Twice warmed by Country Journal

“Me I’ll sit and write this love song
as I all too seldom do
build a little fire this midnight
it’s good to be back home with you”

— Jethro Tull

We like to burn wood in our fireplace, when burn bans are not in effect, of course. I suppose firewood is cheaper here than in North Platte, Nebraska, but even so, we scrounge rounds where we can. I used to drive a Ford F150 pickup, and every once in a while I’d pass a yard where a tree had recently been felled and chopped into rounds, and if the owner was nearby or a “FREE” sign had been set out, I’d be able to stop and wrestle several of them up into the pickup to split later.

My old “buckboard”, as I called the truck, is gone now, and we have only our Subaru Forester, so it is usually Angela who notices the rounds by the roadside. She tells me about them, but it’s seldom I can find time to get back to wherever it was, and then the Subaru doesn’t hold a lot. Still, we score frequently enough that I always seem to have a few rounds to split. Scrounging rounds is fun and economically sound, and it encourages one to think ahead into one’s “future on the land” because firewood has to dry for six months to a year after it is split before it will burn efficiently, or in some cases, burn at all. You have to keep your stock a few seasons ahead of your need. I find that the process of finding, hauling, splitting, stacking and burning firewood goes a long way toward that connection I’m always seeking to the land and the earth’s cycles.

Not bad for a city boy.

I don’t mind the splitting and chopping. They say that if you cut your own firewood it warms you twice. I actually get warmed multiple times for each split log that goes into our fireplace because I have always moved my woodpiles so often, or restacked them once they’ve collapsed.  This year I finally built a little rack to stack my split wood in. I didn’t plan it out very thoroughly, I just started by laying some wood rails on some pier blocks (level both side-to-side and front-to-back, of course), then raising some end posts so that the pile would not tumble outward. It’s open on all sides so the wind can blow across the log ends, really more like a corn crib than a shed. When it was finished it seemed a shame to have my newly stacked wood rained and snowed on, so I contrived a slanted shingle roof for it, but because of the way the roof supports are determined by the location of the bottom rails, the roof couldn’t conveniently cover all the area occupied by the wood. The ends of the longer logs stick out a little bit. Still, I’m pretty happy with it. I had to figure out how to lay shingles, which was intuitive enough except for the first (bottom) course, and the last (top). My dad helped me think through what would have been the ridgecap if the structure had had a ridge instead of a simple lean-to slope.

In shifting some things in the garage yesterday, I came across my three-year subscription to Country Journal magazine, 1992 through 1994. I encountered this wonderful periodical when I was living in rural Ohio in 1991. There are glossy magazines that are targeted toward city-dwellers and have a vague countryish theme, but they’re really for people with six-figure incomes who live in places with names like “Elkwood Crest” on the outskirts of big cities, where forests have been knocked down and meadows turned into outlet store malls, where there are no more elk and no more woods. These magazines do not use the word “manure”, and they’re really about interior decorating with antiques, presenting that sanitized and effortless vision of ruralness that everybody seems to instinctively love. We subscribed to one of them for a while recently. The recipes were good, the interiors impressive. If you had a few mil, you too could buy a farm and turn the dairy shed into a temperature controlled library. 

Country Journal was NOT that. Country Journal didn’t even have a tagline, like “Celebrating life on the land” or “Living in harmony with the seasons.” It didn’t have to, because it was exactly what its name suggested it was. Its focus for decades was how-to articles with such tantalizing titles as “A Sugarhouse You Can Build Yourself”, “Buying Farmland”, “Attracting Barn Owls”, “Keeping a Small Engine Running”, “Build a Low-Cost Pole Barn”, “Choosing a Saddle Horse”, “Buying Lumber from a Sawmill”, “The Amateur Blacksmith”. Every issue had more than one practical article on how to make something, repair something, find materials for something, find a market or a supplier for something, or choose the best something for one’s purpose. These articles were accompanied by lavish drawings and figures.

Other articles treated of the habits, distribution and basic biology of foxes, hawks, otters, vultures, whistling swans, porcupines, weasels and other creatures with whom the readership (imagined by the editors to be mainly New Englanders, it seemed) was likely to be sharing their land. There were poems and essays, and departments for recipes and product reviews and new vegetable varieties that performed well here or there. Then there were the special sections: “106 Essential Tools for the Garden, Home, and Woodlot”, “Fences and Gates”, “How to Sell What You Grow”, “Garden Plans for the Smallholding”. There were letters, of course, because as the editor once noted in his monthly “Letter from Plum Hill”, the magazine’s readership was so broad and knowledgeable that as a group, they knew everything.

Generations of knowledge about getting along on the land -- plus beautiful drawings!

I loved Country Journal. I subscribed starting with the January/February issue of 1992, on the cover of which, beneath the name, was written “Our 18th Year”. The magazine had done well. It had won a National Magazine Award in 1975. Circulation was high, advertising revenue was flowing well, and the readership extended all the way to Thailand. I read what I had time to read, and carefully stored my stack against the day I would have my own place on the land and could make proper use of all the how-to articles. I was sure this would happen.

It never did, or at least it hasn’t yet. We live on a 5000-square-foot city lot, much of it a 70 (or more) degree slope. I’m not complaining. We have a beautiful life, and as you know we coaxed some food out of the ground here this past year. But I’ve kept my handful of CJ numbers all the same. The magazine was sold several times and finally disappeared around 2000. A media group that publishes those monthly apartment-for-rent and houses-for-rent magazines — the kind you pick up free between the sliding doors at grocery stores — bought Country Journal and announced that they were relaunching it in 2001, but I never heard burp nor shiver out of it again. It was inevitable. The writing was excellent (“A septic tank problem is like falling in love: The sensation is hard to define, but when it happens you know”), the content immeasurably valuable, and the design and printing materials superb. It was a Camelot that publishing can never go back to because from cover to cover it was of a quality that no publisher can now afford. That it lasted so long is a miracle I am grateful for.

It occured to me that somewhere in the pages of my issues of Country Journal there might be an article on building a firewood crib, now that I had already gone to the trouble of building one. I opened the treasured magazines today, perused their yellowed pages (but not too yellowed — the paper was good stuff) and found that indeed, in just the short time I was a subscriber Country Journal published one article on roofs and roofing materials, including wood shingles, and another on building a woodshed. The woodshed would not have fit in my yard, so it’s not like I’m kicking myself or anything.

And anyway, someday when we have our own patch of farmland I can build the Country Journal woodshed. It’ll be right next to the sugarhouse.


13 Responses to “Twice warmed by Country Journal”

  1. 1 Jeni November 28, 2009 at 23:15

    Hey Chew
    Didn’t know you had that magazine!! it was my dream for a really long time too. I LOVED the magazine and the imagery it conjured up in my mind. So practical…for that some day. Kind of like being able to pick Dad’s brain at will on any subject pertaining to the land and living in the Country! I didn’t keep them, but I’ll know who to ask if I’m ever in need of one!!
    A well made wood shed. Congrats!

    • 2 jstwndrng November 29, 2009 at 01:13

      Dude no way! I’m flabbergasted! I didn’t know you subscribed to CJ, or maybe I did know and I just forgot. It made me cry every month when it came in the mail, so badly did I want a reason to go looking for a new handle for some farm tool. Like Dad’s brain, yes, it was what the editor once described as “less of a magazine and more like a clearing house of knowledge” about living on the land. That’s what I loved about it, too. It was like a beautifully unfolding database that you could hold in your hands and flip through. Drat that you hucked yours. I’m trying to track down the rest of the issues from 1974 through 2000. You never know when you might need to erect a grist mill.

  2. 4 Ben F November 30, 2009 at 15:30

    I’ve always wanted to learn about “gristing”. Unlike the rest of my siblinghood it would appear I have not been a subscriber to “CJ” and for this I beg your pardon, although for a few months I was on the membership of “Horticulture” magazine. I have no idea why, let the subscription run its course, then did not “re-up”. I must admit a strange attraction to the farm and the “life on the land”. Perhaps it is our [edited]* roots pushing up. Increasingly, I find myself marveling at the mixture of ancestry I have become. I can clearly define the [edited], the [edited] and the [edited] in me. I have never known anyone in Grandma [edited]’s “[edited]” bunch so I cannot say the same for that branch, however I suspect it would reveal itself if we knew but where to look.

    In enthusiasm for your latest yard venture, I ran out this morning to photograph my own log pile, only realizing later that I cannot load pictures in these replies. So you’ll have to find the results on FB is suppose. Envision if you will, your brother traipsing through freshly fallen snow to go about with a camera, taking pictures of woodpiles. My wife’s eyebrow is definitely tilted, wondering “what the heck is he up to?” I forgot to mention, I wasn’t wearing any winter footwear as in the “Lands End” ads, nor was I wearing the plaid wool Mackinaw as I gathered in the wood. Actually I was prancing about in a pair of University Fire sweatpants, riding low on my keister. This is not due to fashion sense, but more due to the Carhart long underwear which has a slick surface, causing my sweats to slip. My feet are clad in a pair of black Crocs, lined in polar fleece (only sold in Alaska). This of course does not lend itself to the traditional holiday ad images, but you will find my wood stacks fo interest I’m sure, nonetheless.

    *Apologies for hack-job on comment, but must remind fam members not to use our family’s last names. Thanks! — Ed.

    • 5 jstwndrng November 30, 2009 at 16:08

      Hey Pompier,
      I think you can insert links in these comments, directly to Flickr or FB. I’ve heard from Mom and Dad about your woodpile. I’m sure it would make me salivate, or make my wrists ache thinking about splitting it. If I lived in an UNINHABITABLE LAND OF FROZENNESS I would have a firewood supply like that, too. Hey, sorry to butcher your paragraph above, but I’m still leaning toward extra caution with family last names here. I still strip off the last name from Jeni and your comments. Strangers who wanted to find out who we were could do so pretty quickly if they’d a mind, but let’s not make it easy for them, eh? Thanks for the image of the Alaskan “Pale (Low)Rider”. I’m enriched.

  3. 6 Kip December 3, 2009 at 15:03

    Um, I really enjoyed the Jethro Tull quote. And I like a real wood fire, not a gas fireplace like most new homes here in Boise have.

  4. 8 Kip December 5, 2009 at 12:26

    Oh, if only I had a wood burning fireplace! I’m so not a fan of the gas fireplace, I don’t even have the gas turned on to it. It’s so impersonal and boring. No crackling, no smell of woodsmoke in the neighborhood, no real warmth…emotional or otherwise.


  5. 10 Ben December 7, 2009 at 14:47


    Imagine myself as, ..well myself, stepping out to gather wood for the fire. I stop just outside the door, inhale the Alaskan air, pulling it deeply through my nose into my lungs and think,..”*&^%!@, My neighbor has fired up his outdoor coal boiler and it smells like a powerplant in my back yard!”

    Freedom from excessive laws comes with a price.

  6. 12 hboswell December 16, 2013 at 18:31

    I know, this is a long-dead post, but I was reminiscing about Country Journal tonight and found your post. That’s exactly the way I remember it. I still have several old issues, I just can’t them go. I’ll probably never have the place in the country like I dreamed of, but I still love the dream.

    • 13 Matt December 16, 2013 at 21:30

      Hi hboswell,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. There is nothing dead about this post. I monitor all comments like the eager, approval-starved dog I am. Don’t let those issues of CJ go. You just never know where your journey will take you, do you? You just never know.

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