Thursday, January 15, 2009

Snatching Wood, Part 1

I was getting to know about wood. Not the types of trees from which the wood was derived, but that I needed dry seasoned wood, not freshly cut. It was winter on Cape Cod and I was staying at my parents’ house. They were in Florida until April and I was on my own. It was a solar house, with only one alternate source of heat: the wood stove in the living room. So when I went through wood leftover from last winter, I had to find more.

First I went around our yard looking for fallen branches, dead wood, kindling. When I exhausted that supply, I had to spread my net wider. I thought that before I called up some supplier of cut wood, I could get along by scrounging scraps. Every day after I worked on my screenplay I went for a drive. On sunny days it wasn’t a problem: the solar surfaces along the south-facing walls worked to capture the sun’s heat and gently pumped it into the living room and two bedrooms. Also, there was the greenhouse that doubled as a dining room in the summer. This brought in more heat. That was fine, but when the sun set, the house just got cold. And on overcast days it never warmed up.

I finally ran out of both logs and kindling. After spending a few nights shivering in bed under all the blankets, even on top of an electric heating pad, I needed more wood. But I was too cheap to buy it. So I continued to scavenge. February was one of the quietest months on Cape Cod, an area that thrives on a summer economy. There were plenty of dirt roads leading to summer cottages I could drive to and nobody would notice me because there was nobody around.

My first day searching for wood away from the house, I drove down one of these dirt roads. This is what I did: I would park my car in the overgrown driveway of a cottage, cut the engine, and get out. Then I listened. If the only sounds that came to me were the breaking surf of the nearby bay, the call of seagulls and crows, the wind clawing and whipping through pines and oaks and maples, and no sign of other life, that’s when I took action. I moved quickly to the side of the house and kept my eyes ground ward scanning for wood. It seemed that many summer cottages and beach houses had at least a few pieces of cut wood tucked along the foundation, under the front porch, or littering spots in their side and back yards.

I grabbed what I could: cut wood, pieces of picket fencing, wooden stakes, old fallen branches, along with any rotten table and chair legs and other furniture parts. I had the trunk to my ‘79 Prelude already popped, and in I dropped my illicit booty. My heart ached from racing. My parents’ Lhasa Apso, Muffy, waited in the car until it was about ready to jump through the window it was so excited by my activity. I never broke into anyone’s house, but I’m sure they weren’t thrilled to finally get to their vacation home and find their fallback heating material gone. Those June nights can get mighty chilly, especially if you’re stuck in a non-winterized cabin.

Much of the wood I found was perfect. It was always old wood and it burned well. Sometimes I grabbed a piece that was painted or otherwise treated. That was not good to burn and I had to get rid of it by throwing it into the neighbors’ yard (high grass separated all the houses in our field) or keep the wood in the trunk and drop it under the next mark’s porch steps. I was paranoid that the cops would interrupt my new avocation, ask questions, and decide I was breaking and entering.

Some days I found almost no wood and those days I felt stupid for putting myself through this. It was like looking for cans and bottles to cash in. Often the expenditure of energy and time was not worth the trade in value of whatever treasure you found. I had enough food and I had a roof for shelter and this was the house where I had spent my high school years and college summers, so it should have been comforting. I spent much of my day writing a screenplay that I wanted to finish and take with me to Hollywood. But right now I was putting myself through an experience that tainted the whole thing. And which began to make me feel sick, like I was hurting myself.

When the writing was going well, which it did for almost two complete months in February and March, then these daily forays out didn’t seem so bad. I wrote the screenplay in the mornings, then left the house and hit a new road or area. The beach was another good place to find wood, but I was self-conscious about carrying driftwood along the beach and to my car.

There were usually other people on the beach, on nice days anyway, just walking or running their dogs. Muffy loved to run on the beach so I brought her along. She barked at me, saying, “Where is mom and dad? I hate you.” But she did what I told her. I had to let her sleep with me or she would whine all night to get through the closed bedroom door.

Finally, in late February, the weather was just too cold and I had run completely out of wood. There was snow on the ground and this made it nearly impossible to scavenge...


Muriel said...

Secrets I never knew about are coming to light. I feel sad that we didn't leave wood for you with which to heat the house. We were not very kind parents, were we? And you were even taking care of Muffy for us. Is it too late to say "We're sorry?" Muriel (Dell's Mom)

Liz's Mom said...

Good writing. I like it. Now I am eager for Part 2.

Robin said...

Dell -- This story is fascinating and poetic (your forays on the beach). I think this has the makings of a great essay or short story. Can't wait for part 2!

Dell Smith said...

Hello Muriel: ahh, there's no need for that. If I remember correctly, you probably had no idea I was going to be spending the winter months in the house. There was some wood left over, but just not quite enough. So, no need to rewrite history by saying you were not kind parents! Goodness. Plus, I like the house hot hot hot! Burn right through stacks of wood. Also, the hunt for wood was kind of fun.
Hi Robin and Marilyn. Thanks for reading. Part 2 is coming right up, as soon as I find some appropriate photos. And I come up with a decent endings. Stay turned...

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Hmmm... brings back memories of winters in Sunsmith solar house. Most of which are good memories although chilly at times.

I love your mention of Muffy. She was such a great little campanion, always willing to go for a ride, a run on the beach, a snuggle on the couch. :)