr recipe booklet written during WW II. “Bring summer freshness to winter needs” it advises.

So reading about Thoreau’s preparations for winter brings back good memories.

I picture him carefully gathering and storing some provisions against the cold winter days. He “goes a graping,” admires cranberries growing, picks up chestnuts.

These nuts, as far as they went, were a good substitute for bread.

Finding a rare ground-nut, (apios tuberosa) inspires him to comment on the power of nature to overcome cultivated fields.

...but let wild nature reign here once more, and the tender and luxurious English grains will probably disappear before a myriad of foes, and without the care of man the crow may carry back even the last seed of corn to the great cornfield of the Indian’s God in the southwest, whence he is said to have brought it; but the now almost exterminated ground-nut will perhaps revive and flourish in spite of frosts and wildness, prove itself indigenous, and resume its ancient importance and dignity as the diet of the hunter tribe....and when the reign of poetry commences here, its leaves and string of nuts may be represented on our works of art.

The autumn colors inspire Thoreau to personification.

...and gradually from week to week the character of each tree came out, and it admired itself reflected in the smooth mirror of the lake.

Then the wasps move into the cabin, but even these cause Thoreau little concern.

The wasps came...and they gradually, disappeared, into what crevices I do not know, avoiding winter and unspeakable cold.

Remember Thoreau had built his cabin and now it is time to finish the fireplace for soon he will move indoors.

When I came to build my chimney I studied masonry.

I picked out as many fireplace bricks as I could find, to save work and waste, and I filled the spaces between the bricks about the fireplace with stones from the pond shore, and also made my mortar with the white sand from the same place.

The chimney is to some extent an independent structure, standing on the ground and rising through the house to the heavens; even after the house is burned it still stands sometime, and its importance and independence are apparent.

Should every apartment in which man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead, where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters? These forms are more agreeable to the fancy and imagination that fresco paintings or other the most expensive furniture. I now first began to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it for warmth as well as shelter.

My dwelling was small,...but it seemed larger for being a single apartment and remote from neighbors.

Obviously Thoreau was going to be able to forage for food throughout the winter and make regular trips to the village for supplies. His cellar is not fully provisioned for the entire winter even for a light eater.


I had in my cellar a firkin (a barrel about a quarter full) of potatoes, about two quarts of peas with the weevil in them, and on my shelf a little rice, a jug of molasses, and of rye and Indian meal a peck each.

Thoreau was an advocate of the “great room,” so popular now in suburban houses. His dream house is one with a great open room that would be shared by everyone present--hardly the plan for a hermit.

I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread-work, which shall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head--useful to keep off rain and snow...


...where the weary traveller may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for house-keeping, where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everything hangs upon its peg that a man should use;

...where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there,--in solitary confinement. Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance.

...the parlor is so far from the kitchen and workshop.

Thoreau describes his house and his desire to finish it before it gets too cold.

I did not plaster till it was freezing weather. ...My house had in the meanwhile been shingled down to the ground on every side. In lathing I was pleased to be able to send home each nail with a single blow of the hammer, and it was my ambition to transfer the plaster from the board to the wall neatly and rapidly.

The days are not completely filled with chores, however. Thoreau spends time watching the formation of the first ice on the pond.

The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow;

The pleasant days of fall grow colder.

At length the winter set in in good earnest, just as I had finished plastering, and the wind began to howl around the house as if it had not had permission to do so till then. Night after night the geese came lumbering in in the dark...

I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast. My employment out of doors now was to collect the dead wood in the forest,...

Having a good stack of firewood is very important in the 1850s. Thoreau preferred burning it in an open fire, having little use for stoves.

It is remarkable what a value is still put upon wood even in this age and in this new country, a value more permanent and universal than that of gold . After all our discoveries and inventions no man will go by a pile of wood...the only question is, how much higher it is to be this year than it was the last.

I can answer Thoreau’s question. A cord of oak wood advertised on the Internet is going for $485. Does that price and the fact wood is for sale on the Net seem surreal to anyone else?

Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.

It was I and Fire that lived there;

But man’s ability to provide warm shelter for himself does free time to create.

Thus he goes a step or two beyond instinct, and saves a little time for the fine arts.

Thoreau, who lived as close to Nature as one could, is aware of man’s frailty in extreme weather. I wonder what he would say about global warming?

We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows; but a little colder Friday, or greater snow, would put a period to man’s existence on the globe.

Thoreau, who has had a stove at some point, advocates the fireplace which provides more than warmth.

It will soon be forgotten, in these days of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes,...The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion. You can always see a face in the fire. The laborer, looking into it at evening, purifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness which they have accumulated during the day...

We build a fire in the fireplace, too.

Diane McCormick

What do you think?