My Enclave of Entropy, and Virtue
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Dave, the digital doofus.
”As we sometimes see individuals following habits different from those proper to their species… we might expect that such individuals would occasionally give rise to new species, having anomalous habits, and with their structure either slightly or considerably modified from that of their type. And such instances occur in nature.”
– Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter VI
Sometimes on trips to town and beyond (“town,” for us, being the city of Yellowknife 165 miles away), when I am masquerading as a normal, upper-middle-class citizen of the developed world, hobnobbing with friends and associates, or when I am in correspondence or telephone conversation with distant friends and family, I am suddenly struck by a thought: “These people have not the slightest flippin’ idea where I started my day, or how utterly different my routine of life is from theirs.” I am now sixty-four years old, and for forty-some years and counting I have never had indoor plumbing, grid-connected power, or central heat. Kristen and I sold our last road vehicle, as in a car or truck, 22 years ago. Good-bye and good riddance. When we need a car, or a truck, or a taxi-cab, we hire one. Then when we are done, we give it back and go home (usually aboard our vehicle -- another noisy, polluting, expensive vehicle -- called an airplane.)
I think it is universal human nature to assume that we know how the lives of other people – especially those we know well – must look and feel, day by day, year by year. And of course, in that assumption we are all utterly mistaken. It is not just that the grass looks greener on the other side of the hill. It’s that it’s often not green, and might not even be grass.
About a year ago The Writers’ Union of Canada invited members to an onscreen “visit” with Margaret Atwood, and I signed up. The event was hosted by a British writer’s group, so for us it took place early in the morning, our time. Margaret joined us at breakfast, so to speak, on the screen of Kristen’s computer, way out here at the Hoarfrost River. It was amazing, all things considered.
I was fascinated. I have always admired Atwood for her steadfast refusal to play along with political correctness, to kowtow to the rampant groupthink of identity politics, or to be co-opted by any clique or camp. She speaks and writes eloquently, of course, in her own articulate and artistic voice. That morning was back during the harsh pandemic lockdown period in Ontario, so Margaret mostly just showed her anonymous audience around her Toronto working space, her home office. All the while chatting affably into her screen and answering a few questions that people had sent to the moderator. Walking to the file cabinets, opening drawers in her desk, perusing the bookshelves and telling us what books they held and how they were arranged.
After that forty-five-minute Zoom glimpse right into this literary giant’s working headquarters, on that dark sub-arctic winter morning, I ambled down to my own office in the north end of our big log workshop. Hmm, thought I. Kind of a different feel to things here, Margaret.
How so? Well, there’s the smell for one thing. (What is that cologne you’re wearing, sir?) Strong overtones of spruce woodsmoke, subtle whiffs of gasoline vapors, aviation hydraulic oil, hints of thawing dog food, stray stale pipe tobacco, melting moose-meat, just to name the major components of this magical (carefully guarded, highly proprietary) mix.
Then the visuals. Hmm. Cluttered hardly seems to do it justice. Entropy comes immediately to mind. “A measure of the randomness, disorder, or chaos in a system.”
The entropic upheaval and tightly-packed near-chaos of this space, especially now, in deep winter, is well beyond “cluttered.” It is to clutter what a tornado is to a brief summer thundershower. Let’s have a look around.
Front and center, poised by the door, here are two gas-powered generators, “big yellow” and “little yellow” stacked one on top of the other. (thus some of the whiff of gasoline, despite all best efforts). There are two chainsaws, old and trusty Husqvarna, and older and still trusty Jonserud (more dribbles of gasoline vapors, I suppose.) There is the big bank of lead-acid batteries up against the east log wall, under the window, the transformer for the wind generator, the various chargers and charge regulators of the homestead, all fed by solar, wind, and – in winter’s calm and darkness – about two or three hours a day of a busily humming generator, see above.)
And yes, that is blood on the floor. Moose blood to be precise, after a sled with a moose head and a hind quarter aboard was slid in here to stay unfrozen last week, and after getting cracked on a rough ride down one of the steep trails following an at-last-successful moose hunt. Oh happy day. Some of the moose juice soaked into the bottom of my cloth “town briefcase” overnight, and that will surely elicit some renewed attention from the pet dog where I sometimes stay overnight. More raised eyebrows. It’s fun to be considered, uh, “interesting.”
Everywhere around the ten-by-sixteen foot room with its ten-foot high ceiling, there are big jugs and pails of liquids: chainsaw bar oil, canola oil, aviation engine oil, airplane hydraulic fluid, white carpenter’s glue. A big table just north of the battery and the power regulators is covered with battery chargers for cordless electric tools, now including an ice auger and our oldest daughter’s new electric (!) chainsaw.
In most of the rest of “everywhere you look” are books and papers and folders and files and binders, on about seven different shelves and levels, and strewn all up and down the twelve-foot double-wide two-by-twelve that I still refer to as my “desk” but for which I should use some other name – as does everyone else in the family.
The desk is a long flat surface festooned not only with reams of papers and booklets and maps, but also – at a quick glance – a tube of silicone caulk, an old Sony cassette tape player (still works!), four cans of pens and pencils and paint markers, three little rechargers for small batteries, stray phone books, a busted aircraft thermometer, a landline phone in its cradle, various black wires with various end pieces and either AC or DC plug-ins... and I could go on and on but I won’t. This is getting ridiculous.
Across on the other side of the narrow room are strewn, all winter long, the many parts and pieces of cold-weather bushplane operation in the far north – at least four electric “Buddy heaters” all re-wired with new cord after the stock cord failed on each of them in the cold, big black duct for the propane Tundra Toaster heater, a spare five-pound pony keg of propane (Horrified gasps from many quarters. Quarters inhabited by readers who do not realize that when one really needs the propane for an emergency aircraft heat-up, it needs to be warm, not gelled. And relax, there is no property insurance here. Never has been, never will be. Some buildings, in some locations, are insurable; some, in the far outback, simply are not.)
On that big south wall east of the shelves of airplane paraphernalia is a map at 1:500,000 scale, an inch to eight statute miles, depicting the home range of our flying business. 60th parallel north to the Arctic Ocean coast, and from longitude 103 to about 115 degrees west. Call it roughly 175,000 square miles. Pin and measuring string and protractor hanging at Hoarfrost River, just below center of the area.
Now we are getting close to the very heart of the matter. It’s back here, right past the collage of bent propeller blade, busted piston ring and frayed mooring line, with the instructional placard referring to the display “Always Remember the Seven P’s: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
We have come finally to the soul, the raison d’etre of this enclave. The essential reason why all of this stuff is crammed into this room. The woodstove. Not very big, but a beauty of efficiency. RSF made some great stoves back in the day, and this one, with a long life already behind it, was spotted on a local trading website by a savvy friend who snapped it up and phoned us, then cleaned it all out and delivered it to the airport. It is ticking along as I write, and my sweater is about to be pulled off again for the second time this evening. It is warm with a capital W in here. Just the way we like this little corner of the homestead, when it’s forty below outside in the dark.
Because, you see, this entire space, in January, is all about the heat. Most of the really tiresome clutter is in here because of a need to thaw, or stay warm, or heat up, in order to be of any use to us at all. Outside this room, even in the rest of the interior of the workshop, it may as well be out in deep space. Little by little, right on through the autumn and into the start of winter, right through the depth of winter and on out the far side sometime in late April or early May, warmth is everything. Things come in here and they do not leave for months except to go outside to work or to be used. Then to be hustled right back in to Mama again, in the warmth. On this homestead, there are only two spaces that are kept warm all winter, to the best of our ability and the limitations of wood-only, no-backup-from-anything-else heat, and this is one of them. “Dave’s Office.” The other, 180 feet away, is “The House.”
Thoreau summed it all up in his essay, A Winter’s Walk. “In the winter, warmth stands for all virtue.” I think I will carve that sentence on the door here.
My office is a paragon of unassailable virtue tonight. And yes, I can even get some writing done here. I kind of dig this place, if you must know. It suits me. Yes, Darwin might well consider me anomalous, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that my species is truly endangered. A pity, really, because “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken,” as my old pal Bert Hyde liked to say.
Bonus fact to mark the end of January, the third month of Winter Dark, and the onset of Winter Light (February, March, April): Sam, our solar-power guru in northern Alberta, told me the other day that a solar panel rated for 80 watts at “room temperature” (22 degrees Celsius, about 72 degrees American), will put out nearly 100 watts at minus 30 degrees. This made me smile. I knew there was some improvement with solar panels in deep cold, but I had no idea it was in the realm of 20 to 25 percent. And it just gets better, the colder it gets. Which is why solar panels are so powerful out in space. Cool, eh?