New England Hearth-Warming

Our New England home away from home...

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.

Morning light, out the back window.

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.

Higginson, aka Higgie House.

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…

"Gathering Wood For Winter, 1855" by George Henry Durrie, American artist. Those oxen and that horse had to go farther and farther afield to haul wood home. Talk about your fuel crisis.

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.

10 thoughts on “New England Hearth-Warming

  1. Paula says:

    Welcome to Massachusetts! It looks like you’re going to get a chance to experience winter all over again, starting tomorrow night. Oh well, at least you’ve got your fireplace and some wood. Hope you can get to a sugarhouse before the season ends, for some pancakes. The Johnson Farm is right on Route 2 at the Orange exit ( I think), a little west of you. They’re probably still open because sap is still running. Enjoy!

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  2. zeladoniac says:

    Yes, Paula, I’ve got some borrowed snowshoes and plenty of provisions. I’ve been wanting to get to Johnson’s. Might go to Hardwick- there’s a sugar house there, too. All the maples along the road here have buckets attached. Don’t you love the concept of sweetener from a tree?

  3. Roger McKimmy says:

    During the years 1966 through 1967, I and my family were residents of this very apartment in the Higginson House. My father was a professor of forestry at Oregon State on a years’ sabbatical at Harvard Forest,, and then 12 years old I attended 6th grade at Petersham Center School. I remember well the ceilings I could jump up and touch even at 5 feet tall, the sloping floors and bending very low to enter the basement. The fireplaces were great – all you needed was a bearskin rug for the massive fireplace in the bedrooms. How pleasing to see that the old house not only still stands, but thrives! Roger McKimmy, Eugene, OR

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