Hen of the Woods
Thoreau as usual got it right: “Every man looks at his wood pile with a kind of affection.” Even a man like me, who hasn’t got the time anymore or fortitude to cut his own trees, and in fact not enough trees on his property to last more than a few years.
Firewood cut-split-delivered has gotten more expensive. Supply and demand, for one thing, as heating oil prices surge. And the guys who cut wood have to pay for fuel, too. Last year everyone around here was swamped just covering the demand for the coming winter, what with heating oil through the roof at $2.59 a gallon (much more expensive this year, through the roof and into the clouds—soon we’ll be heating with maple syrup!), and I couldn’t find the four cords I wanted to stack and season for this year. My former supplier had retired, more or less. But then back in November I saw an ad and got a couple cords from a very good cutter up in Philips—Dan Jalbert—and he was willing to drive down here late in the season with a load of excellent maple, beautifully cut and split: clean, precise, fairly uniform, fresh and fragrant, just a few sticks of yellow birch in there, a few sticks ash, a few sticks oak, perfect. Like a lot of the cutters, he uses a dump truck with a two-cord load, gets about 5 miles to the gallon. We stood there in my driveway after the drop calculating what it cost him to drive the fifteen miles and back, quite a bite out of his profits.
This year, diesel and heating oil another couple dollars higher, and demand for wood higher as well, Dan just said, No. Very kindly, but: No. I needed two cords seasoned to make up what I didn’t get last year, and at least four green looking ahead to next year. Last season I burned every stick in the shed, some of them over two years waiting, good to get the shed emptied and cleaned before the next loads go in, bad to get to September with only two cords, even if nicely seasoned and now stacked.
I call my friend Wes most every day to talk about the 2008 presidential election. I haven’t been over to his camp on the pond for some weeks now, what with the weather and one thing and another, and we need to keep up. My theory of the day: McCain is peaking early. As for bounce, balls go up, balls come down (when Elysia was about 18 months old I bounced a beach ball for her, caught it—she thought it had disappeared into the floor, just stared at the carpet in amazement). And so forth, from outrage to humor to outrage again. Wes and I will be broken hearted if Obama doesn’t win. And it’s no balm to realize that someone else might be brokenhearted if the thing comes out our way. It’s gotten so we can’t watch the news, have to turn away—how many months of this madness can we take?
There were also two or three minutes to talk about other subjects, such as firewood. Wes had seen a poster up in Mercer when he and his wife, Diane, were at their house watching Keith Olbermann on cable and getting their email, one of those necessary trips that punctuate a summer at camp. Seasoned firewood, a good price, Mercer just as far away as Philips.
I dialed and got a man named Day Mitchell on the phone, and he was terse enough. I quizzed him about the firewood. He wasn’t full time at cutting, having hurt his back, but only heading down to Florida and in need of financing. I’m always a sucker for a person with a story. Did he have a dumper? Nah—just an S-10, little pickup truck. Four trips per cord. Sixteen trips if I really wanted four cord. And what with gas prices, he’d have to charge extra. His asking price was well below the going rate, so even with the surcharge it all came out acceptable—$800. (That amount and about the same in oil was last winter’s heat. Now $800 is one tank of oil, if that.) Plus, no wait. Day was at my house that same hour with the first load. I found a couple rotten sticks in there, complete with fungus, and a couple waterlogged, and we talked about that on the phone later—first he said well, they’d dry out. And I said, well, of course rotten is just never going to burn with any BTUs, even with the water out, which might take years. No anger, nothing like that. And he said, Well, you won’t see any more rotten logs—they got in there on the bottom of the pile and he hadn’t noticed and not to worry, he had a lot more better wood to bring, and sorry. I asked in caution if he stacked to measure the cordage and he said no, he used the bucket of his loader, stacking the wood in there and converting to cubic inches—he knew the volume of the bucket—then converting back out to cords.
In the end the wood was all good, and plenty of it. Two cord in my lawn by the big shed door, two cord in the second driveway, where firewood lives pretty much year round, seasoning. And I got my checkbook out and leaning on his little pickup we talked about firewood in general and then fishing and then what a good kid his son is the way neither he nor I were particularly good in our day and then he said something about Sarah. Which I knew to mean Palin. And what did I think?
Well, what did he think I thought, what with Obama stickers on both cars and a big sign in my porch window?
Well, I admire McCain, I said, and Governor P. is fine and everything but as a sometime flyfisherman and general outdoorsman I didn’t see how I could vote for someone who doesn’t believe global warming is real. For starters. And I mean, I could have gone on and on, but didn’t. He could have too, but didn’t, just said he’d been ready to vote for Hillary, but now…
And I said, well, Obama gives you everything Hilary would have.
Except he’s not a woman, said my interlocutor.
But the idea isn’t to vote for just any woman, I said. Did you vote for Elizabeth Dole?
But he didn’t know who that was.
So I said, Would you vote for Oprah?
Oh, good God, no!
I’m not sure he saw my point. And anyway, he had to get going. He’d brought me two dozen ears of good late corn, especially beautiful as I’d given up on corn for the season. He allowed as how things being up and things being down, they’d had a bad year with cucumbers over there in Mercer. So I gave him some half a dozen big cucumbers. I’m not sure what Freud would have made of our exchange, but it was very friendly, two guys the same age, many of the same interests, a kid each to talk about, our ideas about the world all but meeting. Very, very close.
I just like Obama, I said, one more try.
And he said, well, McCain is old, very old, and he’s had his career, and with being president he’ll be happy and he’ll know he’s done it all. And then they’re, you know, they’re going to let him die, and it’ll be Sarah.
I said, Let him die?
And Day said, Oh, he’s had his long life—he knows what they want from him.
Who’s they? I said.
The permanent government, of course!
An entity I myself have talked about from time to time, meaning, I guess, the behind-the-scenes power brokers. The people called they.
Very close, my firewood man and I, and yet worlds apart.
Aw, he said, It’s just an election.
Out in the woods the next morning I found a hen-of-the-woods mushroom just sitting a few yards off my usual path, other side of the stream, huge thing, twenty pounds or more, looking like a stack of leaves, or a big brown block of coral, or maybe even like a hen, I don’t know, a huge hen fluffing her feathers. I’ve seen pieces of hen of the woods for sale in the wild section of the Walmart-size organic market in Portland at $40.00 a pound, giving my specimen a street value of over $800.00, though I imagine it would be hard to barter it for four cord of firewood or a tank of oil. I carried it a mile or so under my arm, on my shoulder, other shoulder, on top of my head, down under the other arm, heavy. Home I plopped it in the sink. Elysia admired it from afar, its appeal pretty abstract, like other gross things. I could be one of the guys you see every fall in the newspaper, showing off a huge hen of the woods, big smile. I had the big smile all right, nothing more to think about than how to serve some small portion of it for dinner.
Directions in the mushroom book call for steaming ten minutes to tenderize the flesh a little, then proceed with your favorite recipe. I pulled the thing it into sections, big fans of mushroom flesh, pretty white inside, rich fragrance of the forest, steamed it in a big kettle four shifts worth. The odor in the kitchen was like turkey roasting, meaty, very rich. Meanwhile, I put a lentil stew together, onions in olive oil, some carrots from the garden, chunks of garlic, five or ten beat-up tomatoes, oregano leaves and thyme from the plants on the deck (Day Mitchell’s seasoned wood right there waiting for me to move it into the shed). After a few hours I made cornbread with plain yogurt instead of milk and extra butter and brown sugar and an egg, teaspoon of baking soda, 350 degrees in a buttered pan, 25 minutes.
The mushroom meat I dried on kitchen towels, enough to freeze quite a bit for future recipes. I took about a pound then and julienned it, nice long strips, and just sautéed it all in about a quarter pound of butter with three or four cloves garlic chopped fine, sampling all the while, a little more salt, a little more butter, unbelievably tasty, delectable. And then some of Day’s corn, just plain on the cob.
I’m telling you, that stew was delicious, parmesan grated on top. Elysia tried a bite of hen of the woods, then a little more, pronounced it edible at best, but no ewww face, at least. The stew, however, she loved, and the cornbread even more so, slathered with soft butter and then iced with honey on top of that. The happy hen of the woods hunter ate crispy strips of mushroom, softer strips, too, couldn’t decide which I liked better. Meaty texture, good tooth. In the end I mixed a pile into my bowl of stew (I waited on this moment, wanting to savor the mushroom on its own merits first), my God, wonderful.
I probably ate too much, but that will be good fuel for stacking wood, stacking wood, stacking wood, stacking wood, stacking wood, my thoughts astray in the world of politics as financial firms fail and arctic ice melts and hurricanes blow in and people keep dying in unnecessary warfare: don’t tell me this election doesn’t matter.