I’m sitting beside a crackling blaze in our Petersham parlor, enjoying the warmth and comfort of one of the three fireplaces in our four room apartment (we’re just using one fireplace. Not to worry). In the 18th century when Higginson House was built, wood was the sole source of heat in winter.
Just over a week ago we arrived here, taking up residence in Higginson House’s south apartment. We have our own set of furnished rooms, upstairs and down. The floors are amusingly sloped and one crosses a room at a slightly tipsy tilt. The baseboard radiator system ensures we are plenty warm so this fire is mostly for atmosphere, but it makes me want to put on a mob cap, tie on an apron and boil up scrod in an iron cauldron.
By one of those rare coincidences that make the universe go round, or maybe parallel, a special blogger was once a resident of Higginson House: Julie Zickefoose. As a Harvard student she spent a summer here. She rapturously writes:
Higginson House is where I lived as a member of the Wood Nymph Research Team, ca. 1976-1977! Chucky the woodchuck lived under the front porch, and I remember pens rolling from one end of my bedroom floor to the other, and a long-dead white-footed mouse found spread-eagled in the toaster. So check. Wow. What a blast of memories!
After reading that I checked the toaster. And had an arresting mental image of Julie Z. as a Wood Nymph, tripping lightly through Harvard Forest…
Early New Englanders loved their fires, going through great amounts of wood fuel every year (“A typical New England household probably consumed as much as thirty or forty cords of firewood per year”-Changes in the Land, Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, by William Cronon). Forest-clearing for agriculture and logging helped denude the hills, but home heating was a major contributor to deforestation. By the mid-19th century the New England landscape was fairly well cleared of its forests.
“This winter they are cutting down our woods more seriously than ever, – Fair Haven Hill, Walden, Linnaea Borealis Wood, etc. etc. Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!”- Henry David Thoreau, January 21, 1852 (From Thoreau’s Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape by David R. Foster)
The iPhone on the mantel is playing a guitar concerto by Boccherini. Our little fire flickers gently behind the 200-year-old andirons. In our snug home we are surrounded by the comforts of centuries past and present; outside a great forest surrounds us in the cold darkness, pressing inward, growing deep and quiet.