Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
On a winter walk, in the neighborhood of Divine Corners, I’m struck by the wide variety of woodpiles. Each stacked bundle of foresight and hopeful provision has its own character. Some are heaps: the wood lies in a sprawling pile as if dumped on the spot, occasionally graced with a tarp. Others are standard-issue woodpiles, the stacked variety, often housed in little lean-tos of their own. My neighbor swears by criss-cross stacking, in alternating perpendicular lines, to increase air flow, maintain dryness, and prevent ice from fusing the wood together.
Then there are those supernumerary piles, where the wood’s been worked into elaborate designs. One such, just down the road, braids larger and smaller logs into an intricate pattern, so that the smaller pieces run like a vein of ore, in an undulating line, across the length of the stack. It reminds me of the layering of those stone fences one comes across in the woods, that are so cannily put together they stand for ages without mortar. In this particular woodpile, the larger logs are supported and buttressed by the smaller in a way that lends stability and elegance to the whole. I marvel at it. It wasn’t made for public display, yet ingenuity and creative force have been lavished upon it for its own sweet sake. A woodpile, after all, is built to be disassembled; its end is its own consumption.
Wasp nests, beaver dams, ant hills: all these intricate structures manifest nature’s intelligence, an ordering imperative that drives human culture as well. In the well-made woodpile one can find analogues to the canny fitting together of verse and chorus in song forms, to metrical and rhyme schemes, to the repetitive and circular structures of story-telling. When Bob Dylan composed the “John Wesley Harding” songs, he noted “there’s no line that you can stick your finger through, there’s no hole in any of the stanzas,” figuring words as a kind of lumber that can be fitted together with varying degrees of tautness and economy, suggestive of moral as well as aesthetic excellence. Allen Ginsberg, parsing Dylan’s assessment, said the songs held “no wasted language, no wasted breath…all the imagery [is] functional rather than ornamental.” The distinction between the functional and the ornamental is perhaps less absolute than we make it, given nature’s extravagance in generating forms and cycles that extend over time as well as space.
In the case of the elegant woodpile, the functional and the ornamental fuse into a seamless unity disrupted only by the eventual dismantling of the stack. We are driven to design; we are form-creating creatures, the products of a form-creating environment. The mind, a made thing, makes things that reflect its own making, and the forms it makes will, like the woodpile, eventually dissolve and metamorphose: old stories and songs are forgotten, just as old nests and hives are abandoned, their material recycled to become part of some new creation, old elements rejoined in new relation. All that we construct lives for its day and is gone, yet the impulse to build is contingent upon nothing but its own intrinsic delight.
The woodpile, constructed to be consumed, will disappear, layer by layer, log by log, over the course of the winter. If it’s a well-built woodpile, it will be transformed into heat with a minimum of damp sputter; it will spread warmth through the house; it will sustain life. As I pass those houses on my winter walks, I smell the distinct scent of woodsmoke rising from chimneys, a woodpile dispersed into air. You can breathe it in.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com.