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Gathering Wood

Photo showing a pile of wood.

All of the ash trees in my neighborhood are coming down. 

Dead upper branches and bark flaking from trunks painted with bright red dots indicate that the few left standing are infested by the emerald ash borer. City workers in small crews cut down the trees and gather lifeless limbs. More often than not they leave the uncut logs on the curbside, free for the taking. 

Every time I see one of these log piles, I slow down our station wagon and look out the window. “I’m going to throw some in the back,” I’ll say, only to be met with protestations—We’ll be late! or What if there are spiders?—from my wife and kids. Sometimes I slow down just enough to note the location of the pile so I can return later to rescue these abandoned logs, which make excellent firewood. 

My wife recently said that, while she’s glad it’s firewood I’m hoarding and not toilet paper, we probably have enough—especially considering that we only use our fireplace a dozen times a year. Of course, she is right. 

When I was a kid, the oil-burning furnace in our old farmhouse threw off a feeble, acrid-smelling heat that barely put a dent in a Wisconsin winter. The real source of heat in our home was the Franklin stove in the family room, which ran warm and constant from fall to spring. That stove really was the heart of our house, and every morning I would go out to the woodshed to gather enough firewood to keep it beating until bedtime.  

I didn’t make the connection between my obsession with firewood and my need for comfort until I read Frederick, by Leo Lionni, to my five-year-old son before bed one night. While the other mice are busy gathering food for the winter, Frederick lounges about, gathering the sun’s rays, the colors of the meadow, and comforting stories for the difficult days that lie ahead. When the food is all gone, and the mice don’t feel much like talking, Frederick shares his supplies: poems and stories that provide comfort and contentment.  

I would gladly share with you, dear reader, what firewood I have stored. But perhaps it is better that, like Frederick, I share supplies to warm you from the inside out: the stories, poems, essays, paintings, and photographs that make up this special online edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas. I hope that you find comfort and contentment in these pages.



From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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