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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The joy of keeping it simple

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 3/6/24

This morning began as would any other. A little stiffness in my knees as my feet touched the floor. Strands of hair criss crossing my cheeks, the sign of a restless night’s sleep. I felt a …

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The joy of keeping it simple


This morning began as would any other. A little stiffness in my knees as my feet touched the floor. Strands of hair criss crossing my cheeks, the sign of a restless night’s sleep. I felt a whoosh of wonder at the break of another new day— something I’ve learned should not be taken for granted.
Duffy was anxious. More than ready to go out for his morning walk. I shifted into “patience mode” as his joy for the morning poured out with raucous barking. A few gentle pats calmed him. He sat quietly watching my every move as I searched for his leash and suited up for the blustery wind that whined beyond the walls.
We stepped out into the bitter cold that had blown in overnight. The path was icy and a near slip reminded me to stay focused on my footing. Overheard stories of broken wrists, sprained ankles and bell-ringing bumps to heads helped keep me on point. It was early. No birds were singing. I imagined them still clinging to their precarious perches. No noise yet from the nearby highway. Just the wind in the trees and the faint jingle of Duffy’s dog tags.
The full moon was faintly visible, low in the west. Through the tangled crowns of aspen, the eastern sky took on a soft violet haze as the sun took its time rising. I stopped to absorb the mystical feeling of the woods around me, where wildlife was hunkered down in waiting, perhaps as anxious as I was, for the eventual arrival of spring.
Once returned to a warm house, I took up my morning ritual. I lit the gas lamps, drew water for the coffee kettle, and dug through the wood box, in search of the right mix of birch bark, kindling, and starter wood, to dispel the overnight’s chill from the room. I ground some coffee beans for that first pour-over. How I love the aroma that comes with that first sip of coffee. One of life’s simplest pleasures enjoyed by people all over the world.
The sun rose and it looked like a perfect day out there. Duffy’s morning walk had teased the desire to get back outside. The day before, my wood vendor had delivered a new, hefty load of firewood, cut and split, just waiting to be stacked. Having now burned almost all of my previous supply, there was space available in the woodshed. So, dressed right, this would be a good day to start picking away at it. Some people I know tell me I should switch to propane. “Oh,” they groan. “Wood is so much work.” My response is aways this. “It’s what keeps me in shape. And I don’t have to pay a membership fee. I just step out my front door on my own schedule and enjoy the beautiful scenery and the sense of satisfaction seeing the fruits of my labor. I have no furnace to fix and no fear of a power failure.” Honestly, I love heating with wood. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced the difference for yourself. There’s just something special about wood heat. And I know there are many folks out there who would agree.
My experience with wood heat began in the early 1970s when the “Back to the Land” movement first emerged. Thousands of young people began moving to rural areas across the country, a proverbial migration that some have called “the second wave of American homesteaders.” I had felt the desire to “move to the country” for as long as I could remember. So, as a young and idealistic 22-year-old, I joined the ranks and began living on the outskirts of town renting abandoned farmhouses or mountain cabins whenever possible. In the 80s, I read a book entitled “Voluntary Simplicity” by Duane Elgin who laid out a framework for a simpler lifestyle. With solid reasoning, he provided alternative ways to find happiness that challenged the cultural norms of excessive consumption and “the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.” I discovered the writings of Wendell Berry which encouraged the practice of gratitude for “that which we already have,” and the state of peace that comes from contentment. He wrote of his deep reverence for land and “place.”
These writings endowed me with a language for my core values. Before Elgin and Berry, I’d had other powerful influences growing up. One was my mother who took pride in, and modeled for her children, the values of being frugal and resourceful which she acquired having grown up during The Great Depression. The other was my discovery at a very early age the power of nature to calm and comfort me. These sources of wisdom have continued to support and guide me throughout my life.
It took me many years and many moves before I came upon the right place to set down roots. I began my “homestead” in northern Minnesota’s wild woods and wetlands— a dream finally fulfilled. Here, a person could live simply, raise a family, and have a good life! Land was affordable. There were no shopping malls to constantly trigger that “need” for the latest gadgets and fashion trends. Life here rewarded honest work and getting good at “making do with what you had.” Two generations of migrants had arrived before me and practiced their own unique versions of “voluntary simplicity.” I was amazed at how willing they were to share with me their knowledge and advice. What had started as mere concepts gradually became my life. That was 1979. My joy in living here, 45 years later, is as strong as it ever was. For this, I am forever grateful.