Woodcutter’s wisdom

November 17, 2006

A father and his son left the city, and went to live in the wilderness. They found themselves a cabin high up north by a quiet lake. The days were growing shorter and winter was fast approaching. The boy was sent out to cut firewood, and every day he returned with a cartload. Soon the pile grew almost as big as the cabin, but still his father urged him on. One day his body was so tired and sore that he couldn’t get out of bed. His father gave him a worried look, and told him to take the day off.

Later that day the father crossed the lake to the Indian village at the other side. He asked to be taken to the village elder who offered him a seat by the cosy little fire in his tent. The father knit his brow, and asked the wise old man if he thought it’d be a cold winter this year. Oh yes, the old Indian said, I think it will be a very cold winter. And so the father returned to his son with the sad tidings, and once again the son had to leave the cabin to cut firewood in the forest.

A week or so later, neither father nor son could cut or stack firewood anymore. Their backs hurt, their arms hung limp by their sides, and the look in their eyes seemed dead and empty. Still the father wasn’t sure whether they had gathered enough wood to last them through the winter. Afraid of what he might learn, he nonetheless once again set out to cross the lake, and visit the wise old man in the Indian village.

He arrived just the day after a big party in the village. The old Indian had a bad hangover, and when the father asked him if he still thought that it was gonna be a cold winter, he got the same reply as before. Yes, it was gonna be a cold winter, even colder than he had thought before, yes, perhaps even one of the coldest ever. Distraught and almost about to give up the whole thing, the father once more returned to his son with the depressing news.

The next day both father and son went to the forest, but they couldn’t cut anymore. Instead they just picked up whatever branches they found lying on the ground. At the end of the day they hadn’t really gathered that much, and as the days wore on, they gathered even less, next to nothing, just a few twigs and leaves. It was clear that they couldn’t go on like this, and one day the son told his father that he would join him on one last trip to the Indian village across the lake. And if the village elder still thought that they needed to gather more firewood, they would have to call the cabin quits, and return to their comfortably heated New York apartment.

When they neared the other bank they could make out the wise old Indian sitting cross-legged by the lake, smoking a pipe. The father greeted him with waving arms, sore from cutting and carrying. When they stepped away from the raft, their feet felt heavy and dragging. Please, they implored of the old man, please tell us that the winter isn’t gonna be any colder yet, please.

But the old Indian wouldn’t hear of it. No, he said, no I’m afraid I can’t help you. It is most definitely gonna be the coldest winter I ever laid eyes upon.

How come you be so sure, the father replied almost accusingly.

Isn’t it obvious, the old Indian said, it’s gonna be the coldest winter ever in my life, because never before have I seen white men cut so much wood. But what about you? What do you think?

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