When I was five years old, my parents purchased a small piece of land in the heart of a secluded cove at the end of a road outside a small coastal town in Alaska. There, next to the Pacific Ocean, my father built our family a house ten feet above the high tide line. I spent every summer swimming in the ocean and running through the forest, exploring rivers and mountains that few people had ever seen. But then winter would come, a long, dark season of one-hour bus rides to and from school, and weekends cooped up in the house while waves battered the seawall in front of our home, leaving salt spray on our siding, seaweed on our windows, and driftwood in our front yard.
Living in a remote wilderness area, we depended on the ocean and forest to provide us with a significant portion of our food and fuel. Surrounded by cedar, hemlock, spruce, and fir, we heated our home with eight to twelve cords of firewood a year, burned in a black cast-iron woodstove set on a tile-covered hearth in the corner of our living room. We gathered that firewood from the ocean, in between winter storms and during the full moon, when a fresh stock of sun-bleached logs was made accessible by a combination of storm surge and high tides.
My father and I would start early in the morning. We’d haul our fifteen-foot aluminum skiff down the beach in front of our house, clamp on our twenty-five-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor, don our life jackets, and set out to cruise the shoreline for firewood logs. After an hour or so of searching, we’d spot a bounty that hadn’t already been picked over. We’d beach our skiff and use large peaveys with wooden handles to roll the logs off barnacle-covered rocks, over seaweed-covered sand, and down into the ocean. Once they were in the water, we’d pound large metal stakes into each log with the blunt end of a maul and run rope from staple to staple, forming a raft of five or ten or twenty logs. Then we’d secure this raft to the stern of our skiff with more rope and begin the slow journey home.
As we puttered along, our small outboard motor slowly tugging several tons of logs through the water, I’d huddle on the middle bench of our skiff, the cold, damp air cutting through my mismatched layers of cotton and wool and polyester hand-me-downs, the threat of frostbite slicing at my hands and feet. It was a stark juxtaposition, staring out from under the shadow of my hood at a world that was both stunningly beautiful and actively trying to kill us. Storms would sometimes materialize without warning. In the wintertime, anyone who ended up in the water would be hypothermic and dead within minutes, and every family in my community knew of someone who had been taken by the sea. But the danger that surrounded also mesmerized. On a still day, the pane of ocean was like a mirror stretching for miles. Hypnotizing patterns rippled in the wake of our skiff. Bald eagles circled above us, and we watched sea otters as they groomed and rolled and dove into the reflections of passing clouds, their chirps and splashes dancing in our ears.
Once we made it back home, we would anchor our raft of logs as high up the beach as possible. For the next several Saturdays, my father would use a chainsaw to buck each log into firewood-length rounds, which I would heave into a wheelbarrow, push up the beach, and dump on a growing pile in the flat, gravel-covered patch surrounded by alders that we called a backyard.
After this, it fell on me to split the wood and stack it under the cover of our woodshed. I hated this work.
I did not revel in my strength, or the power of the maul, or the physics behind the wedges that I used to split apart deeply knotted rounds. And I did not feel a sense of pride for helping warm my family, or for living so closely to the land. Instead, with each round I split and each piece of firewood I stacked, a deep resentment burned in my belly, for this was work that I had to do alone. And the reason I did it alone was simply because my four siblings were girls, and in my community, splitting and stacking wood was considered men’s work.
In the rural world of my youth, there was a thick line that separated men’s work from women’s work. The level of physical exertion and danger involved defined the “manliness” of any particular task, and we learned to equate maleness with the rough ways of men who wielded chainsaws in forests crawling with grizzly bears, with the stone-faced expressions of men whose lives were hardened on the rolling, storm-tossed decks of fishing boats. Meanwhile, women earned respect by being homemakers, kneading dough for bread made weekly from scratch, scrubbing the floors until they gleamed, and comforting the children they’d birthed every time they skinned a knee, came down with the flu, or experienced heartache. We weren’t taught to recognize that these tasks, too, require grit and physical stamina, and we learned to equate femaleness with a certain amount of fragility and vulnerability.
Even as a young child, this made no sense to me. It was explained that men were expected to do physical labor because they tended to have larger, stronger bodies, and women were expected to be homemakers because they tended to be more sensitive and nurturing. However, I did not accept this line of reasoning, and much to the dismay and frustration of my parents and others in my community, I constantly pointed out exceptions to such stereotypes. I knew that my sisters were just as strong and able-bodied as I was, and I knew that I was just as interested in cooking and sewing and other women’s work as they were. But the fact is that when they were given fabric, needle, and thread, I was given a maul, and when they were expected to learn how to make quilts, I was expected to chop, carry, and stack firewood.
While some might be tempted to wax nostalgic about a social arrangement such as this, there was something toxic in this brew, something not brave and nurturing but violent and oppressive. The supposed ease and safety of women’s work was countered by the grinding day in, day out of emotional toil, and a stifling loss of power inherent in being completely financially dependent on men. My community was rife with substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and suicide, largely perpetrated by men, and I found it impossible to believe that men who were truly satisfied with their lot in life would commit such violence to self and others.
In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks writes: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
I could not convince my family to equitably distribute the duty of splitting firewood, but I could covertly take up needle and thread. By the time my mother discovered my transgression, I was accomplished enough to have created cross-stitched bookmarks to give to the members of our small home-based church. My parents made no secret of discussing it with other members of our community. They wondered out loud if it meant I was homosexual (as if that was something to be feared). However, my cross-stitching mostly featured images of wildlife, such as ducks and deer, and even a hunting rifle, which they saw as adequately masculine. Furthermore, one of the more worldly women in our church group pointed out that she’d heard of a famous cross-stitcher who was a man, and who was presumed to also be heterosexual (praise the Lord!). In the end, I was allowed to continue dabbling in the textile arts, although it was still viewed with some suspicion.
My sisters, had they been similarly inclined to break free of this arrangement, faced a much more difficult challenge. The work they were expected to do was mostly hidden from the eyes of the world, conducted in the privacy of homes, making it relatively easy for me to experiment with crossing over to their side of the forbidden line. But the domestic tasks that were delegated to men—washing the car, cleaning the gutters, splitting firewood—included activities that any neighbor would easily notice. My sisters were being groomed to live in the shadow of men, to provide the emotional and social glue that held our community together, without being afforded a commensurate amount of power or even recognition. Any rebellion they may have waged would be easily spotted, for they were being groomed to be invisible.
I do not know what causes one person to submit and another to rebel, but what I do know is that I was unsuccessful in conforming to the norms of my community, of engaging in what hooks calls “acts of psychic self-mutilation.” I may have eventually learned how to turn off the sensations of thirst, hunger, and hypothermia while out in the skiff on long days searching for firewood, but I was unable to kill the pain and anger that welled up each time I witnessed an injustice in my community. I was doubly cursed with a low aptitude for keeping my mouth shut. As a result, I was increasingly met with violence, until one dark evening a family member and a church elder from a neighboring community pinned me to the hard linoleum of our kitchen floor and beat me until one side of my head was the color of a plum.
Many years later, after I’d moved far away from my hometown, lived in a number of cities, and experienced many adventures, I wanted to retreat and regroup and refresh my soul in the familiarity of the wilderness. I chose to live for a time in a cabin tucked in the shadow of a conifer forest at the edge of a meadow on a remote mountain, and I heated my cabin with a small cast-iron woodstove. The woodstove was fed with the remains of wind-downed trees, which I hauled out of the forest using a system of pulleys and choker cables and the winch mounted on the front of the four-wheel-drive mountain vehicle that was my lifeline to civilization. Every morning, after drinking my coffee, I’d head out to the woodshed to split and stack firewood for an hour or so.
And I loved it. For the first time in my life, I realized that splitting and stacking firewood can be an exquisitely beautiful experience. I relished the practice of finding my flow, my body limbering up with each swing of the maul, my energy rising with each strong beat of my heart. I savored the hauling and stacking of each stick of firewood, each piece locking together in a symphony of light and shadow, like brushstrokes in a painting. Warmed by the heat of my labor and the detritus from the forest, I was filled with gratitude, reminded that the earth provides for every need.
I live back in the city once again. I returned to start a family, which I did; after a divorce, I found myself living the life of a single dad. My youthful rebelliousness is paying off, for now I am at once a breadwinner and a homemaker, and there is no room for gender roles when it comes to household tasks. I mow the lawn and cook and clean, I wrestle with my children and snuggle them too, I handle any mechanical task and am handy with needle and thread.
However, there is still an unfulfilled vision that burns in my soul, a vision larger than my own life or the life I share with my children. In this vision, I’m once again sitting in a skiff with my father, and we’re puttering along the shore searching for firewood. A bald eagle soars overhead, and in the distance, a humpback whale slips below the surface of the perfectly still ocean, leaving behind a suspended puff of fish-breath. And even though it is icy cold, great warmth fills my body, for I know that when we return, the whole community will be there, women, children, and men, everyone pitching in to the best of their ability as we all work together to buck and haul and split and stack the firewood that will warm our homes in this wonderland among the stars.
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