Black ash is an unlovely tree. Last to leaf out in the spring (actually, by the time the leaves are fully developed the calendar has turned to early summer) and first to shed in the fall -- but not before those leaves turn gray-brown and shrivel up like so many dead spiders. The reproductive structures -- flowers is too generous a word -- resemble a series of diseased black growths that weigh down the ends of the branches. And the tree’s form could best be described as spindly. It is only in death that the tree achieves its true glory: black ash produces the best burning firewood in all of North America.
According to our neighbor, the grandson of one of the original settlers along this river, the Amnicon floodplain forest consisted almost entirely of black ash in 1900 when the Pukemas and Merilas and Helstroms -- Finns, all of them -- squared and dovetailed the trees into the houses, barns, and outbuildings of what was then called -- for reasons now obscured -- the colony of Outer Mongolia. No stores, no town halls, no government: the only public building was Johnsson's wind powered mill. And the community sauna house.
Each family, of course, had their own small sauna: these were Finns, after all, and winters on the shores of Lake Superior were cold back then with no hot water or central heat. These family saunas were small and quickly slapped together: often the first structure on a homestead was the sauna. Sometimes they were little better than a cave. Not many of these family saunas survived here: they were prone to burning down, to caving in, to rot and time and neglect.
But the big sauna where on Saturday night everyone gathered to talk and laugh and sweat in communal nakedness was a more substantial effort, constructed of thick logs squared and intricately dovetailed together, with windows trimmed and painted in the forest green color that was either beloved of those Finns or the only color stocked by the nearest hardware store. A twelve foot building with a brick chimney marking the center of the peaked roof, it's divided into two rooms: a vestibule with hooks for clothes, a changing bench, and the metal door of the wood stove; and the sauna itself, lined in fragrant red cedar and with the wood stove squatting in one corner, its flat top covered by layers of smooth river rocks. There's a spigot on the other end of the room, and a tank for heating water that's connected by an intricate series of pipes to the stove. The rest of the room is benches, two levels of them, wall to wall to ceiling.
The community sauna for Outer Mongolia is only a couple of hops from the point where the Amnicon River sweeps in a bend around our house, and because of this with time it has become part of this house's property. The sauna long ago ceded its significance in the community: the cable suspension bridge that united families on either side of the river was a casualty of a particularly violent "ice out" in the early 60s. The former owners of our property dedicated themselves to remodeling the house while they allowed the other buildings -- the two seater outhouse, the pump house with its watery pit, the square logged sauna -- to sink into disrepair.
No one had been inside the sauna for twenty years, and it showed. The floor under the spigot had buckled. The paneling in the vestibule was rotten. The roof leaked. The chimney liner was cracked, the cap broken. The bottom two logs on the river side of the building had disintegrated, replaced by a sheet of plywood which someone at least had the grace to paint "Finnish Green." Even the chinking between the logs -- torn and faded blue jeans -- had become loose and hung like streamers from the outside walls of the building.
I'd planned on setting to work on the sauna repair as soon as we moved in, but nine fox kits had usurped our human claim on the house: their family seemed to need the protection of the building far more than we did. Once the half-grown kits had dispersed, I did as much as I could with limits on budget and time: a new metal roof (green, of course), a patched and capped chimney. Mostly, I cleaned and scrubbed every surface inside the sauna, while outside I chain sawed and chopped into firewood the five black ash trees that had died in the tangled wilderness of our floodplain.
And last Saturday night I marked the first snowfall of the season with a rededication of the sauna house. The stove immediately impressed me with its efficiency, the repaired chimney drew like a champ. Initially I worried the fire too much: I kept opening the door to check on the progress of the flames until I realized that the stove was designed to burn better with the door closed. It took over an hour -- and six good-sized chunks of ash -- to heat the sauna room. During that time, I cooked and ate dinner, washed the dishes, swept the most recent few inches of snow off the path from the back door to the sauna. And then everything was ready.
At one time there had been electricity in the sauna, but no amount of flicking or replacement light bulbs could coax the connection back into existence. For this night, I brought a candle with me, and a flashlight. Years ago, my mother gave me an ingenious dipper fashioned by my grandfather -- a sculptor -- saying that I was probably the only member of my family who would ever find a use for it. And now I finally had.
The woodstove ticked as metal long cold heated. The water spigot -- I'd never gotten around to fixing it -- dripped into a bucket. Despite these niggling noises -- or perhaps because of them -- when I settled on the bench of the sauna everything seemed completely still: the stillness of a snow-shrouded winter night, the stillness of intimacy, of warmth, of a candle flame that doesn't flicker because there is no movement in the air. A world completely at peace.
I dipped water from the pail with the ladle made by my grandfather and sprinkled it on the river rocks -- red and slate and blue -- as steam hissed and rose. The heartwood of the black ash burned like the sun. Wood is the warmest heat: it's truer, more real, maybe because it draws its energy from the sun, a connection more direct than any other heat source. I climbed onto the highest benches, my head brushing the ceiling. The cedar wood was as smooth as glass, as metal, but warm from a hundred years of flesh that polished it to gloss with movement and with sweat. And outside, the snow continued to fall.
In the morning, a zipper of fox tracks tucked under the sauna floor. Another besides me had basked last night in the warmth of a black ash fire.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources