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When a surprise southwest gale recently toppled three tall balsams on an adjoining property, I was invited to salvage the wood. The drawback was that the trees had gone over in an area I couldn't get my truck into. After cutting the logs into rounds, I had to wheelbarrow them up a path to the driveway, where I halved and quartered them. I tossed the chunks in my truck and drove my truck to our yard. Then I carried the pieces from my truck to the woodpile, where I stacked them in sturdy, rectangular rows. By the time I was finished I had touched every piece of wood a half dozen times, and knew each so intimately I could have named them.

The stack measures out to 650 cubic feet, or slightly more than five cords. Purchased from a wood seller, five cords bought at this time of year would cost $500. And $500 divided by the several days it took me to cut and haul the wood, to say nothing of the cost of gas and oil for the chain saw or the stainless steel thermos I squashed, works out to about $5 per hour. It is clear from the bookkeeping that if I work hard and long at this sort of money-saving venture, I'm destined to go dead broke.

That is the sort of accounting dilemma we regularly face in the country. Do you justify the time it takes to put up your own wood, and grow food in the garden, and put up preserves, by traditional economics? Or do you ignore accounting altogether, pick blackberries until you are purple, then have to beg off another month's rent? The former is retentive banker's thinking, the latter plain irresponsible.

One answer, suggested to me by a moustachioed, cleftchinned friend named Eric, is that we need another form of accounting, as rigorous as an actuarial table but incorporating elements other than interest rates. For instance, Eric would include in his accounting a heading titled Appetite. Eric is a lawyer. Most of his days are passed at a desk. His tiny appetite is a function of the office clock, not his body. When he works on his small farm, however, he generates a large appetite. He says he pays 1, 000 a month mortgage for the hunger, and the farm gets thrown in for free. He tallies his meals at $12 each.

Also on Eric's accounting list: Pleasurable Weariness and Sound Sleep. The ecstasy of a sore back and swollen forearms is not something you can buy. After a day digging fence post holes in his heavy clay soil, Eric goes directly from work clothes to bath, and bath to dressing gown. He lies on the floor in front of the fire and emits a low, self-satisfied groan that lasts for three hours. The post holes he could have had dug for $2 each; the evenings he figures are worth $50 apiece.

Perhaps the most profitable feature of Eric's accounting system shows up under the heading Interesting Innovative Thoughts. With the body occupied in shovelling manure or other physical activities, his mind is free to holiday. It goes where it wants, riding notions bareback. Work. Family. The corner of the pole barn that is sloughing into the creek. Such freedom isn't cheap, Eric said to me one day, so he bills out at $200 a day. And you don't need many $200 days, he declared, to change the gloomy economics of farm projects.

It took Eric the best part of a morning to tell me about his accounting system. He was on one side of his fence, leaning on his shovel the way Charlie Chaplin used to lean on his cane, and I was perched on my truck. Finally I said I had to go.

"We're not making any money standing here," I pointed out.

Eric shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "The way I've got it figured, we're making lots of money shooting the breeze. It's work we can't afford to go back to."


For the last three days our cabin has been enveloped in an eyewatering, acidic white smoke. It's the kind of smoke you can taste in the grit under your fingernails, and smell on the bathroom towels. The smoke comes from fires we've had going in the bush. We have five: one in front of the guest shack, three around what we call Lucy's garden, and one that started by the bluff but has since snuck, like an arsonist, toward the old horse shed. I was so worried about that fire I woke last night and padded out there in my dressing gown to check it. The fire was asleep, but in that too-quiet way kids use to fool parents. So I poked it.

Of all the elements, fire is the most lifelike. It hides, sneaks, stinks and reproduces. Which, according to Tom Henry biology, are the basics of life. Fires are also moody, placing them among the Higher Orders.

Fires are our biannual attempt to keep order in our yard: one in spring, one in fall. All summer the forest rains needles and limbs, and we rake them into great heaps, like beaver dams. By September the wind and sun have dried the heaps enough so they can be lit with a handful of newspaper. Ours took off with the help of a brisk northerly, so the smoke ran low on the ground and burst out into the bay, as if shot from a cannon. And all along the road into town last week, white plumes billowed out of the forest as our neighbours, like us, took advantage of a wetting shower to torch a summer's worth of debris.

There's always a collective pause in the community when these fires take off: the bright yellow of licking flames and a high-rising smudge can mean a good neighbour, or it can signal the construction of yet another house. First the fire, then the carpenters; then, before you know it, someone else is selling free-range eggs.

Some country tasks, like wood cutting or coop cleaning, are never ending. With fires, though, it's a quick hit. You light them, and that's your life for the next few days. It's like having a guest in the house: fires are all you can think of Our house smells of smoke; our clothes are thick with it; pastel fires have suddenly blossomed on Lily's artwork. "If the sun is a big fire," she asked, "who lit it?"

There's something invigorating about fire. It's like stump clearing or rock picking: there is the feeling of progress about it, a kind of optimism that our forebears must have felt when they cleared the land. It's the first step in taming the wilderness.

I know the energy of it infected the youngest and oldest residents of the property. Lily, age five, and Mavis, age eightytwo, set to the fires with a pioneer's vigour. They dragged fallen limbs from the salal, sometimes working alone, sometimes together, and heaved them into the blaze. My thinking has always been that fires burn best if someone stares at the flames, and that is largely what I did. The most work I did was moving from one fire to stare at another. Around the yard I went, like a window shopper looking at TVs. My biggest problem was smoking: how can you justify having a cigarette when you're coughing wood smoke?

Meanwhile, Mavis and Lily, who averaged out to one healthy forty-threeyear-old, heaped up another fire. Yesterday, while they were working and I wasn't, it occurred to me that I'd like to a have a job tending fires. A fire-tender, I'd call myself I'd have a red truck with a winch on the front and a brother in the back, or maybe two...

Today that fancy is gone. The fires are embers. There is other work to be done. The one fire that remains, the sneaky one, is sending up a lazy smudge, and an easy southwesterly is taking it over Victoria, towards the Big Smoke. I'm keeping my eye on it.