Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2012, Sylvia Keesmaat explores the value of inefficient practices, like tending a fire in a wood stove for warmth and cooking.
I sometimes think that it began with the moon. Watching the autumn clouds drift across the light. Seeing the shades of darkness shift, the thin strands of light slowly shade shadow. Time stopped, caught in the lazy drift of fleece across the light.
Time had stopped, if only briefly. Catechism classes were over for the evening at our church and my dad, also my teacher, was talking to the minister on the steps at the back of the church. We were surrounded by darkness, silence, gravel, grass and trees. And up in the sky rode the moon, an ever shifting glow for a teenage girl to ponder while a friendship was spoken, nurtured, and tended in the lift and flow of conversation.
How seldom do we stop and tend. Because tending to things slowly and attentively isn’t a virtue in a world of efficiency. Why bother? Why bother to learn the art of sewing when you can buy clothes ready made, and cheap, too, at a big store? Why bother to learn how to plant a seed, care for a seedling, pay attention to frost dates and brave the prickly cucumber vines when you can just go to the store and buy a perfect cuke? Why bother carrying in the wood, learning the art of building a fire, having to pay attention to the ebb and flow of flame and heat when you can set the thermostat and pay no heed? Why, indeed?
Every morning I carefully scrape out the ash of yesterday, the two inches of ash that our warmth produced. As I lay the kindling and listen for the crackle of wood devouring flame, I wait. The house is cool, and all I have to do now for the next few minutes is be attentive and patient. The fire needs time to build, needs to be fed and nurtured into the strength of heat for cooking. If I walk away and leave it, it will die. If I forget to pay attention, it will die. Of course, being fire, if I build it too big and forget to pay attention, I could die. Why take the chance?
Someone asked me once how long it takes before I have my first, hot cup of tea in the morning. Well, let’s see: in the winter I light the fire, sweep the floor, and wake the kids for chores. Then, if it is burning well, I add some more wood to the fire and head outside. I run water for the cows, get them some hay, give the chickens some grain and their water, feed the ducks. Sometimes I help the kids with the horses and barn cats and then come back in. Then I put the kettle on. Maybe I get something hot to drink within an hour of waking. If things go well. An hour? My friend was appalled. Why wait so long?
Feeding, nurturing, tending. Inefficient acts, all.
But who is to say what we have lost with our efficiently heated, thermostat-run homes? My children know how to stack a wheelbarrow with the perfect mix of wood: kindling, starter pieces, and the large workhorses of long, hot heat. They know how to gauge a manageable armful of wood from wheelbarrow to wood box. They know the sound of a well-burning fire and whether coals are likely to ignite once again. They know respect for fire.
But there is more. They know that heat is precious and not to be duplicated. They know that if you need heat for warmth, you should also use it for cooking, and that if you need it for cooking, you should also harness it for warmth. They know about the waste of efficiency, of a furnace in the basement and the stove in the kitchen.
Because of the fire, these are things that they know. How else are we to get to know this place where we have been set, apart from tending to it? Outside of creating heat, how are we to know what it costs in terms of labor, sweat, and sacrifice? Outside of planting the food we eat, how are we to learn the living character of soil, the various needs of peppers, lettuce, and kale? How will we come to recognize the goldenrod beetle and the garden spider unless we are bending over, down on our knees, with our eyes open to their worlds?
Outside of chopping, stirring, and seasoning, how can we know the textures and tastes of the food that a gracious Creator provides? Outside of a long, slow, inefficient meal, how can we nurture the trust and warmth of a conversation where even the vulnerable feel free to speak?
The deep, dark secret of efficiency is that it is always the result of sacrifice. We sacrifice time with our children for efficient fast-tracked meals. We sacrifice knowledge of the world around us for efficient food and efficient transportation. We sacrifice the lives of other people for efficient clothing and efficient (and cheap!) coffee. We sacrifice the mountains of Appalachia for efficient heat. Efficiency demands sacrifice. Idols always do.
There is one other deep, dark secret, however. Sometimes I like efficiency. I like the fact that I can take the three-hour journey from farm to university on a highly efficient public transit system by bus and train once a week. This enables me to teach. And yet, the amount of oil, the amount of plastic, the sheer amount of non-renewable resources that go into my transportation is staggering. It works and it is efficient. But it is not sustainable. And even though it is public transit and not a car, I am willing to sacrifice the well-being of other creatures for my efficiency. Idolatry runs deep in my heart, too.
Lately I’ve been looking again at the moon. While walking the horses up through the woods after dark, the shafts of moonlight have crossed the path. We have to walk the horses up from the far pasture because there is no water there. Walking them back and forth is inefficient. But it provides a chance to walk in moonlight with the clip-clop of hooves as background, and the breathing of horses at my shoulder. And it reminds me of travel in a different day and age, when the journey from Cameron to Toronto would have taken a number of days by horse. It was an inefficient time. It was a local time. It was time with opportunities for tending, for nurture, for watching the moon as it lazily drifted across the sky. It is a time that has stopped.