FORT KENT, Maine — Forbes Magazine has come out with its list of the richest in the country. While there are no huge surprises — Microsoft’s Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett again top the list — it did get me thinking about the whole notion of wealth — northern Maine style.
You see, here at Rusty Metal Farm, the real coin of the realm is not counted in dollars and cents, it’s in cords.
We’ve all heard stories about the super rich hoarding cash and gold in secret Swiss bank accounts or stashing priceless works of art and jewels in secure rooms deep in their mansions.
Now, in no way do I have an offshore account or a mansion, but there is a room off the basement in which my accumulated winter wealth is cached.
Anyone who has ever heated their home through a Maine winter with wood heat totally understands the Silas Marner-esque pleasure that comes with surveying a wood room piled floor to ceiling with seasoned cut and split firewood.
Yes, despite all attempts not to, this year, I again gave in to a full on firewood gathering panic which, as in years past, began pretty much after the final fire died out from last season.
But now that the wood room — and a good section of the cellar and the back porch — are piled high with firewood, my stress level has reduced exponentially.
Is it wrong that, from time to time, I creep down to that room, open the door, flick on the light and just look in rapt wonderment at the woody wealth therein? Or that I drag my friends down to do likewise?
According to one of my old friends and fellow University of Maine at Fort Kent alumna Julie Pelletier, it may not be as odd as it looks.
Pelletier, currently an associate professor and chair of the department of indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg, grew up in St. Francis.
That, coupled with her background in cultural anthropology and post doctorate work on the economics of indigenous cultures, gives her both a personal and academic view on wood wealth.
“The whole idea of ‘wealth’ in a lot of cases … evolved to be more portable,” Pelletier said. “So where camels or livestock were once considered wealth, while they are handy to have, they can be a bit unwieldy.”
Pelletier said the movement toward more “portable” wealth in regions that placed a high value on livestock is likely how things like precious metals, stones, coins and “bits of paper and plastic” came to have monetary value.
“So if you think about wealth in terms of firewood and measuring it in cords, it certainly has value,” she said. “It’s not portable, but it is visible.”
And according to this former northern Maine resident, unless things have changed dramatically in her hometown, there is value not only in the quantity of firewood collected for the winter but in how it is stored.
“I remember it being very important to people how nicely the wood is stacked and how straight the lines were,” she said. “I knew some people who would bring out sticks to lay against the wood piles to make sure the line of cord wood was straight.”
Pelletier remembers cording her fair share of her family’s winter wood supply in her younger days.
“They were really picky on how we did it,” she recalls. “People would talk and evaluate how the neighbors’ firewood looked.”
Occasionally, she said, people “from away” would move into town and engage in their own firewood gathering activities.
“People from the area would comment on how these newcomers stacked their wood in some odd way,” Pelletier said. “I remember one person who stacked his wood in a pyramid, like a pile of corn. We practically had to call in the priest — [stacking like that] was just not done.”
While in no way would I want outside professionals evaluating the condition of my woodpiles scattered around the house, I am rather proud of them.
Adding to the value of my wood, is the knowledge this year that I am rich in that other northern Maine monetary unit — good friends.
A group of those friends spent all day one recent Saturday splitting, tossing and piling all that wood asking for nothing more in return than a hot meal and a cold brew or two after the work was done.
Few things say “party” in Maine than a crisp fall day and a mountain of wood to bring in.
So, while my credit union accounts remain modest and there is precious little precious metal anywhere on the farm, I take deep solace and comfort in those piles of wood and the friends who made it happen.
And you can take that to the bank.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.