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The Best Things In Life

Behold, a gift from generous strangers: Free firewood. It is stacked streetside, just up the hill, an entire tree freshly sectioned and awaiting someone's wedge and sledgehammer. I lug the stump-sized pieces home in the trunk of my car, and then return for more, rejoicing in this chainsaw-assisted windfall. And I think of Aldo Leopold. and his essay "Good Oak," in "A Sand County Almanac." It's a famous meditation on firewood, and it begins:

Michael Williamson - TWP

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.
To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.

Inspiring words. But as I carry my wood back home, another thought arises: That in this autumnal season, when all creatures forage for their winter provisions, the intelligent move would be to find some wood that is already split and ready to burn.

This stuff from up the street might be good oak, to be sure, but it's useless to me without an investment of labor that might result in blisters, splinters and mashed digits. The person who pilfers, and considers pilferage a special talent, takes pride in his hands. Should I hazard damage to such beautiful appendages? No: I should obtain firewood that requires no additional labor. So many people leave their wood in plain view. It's time to start working the neighborhood. Time to forage up a storm.

The obvious target is the cache of wood belonging to my neighbor Angus. He is a man in touch with his inner lumberjack. He is a man of nature, an aficionado of the textures and smells and sounds of the forest, all of which he would reduce to firewood and sawdust as he wields a chain saw the size of a Volkswagen. Angus ventures into deep woods, carefully selects hardwood trees, and after many hours of labor will emerge with multiple cords of wood to haul back into town. I can see it over at his place, neatly stacked, ready for the hearth. That stuff has my name written all over it.

My elders taught me an important lesson, many years ago: The best things in life are free, but only you take the time to steal them.

Also: The meek shall inherit the Earth, at which point you can take all the good stuff from the meek.

Not everyone shares the values of the committed forager. Many a time, leaving Au Bon Pain with my pockets stuffed with sugar, salt and pepper packets, plastic spoons and knives, and enough napkins to start a bonfire -- all of which is offered for free at the condiment stand -- I realize that my foraging may exile me to the margin of civil society. Also one winds up with an inexplicable number of small packets of relish. The year I spent trying to hawk relish (taken from various fast food outlets) on the streetcorner at McPherson Square was one of the least rewarding of my life. I'd get frustrated, and shout at people when they refused to buy. "Where you going to get a better deal on relish??" I'd scream, red-faced with rage. "This stuff is fresh from Burger King!!"

The younger generation doesn't know the art of foraging. I've tried to teach my kids that food doesn't come from a store, it comes smuggled in napkins from cocktail parties.

And I've endeavored to instruct them in good restaurant manners. You can't just stare at someone's plate and slobber like a dog. No, you must politely say, "You gone eat that, Lady?"

The proverbs that gave my generation strength in hard times -- for example, "Despair Now And Save Yourself the Trouble Later" -- draw a blank look from today's youth. They don't realize that any person can be a thief, but only a person of moral clarity can take things selectively in an attempt to redistribute private property in a way that restores its natural equilibrium.

This winter I must build a crackling fire, gather the young people together, and explain to them where warmth comes from. And how he surely didn't need all that firewood.

By Joel Achenbach  |  November 7, 2007; 6:31 AM ET
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