Ten Thousand Years of Woodsmoke in October

Last night I was watching the sunset from the balcony. It was cooling down, and I’d lit the woodstove at lunchtime. The last leaves were still beautiful, and I caught a whiff of smoke on the breeze. It all just seemed so right, so comfortable. Somehow, that bit of woodsmoke made the dying year and the coming storm (tonight the wind is howling and I’ve lost count of the power flickers) not a threat, but a promise, a promise of lights in the dark, reading and planning for spring by the stove. A big woodpile and food stashed everywhere make fall a happy, safe and comfortable time. It’s not 200 years ago. The propane truck will come. The grocery store will be full. We’ll pay for it by making computers shove words around. How abstract can you get? But still, it just feels good to be ready.

Then I wondered. Is this really culture, or is it in my bones? For millennia, being prepared really mattered. It doesn’t matter anymore. For my family, it hasn’t mattered for at least 150 years. The memes run thin in our culture – both left and right deprecate homesteading and living with the seasons. It’s disdained for different reasons, but the result is the same. But those memes won’t go away.

I’ve read Pinker, and Wilson, and a bunch of others. They mention how comfortable we all are in an African savannah with scattered trees and a water hole, which is just the view that my chainsaw and a family of beavers have created off the balcony. I’m sold on the thesis.

But I kept thinking. Maybe the smell of woodsmoke went back to Africa too. With the firewood piled taller than my head, and the potatoes in the cellar didn’t. Nor did they come from the ‘progressives’ or the abrahamist loonies, or corporate America or the post-modernists.

I thought of how long that smell of woodsmoke had meant comfort and safety when the grey clouds flew across the autumn sky. Most of my ancestors came from northern Europe. In round, numbers it’s 10,000 years, 500 generations since the glaciers left. Further, it’s a safe bet that those ancestor’s ancestors lived someplace where the leaves fell and the water froze before they followed the glaciers north.

My computer says that if feeling good because the woodpile was big and the cellar full gave you a 1% better chance of leaving kids, then in 500 generations there’s a 99.3% chance I’m here because of that feeling. Besides, the realistic number is 1500 generations, not 500 (38000 years since Homo Sapiens sapiens moved into the lands of winter). That’s plenty of time for fall to get its harvest magic (hunter gatherers also harvest for the winter), time enough for a tall woodpile and a basket of potatoes to feel as good as a pond seen through trees, or a snug box does to my cat.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t mean much. I’ve been studying to be a curmudgeon for 30 years. I don’t need a reason to live where and how I choose to live. But now I’ve got one. The same reason to throw in the teeth of those who think I should chase a corporate career and a 7 figure bank account, and those who think I should live in an urban condo and try to have everything outside the city limits be a nature preserve.

Nope, I’m not sorry. I’ll take my house in the woods, open in the summer, snug in the winter, where I can just see the smoke of the neighbors chimney. Ten thousand years, and will that woodpile really last till May?

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