A Guide for the Holiday Season
I recently met a fishing guide up on the Matapedia River in Canada. Richard, who was born in 1910, is a bowman for the Cold Spring Camp. This means that he springs into action as soon as one of the sports hooks a salmon, the biggest of which run up to more than 40 pounds. The fish must be allowed to run, the drag on the reel has to be set properly, and the large three-man canoe must be poled into the proper position to land the fish. Over half the big ones are lost before they can be reeled in due to improperly tied flies, smart fish that bang their heads against a rock to dislodge the hook, and lines that become tangled around a rock or the canoe itself. For a man of 88 years, Richard moves quickly, like a big cat that dozes most of the day but has large stores of coiled energy waiting to be released.
One afternoon I stopped down to his double-wide trailer for a visit. He told me that when he was growing up everyone had a large family, and his was no exception. There were eight children, four of whom are still alive. His mother kept a garden, growing turnips, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, beets, and beans, and stored much of it in a root cellar over the winter. Cream was stored in metal cans in the brook throughout the summer or hung by broom handles in barrels of cool water, and ice was cut in the winter and kept in the ice house with sawdust or hay as insulation.
His mother used to make brown sugar fudge, molasses cookies, sugar cookies, raisin pie, marble cake, dried apple pie, cucumber and mustard pickles, pumpkin jam, and doughnuts. Most every family he knew raised a few pigs and some beef. For Thanksgiving, the family would have a roast chicken and a glass of wine. For Christmas, a stocking filled with a few apples, an orange, and some hard candy was tied to the foot of his bed.
He left school at age 14, running off to the logging camps where he spent most of his life. The first of October they would start cutting, either up from the river or off one of the tributaries, using two-man saws. By Christmas, the cutting would stop and the logs would be hauled by horse down to the rivers where they were floated downstream. Log jams were common; a crew of 80 men used to do about five miles a day on the river, the logs getting stuck in a wing jam or on a rock. The camp cooks served baking powder biscuits, beans, and plenty of black tea for breakfast. There were no chickens or eggs; the only chicken Richard ever saw on those drives was the one in the picture on the wall.
Sporting long bushy white sideburns and dressed in thick woolen pants, Richard sits on the narrow porch attached to the trailer, legs outstretched, and remembers with relish the plate of beans and biscuits for breakfast, the long workdays hauling logs with the teams down to the river, the sweet smoke from hot campfires, and the winter days spent rabbit hunting; he used to sell rabbits for 25 cents apiece to the hotel down in Sillarsville.
I often think that happiness is in inverse proportion to the number of things one owns. The clothes on one's back, a warm, dry place for the winter, a good job, a few friends, and a bit of loose change can make a happy man. Happiness is being needed, not needing things.
So during this fall season, our family tries to take pleasure in simple chores, making coffee cake for church or greasing and storing equipment for the winter. We read up on beekeeping and pruning and the best methods for ridding ourselves of next year's crop of potato beetles. We spend time watching the view from our farmhouse, the light thinner now and the air so clear that I can look out across our valley and make out individual leaves, the five-pointed sugar maples, the jagged shagbark hickory, and the long, slender white ash. The timothy in the lower field no longer pushes up strongly from the earth but sits listlessly, pale green, mottled with browns, waiting for winter. The stand of corn is brown and withered; the heads of the giant sunflowers have turned dark, their necks broken.
And as I sit on my front porch, I wonder about the upcoming holidays. Perhaps this is the year we will make do with a roast chicken, a glass of wine, a raisin pie, and a stocking filled with tangerines and hard candy for the kids. In this day and age, it is a wistful thought, an idea to be hoped for, a fantasy just on the fragile edge of possibility.
But in a season that was born of simplicity and faith, we could all learn from Richard and find contentment in a plate of beans, a biscuit, and a cup of strong tea. I like to think that happiness would follow us the rest of our days.