Living Deep by the Fire

Home is someplace between Walden and a woodstove.

By Robin McCarthy

There’s a moment in Walden when Thoreau laments outfitting his cabin by the pond with a woodstove instead of a fireplace. “The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion,” he writes. I think of that nearly every time I tick up the thermostat in my apartment. Thoreau was nostalgic for the fireplace, but I miss woodstoves the way he mourns the loss of open flame.

My Maine
Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams

I grew up in houses heated by wood. My parents moved often, chasing better jobs, shorter commutes, and the lure of old New England Capes begging for renovation, from Oakland to Waterboro, Boothbay to China, Waterville to Belfast. When I was 6, we moved into a house in which Thoreau and the family stove — both objects of near-religious adoration for my father — were granted places of honor. Dad was an English teacher, and his Thoreau collection included multiple editions of each volume of Henry D.’s oeuvre and an admirable selection of relevant literary criticism. It took up two shelves at eye level in a prominent bookcase at the foot of our stairs, where we could begin our days by staring down a bit of naturalist philosophy.

Just past the bookcase was the six-burner, cast-iron woodstove my father had inherited from his grandmother. It was a Glenwood K from Taunton, Massachusetts, nearly 100 years old. In the late ’80s, Dad had the whole thing taken apart and refurbished at Bryant Stove & Music in Thorndike. I remember the drive from our house in China feeling intolerably long, although banging on the Bryant’s player pianos rendered it worthwhile.

The spruced-up stove was situated on one side of a central chimney that divided kitchen from living room. The other side housed a fireplace, so that, I suppose, my parents could raise children with an appreciation for the companionship of Thoreau’s open flame, and so there might be a place to hang stockings at Christmas.

The fireplace was quaint, but it was the stove that wove its way into the rhythm of family life. That’s where we’d lean against the nickel to warm our backsides on a cold day. Get a good fire going in the Glenwood and the cats had a spot to nap underneath, while our black Lab would curl up in front. My brother or I could drag a rocking chair to the stove and rest stocking feet against the edge as we read for school or chatted with whichever parent was making dinner.

In autumn, my father took to the forest to cut hardwood with a friend. They let logs season in piles, then went back to cut and split the following year. They moved poplar, maple, oak, beech, and birch around the property to age until dry enough for a good burn. I remember how my father’s wool shirts smelled of gasoline, sawdust, and sweat.

Later, my parents moved to a newly constructed house in town, with no proper place for the Glenwood. By then a teenager, I read Thoreau for the first time in an English class taught by my father. He took us all down to the edge of Waterville’s Messalonskee Stream to read those first indelible pages of Walden out loud. I didn’t know that I too would one day want to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” but the sentiment seemed impassioned enough to pay attention at the time.

The stove lived in our garage for a decade, until Mom and Dad moved again into an old house, this time a tall and long Carpenter Gothic in Belfast. As they planned the renovation, putting the woodstove back into the center of the kitchen was a priority, partly because the house was cold and partly because my father was heartsick without it. My parents are still in that house, still using my great-grandmother’s Glenwood every winter.

Six years ago, the first Maine home my partner and I bought together was not a house at all, but a 24-foot sailboat. We bought the boat to live aboard and launched it in Belfast just before Thanksgiving. Winter was coming on hard, and we borrowed a car to drive to Bryant’s, where the player piano collection had only expanded over 20 years. Bea Bryant took our cash for a football-size woodstove.

We fetched scrap wood cut to 5-inch lengths from the Peavey Manufacturing Company in Eddington. A half-cord cost next to nothing, which was our budget for everything that year. We didn’t have an axe and so we split kindling by thumping a rigging knife into each stick against the cabin steps. It was a winter of innovation and compromise, but we were warm.

My partner built a tiny bookshelf just wide enough for 15 books, one of which was Walden. By then, I was fully initiated, reading Thoreau of my own volition as I lived my version of a simplified life in the drafty cabin of an old boat. I weighed modern comfort against the value of experience each time the tide ran hard against the wind into Belfast Bay.

Since then, I’ve moved back to dry land, for grad school in the Midwest, where I rent a cheap studio apartment with baseboard registers along the walls. I’ve been plenty warm, but also homesick for Maine. There are ordinances against woodstoves here, and in the fall, no one in the grocery store asks if I’ve got my wood up yet.

I’m always half-shopping for houses back home, scouring real estate listings for some old Cape in Maine I might afford one day, a place with a woodstove. I want a corner of the yard where I can build the pile. I like thinking about the ache across my back from stacking and splitting, the crack of an axe into heartwood, and the lingering smell of smoke in my sweaters. I also imagine a spot on a shelf for a copy or two of Walden, and a chair by the stove for my father when he wants it.