Rites of Passage: Growing Down

It never occurred to me until lately that this odd medium of time has a kind of reverse gear, a peculiar force of gravity, if you will.

Growing “up” we look forward to with great anticipation. It promises new opportunities as we become stronger physically, new challenges as we grow smarter intellectually, new perplexities as we grow wiser of spirit. We welcome rites of passage that mark our moving up into new and richer territory. We take control over larger boundaries, shoulder bigger loads of responsibility and opportunity, go a little farther into the unknown of adulthood than we’ve ever been before.

This week, for the first time since I cut my first trunk-load of wood with a bow saw in 1975, I’ve paid other people to cut my firewood, and this has been a rite of passage, an early marker of a new age.

Now I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you. But for me, this has been a first occasion to relinquish control, to hand the wheel in this small way to another who drives a part of my life in a place where I have always been master. It is an acknowledgment of dependence. And it has not passed by unnoticed.

If there is a growing up in life, there also is a growing down. It always seemed a concern for everybody else, for our parents’ generation, not mine. It’s not that I haven’t known to expect a  latter-day senescence on the back side of things, but knowing hasn’t made it any easier to adapt, now that this one small need from others whispers that my time is coming.

With “store bought” firewood, we will be warm next winter with a higher quality woodpile than we’ve gotten on our own, cutting culls and windfall from our own place or those places that nature and weather and the kindness of friends have brought us since 1975 as each winter approaches and I’ve wondered if I could gather enough. I always have. And I could tell you the history, some connection with person and forest season and events in our lives from every piece of wood as I loaded it in the stove of a January morning.

“This piece of oak is from the Sharps who gave us their wood when they moved from the house in Check to the apartment in Blacksburg. I wonder how they’re doing.”

“And this big split came from that tall maple that collapsed back up the valley along the New Road, broken off rotten at the base after we had a little ice. Mostly, it’s as solid as it can be up top. See all the sapsucker holes?”

“This is some of that locust without the bark on it that we dug out of the leaves up on the ridge. It must have been on the ground since our first winter burning firewood three decades ago, still solid as it can be. Took us a lot of miles to the cord to fetch it down off the hill, up out of the creek to the truck to the house to the stove. It heated us at least a half dozen times, didn’t it?”

It was as often the wood itself as it was the suddenly interesting news item or photograph (sometimes, my own picture!) that jumped off the crumpled newsprint page that gave me momentary pause in my morning fire-building. But not any more.

The wood we burn next year will be generic. It will be anonymous, rootless, unplaced oak and hickory, locust and cherry. It will have many BTUs of heat, but it will not warm me in the same way as what I have located, lifted, loaded and split myself. I will not know this wood. It will be mere commodity. And I have to learn to let it go.

“Lord be with us and guide us in the temptations of youth, the challenges of middle life and the indignities of age.” This was the way one of our former ministers often phrased it in his prayers with the congregation. I gave that third stage of life little thought when I was forty.

Twenty years later, I’m thinking more about a different kind of rite of passage and beginning to learn a new kind of opportunity that comes as we grow down, to let others do for us what we’ve always done for ourselves. To everything, there is a season.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Yes, you have to learn to let it go, Fred. I have had to admit I am not Superwoman (by not trying to move heavy furniture, etc. There comes a time….

  2. There’s always the thought in the back of our minds that it happens to others, and we’ll stay young, strong and vital for always.
    But now you can say, “This is from that load I bought from that young guy so he could feed his family” and wonder what stories they could tell you.

  3. I was thinking… “wood without a story” but Carrie’s right, it’s just someone else’s story now. You’ll carry on, though– with many other pursuits. Did you see Endment’s quote: “One of the many things no one tells you about aging is that it is such a nice change from being young.” — Unknown

    Well, ‘xpect we’ll get used to it!

  4. Been thinkin some of those same things, Fred, as I approach the end of my 7th decade this spring. Not as it relates to firewood per se, but the same thoughts. How to manage one’s diminishing resources with grace and peace, and to yet be an inspiration to others and a contributor to society…yah, I ponder those things about daily. Maybe we all need to share our discoveries, hmm?

  5. Just be glad as the thermometer heads south this week that you have a good supply of wood for the stove…You’ll be using it. And like Carrie said the story is still there, just once removed and a little harder to hear…I bet it’ll be telling you all about it as the wood crackles in the stove…If you listen.

  6. You’re doing plenty of heavy lifting (your book) and chopping (words) in your head to make up for not burning your own wood. It’s refreshing to hear you blogging about life and the weather again . . . it’s how I stay in touch with Floyd when I’m away . . . with all the hubbub surrounding the book, it’s easy to forget one’s roots.