OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.
            –  Garrison Keillor, radio story-telling and author


Our farm is part of a small North Country community that has a reputation as a “Christmas Village.” December visitors say the town reminds them of one of those toyland Currier-and-Ives hamlets in the water-filled snow globes found on every coffee table during the holiday season. You shake the globe and watch the snowstorm fall on the quaint, picture-perfect, rural village.

Our town is the commercial center of a five-county area, so Main Street is happily busy with Christmas shoppers from late November through December. Add in the Christmas concerts staged by the local college, the pageants performed by the schools, the holiday festival parade, the community theater’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” sales at all the retail stores, and a dozen other events of the season, and there is a constant stream of out-of-towners flowing through every street, shop, and café.

These new faces in the crowd are a good thing for the community, even an old curmudgeon like me will admit, but out-of-area visitors do force us to change established habits for a few weeks. For example, I have to use the turn signals on my pickup while driving on city streets because I cannot assume all other drivers will recognize my battered, ten-year-old Ford and know where I am headed and onto which side street I will turn.

There are other annoyances. During the rest of the year we become accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of small town life – saying hello to everyone we pass on the street, leaving keys in car ignitions, seldom locking doors, never carrying any form of identification, being on a first name basis with every person in town and most of the dogs – and these become the routine behaviors of our species of homo-erectus-ruralis in a carefully maintained habitat. We are discomforted to discover in December that hundreds of outsiders are looking at us askance, sometimes rudely gawking, as if we were the semi-tame bears along the roadside in a national park.

I can’t blame them for being fascinated by our curious antics, I suppose, but it is irritating at times. I don’t like being stared at. I especially dislike being sniffed.

Standing in line to buy two pairs of heavy wool hiking socks at the Chick Hatchery (if you are not aware that the Decorah Hatchery sells the best quality woolen goods in the three-state area, you are obviously not a local resident) I heard the gentleman behind me say to his wife, “Is the bakery right next door? I think I smell cookies burning.”

What he smelled, of course, was the faint odor of wood smoke emanating from my chore jacket. Before driving to town I had hurriedly opened the door of the stove to load it with a few splits of red elm, and having failed to adjust the flu to allow the chimney’s draft to pull all the smoke from the firebox, I caused a puff to escape and engulf me. This happens every few days, so my coats and hats and sweaters have a “Little House on the Prairie” ambiance most of the winter.

During my working days at the college many of my city-raised students thought this fragrance was ruggedly romantic in a Foxfire back-to-the-land way. All of us who heat our homes with wood think of it as a natural aroma of winter life, if we think of it at all. However, a number of December’s out-of-towners sniff us and then give us a studied look as if they cannot decide whether we are members of the volunteer fire department just back from an emergency call or if we have been incinerating discarded tires at the landfill.

Not only do I have to unwontedly perform the role of national park bear, I have to be Smokey the Bear.

My smokiness is part of me and is not likely to change until years hence when they take away my chainsaw and splitting mauls and force me to stop enjoying the pleasures of heating my dwelling with a wood fire. Hopefully the science and technology of solar power will have advanced enough by then to stop the insanity of destroying the livability of the Earth through the industry of wringing every last bit of fossil fuels from its substrata.

Until then, I wear my wood smoke aroma as a badge of honor in the fight against this madness. With every cord of firewood grown, cut, split and stacked on my own land, I have the satisfaction of poking the giant petroleum corporations in the nose. Not that they give a sniff.

Besides, I like the smell. Too much time spent in the company of bird dogs over the decades has no doubt made me overly discerning of scents, but to me a trace of wood smoke is much more appealing than a strong waft of cologne or perfume that does not enhance a person’s odor but masks what should be a pleasant and familiar human smell with a scent that is decidedly un-human.

The scent of wood smoke also brings me happiness.There are few moments in life as wonderful as coming in from the cold of winter to a country kitchen warmed by a red-hot wood stove with a tea kettle steaming and spitting on its back corner. A trace of wood smoke will hang in the air after you put one more chunk of hard oak in the firebox.

Now, you tell me a better scent-memory than that.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
This entry was posted in Outdoor humor, Wood Stoves and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Smokey

  1. uplandish says:

    And nothing compares to the bone penetrating heat a wood fire gives off.
    once again I agree with you. I grew up with a wood stove and all the trimmings. I got my first gun and truck with money earned from chopping and hauling firewood.
    When I was in school and living in a cheap cut rate apartment ( electric heat) I once followed my nose into to a one of those Metaphysics books stores where the sold crystals and various flavors of incense – one of which was Cedar. I ended up starting a $10.00 a month cedar incense habit to make my apartment smell a little more homey. I still burn it occasionally when its too warm for a fire.

    • A friend who lived in Hibbing, Minnesota, once said, “If you heat your house with a gas furnace, you get gusts of heat for ten minutes and then cold for a half hour. If you heat with a wood stove, the house is warm all the time.” We have not ever tried burning scented incense, but I fail to open the flu about one time in four when I’m loading firewood into the stove, so the resultant escape of smoke — elm, oak, walnut, cherry — probably accomplishes the same thing. Not always well-received by my better half, however. 🙂

  2. Jessie says:

    “I especially disliked being sniffed.” – Ahh… the dogs haven’t rubbed all their bad habits off on you yet then! 🙂

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