I’ve been chopping firewood; first time in my life. I’m pretty much a suburban guy and I’ve worked as a writer, systems analyst, journalist, teamster, drinker, smoker, liar, and my leisure activities have consisted of browsing bookstores, watching videos, fucking off, driving around and bar hopping. Muscles I’ve neglected are sore from chopping wood, but I’m also more relaxed and I’m sleeping well. I had a therapist years ago (Number 4) that said if I found an activity which employed the body’s long muscles, quadriceps, biceps, back, it could help to reduce stress and anxiety. As if. I told him he was an idiot and a fraud, paid him $100 dollars and left to get drunk. Don’t try to tell me about stress relief.
I have a friend here in the mountains of New Mexico who lives in a teepee. He grows and sells beans. Special beans: Zuni, Anasazi, Heirloom. They don’t look like the kind you’d find in the supermarket and I can’t imagine that he makes a living, but his overhead is low and he has few needs.
We were talking this morning about the weather and the Christmas holidays and I told him how much I enjoyed chopping wood. He’s a tough guy, physical, dresses in Carhartt canvas, his hands are rough as sandpaper, and I realized that telling him about my recent love-affair with manual labor must sound pretty fucking lame to this dude who’s spent most of his adult life outdoors.
He said, “Hey, if you have any extra firewood I’ll trade you some beans for it.”
“Well, it’s been pretty cold and I haven’t been able to get up into the mountains to gather wood. I have enough in my truck for another night but I’ll need some more.”
Never in my craziest fantasies have I envisioned myself as a supplier of fuel to off-the-grid mountain men. Jesus. And he was going to give me beans. Beans. This was beginning to sound like a warped version of Paul Bunyan and Jack in the Beanstalk with a little Carlos Castaneda thrown in for psychedelic good measure.
The basic model of social commerce is barter. He needs firewood and I have some. I don’t see the great appeal of beans, but they are a primitive and respected food that has sustained populations for millennia. I’d give him the wood for nothing, I can chop more, but I’m going to take the beans in trade. I’ll probably put them in a drawer and forget them for a couple of years until I accidentally come across them and throw them in the garbage, but the historic act of exchanging my services for his goods has a biblical, elemental authenticity and allows me to participate in an honest and ancient system of human collaboration.
And, goddamnit, my old therapist was right. I should send him a letter of apology. When I’m wielding my ax I am composed, strong and invincible. And afterwards I’m calm. I even vaguely understand the appeal of living in a teepee and of learning basic survival skills. I love my ax, perhaps a little too much, and I chop wood. Instead of sizable and expensive quantities of cocaine and alcohol, I can bring myself to a state of equanimity and self-control after a half hour of hard ax-work. If I’d known it was all going to be so fucking easy I could have saved $140,000 on therapy. Now I have to go chop wood to earn my beans.