Where’s Paris in the Wood Smoke?

When I was imbibing the pinyon smoke and stacking the cord-wood yesterday, I felt as unconditionally happy as I did last summer in Paris when I walked down Rue Mouffetard with a freshly baked loaf of bread. Simple pleasures for simple people, I guess.

Two days earlier I learned with shock that the sawyer who has provided my firewood for 25 years couldn’t truck it across county lines this year. The transport ban is an effort to limit the spread of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species that has destroyed more than 10 million ash trees in the lower Great Lakes region. I’d spent the fall creating this blog instead of getting in my wood. Suddenly it looked like a long cold winter awaited. Then my son put me in touch with a buddy selling wood within the county. He came over Sunday morning with a one-ton Chevy dump truck that fit down my driveway, and he dropped that cord right where I wanted it. I put a John Hartford CD on the boom box in my garage and got to work. John Hartford’s songs about steamboats and muddy river bottoms never fail to take me back to my roots when I lived in an old water mill on the Little Miami River. One of his songs goes, “There’s nothing like a crooked old river to straighten your head right out.” And there’s nothing like a fortuitous pile of wood to make an old hippie/hillbilly happy in December. Except maybe a fresh baguette or a Cuban cigar. I lit a Monte Cristo (don’t tell my cardiologist or Condaleza Rice) and did a little clog dancing in the rain while stacking wood.

As water droplets dripped from my beard, I wondered for a moment, a fleeting moment, whether my attention had returned irrevocably to its native soil. Would Paris and all its allures dim and falter in my imagination? Naw. I heard the counterpoint of another song somewhere in my head. It’s an American song about  an American home away from home. “How can you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Pa-ree?”

Then I remembered a postcard found in our Paris apartment. It depicted a photo of our modest building taken sometime in the 1920s. The ground floor was occupied by a wood and coal merchant who also sold whiskey and tobacco on the side. Rue Mouffetard was a slum then, probably had been ever since the Phillippe Augustus wall fenced it out in the 12th century. In times of civil strife and revolution its hard-scrabble denizens had always been the first to man the barricades. I recalled passages in Les Mis, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast describing how the shivering masses of the Mouffe had to scrounge a sou just  to buy a few sticks at a time from the wood merchant.

There are hapless hillbillies everywhere, I thought, and with a month’s worth of firewood stacked and sheltered from the storm, I could be their king.

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4 Responses to Where’s Paris in the Wood Smoke?

  1. c.j. says:

    funny you should mention ‘a moveable feast.’ i was thinking while reading the second and third paragraphs of your post that sometimes your writing puts me borderlessly into another place (there must be a better way to say this, but if you’ve read ‘a moveable feast’ a few times, you already know what i’m talking about) – anyway, it’s a real gift you have. and that hemingway book does a better job of it than any other book i’ve read. have you ever assembled any of your writing besides on this blog? let me know if you have, i’d be interested in checking them out. thanks.

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks for the kind thought, c.j. Hemingway is definitely a presence in my personal literary pantheon. Ms. Modigliani and I re-read A Moveable Feast last summer in Paris while laid low by the flu. It was amazing to read the book just a block or two from the places he described. I loved his image of the goatherd who drove his flock up Rue Mouffetard every morning, selling buckets of goat’s milk to people in the neighborhood. I haven’t seen any goats there nowadays, which makes me think it could be a new career for me.

    Some of my essays and academic talks are published on my university web site:
    http://www.wright.edu/~mark.willis/index.html

    You might want to check out Big Water and Not This Pig.

    Thanks again for your interest,
    Mark

  3. tomrobertstennessee says:

    John Hartford performed in Knoxville’s renovated L&N railroad station in the early 90’s. He wore his attire of derby hat, white shirt, red suspenders, black slacks and black-and-white shoes. He spread sand on the floor where he stood playing the banjo, and made a swishing sound with his feet. I was mesmerized watching his whole body move fluidly while he performed his songs: dancing, singing, playing the banjo and attending percussion with his feet. His son, Jamie, then a teenager, accompanied him for a couple of songs on the mandolin. Late in the evening, when I thought the concert was ending, John took out a fiddle, and organized the audience into a square dance. He enthusiastically and patiently taught us some basic steps, and called spirited square dances until early in the morning. I was taken aback, Mark, when I read your reference to John Hartford in “Where’s Paris in the Wood Smoke?” Continuing on the theme of nostalgic memories breathed in with smoldering pinyon, I inhaled a whiff of gratitude remembering an evening in the company of this down-to-earth, fun-loving musician.

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, Tom, I’ve been remembering John Hartford a lot, too. I saw him sometime in the late 70s in an unlikely little bar in a strip mall in east Dayton. His fancy Nashville tour bus was bigger than the bar, so there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. At some point everyone there was on their feet and gathered around him as he played the fiddle and clog-danced on a piece of plywood with a microphone beneath it. I stood — or danced — right next to him. Like Taj Mahal, whom I saw several times in similar humble circumstances, he was an awesomely charismatic one-man show.

    And there is true poetry in his songs. I’ve sung snippets of them all my life. Like “It’s darker than the inside of a cow” (speaking of a foggy river at night) or “It’s too thick to navigate, it’s too thin to plow” (the murky ambiguity of river-bottoms and life itself sometimes). And then there was Brendan’s favorite Isle Royale paddling song when he was a boy: “For every day of work on the Illinois River — get a half a day off with pay — tow boats breaking up barges — on a long, hot summer day.”

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