When the first light snows hit, we didn’t take it as a warning, but as proof of our own good fortune. There we were, tucked up in the log cabin in front of a roaring fire, sipping brandy and swapping stories, while outside the first storm of winter was just starting. We all remarked on how lucky we were to see something so picturesque.
The next morning, snow had settled so heavily that we struggled to open the front door, which was a reason to put our boots on and go for a walk. We felt the scrunch underfoot as we frolicked like little kids, catching flakes on our tongues and diving on the ground to make snow angels.
We should have been collecting firewood. Instead, we made a snowman. I ran back to the cabin to get a carrot for the nose and took the opportunity to warm my hands on the fire. When I came back out, I got a snowball in the face.
War had been declared in my absence, with shots flying across no-man’s land until only our exhaustion and the rising wind called for an armistice. Both sides trooped back to base where we toasted our valour with marshmallows over the fire. Everyone agreed that the snow would ease up overnight, our intuition combining with the half-remembered mottos of grandparents to make meteorologists of us all.
But when the morning came, the snow was so heavy that we couldn’t see out of the window and we couldn’t step out the door. Repeated efforts to leave were stymied, so we agreed to hold tight and wait it out. As the winds howled outside, we swapped fire-building techniques, discussing and demonstrating one method after another with no mind given to how it affected our reserves of firewood. It was profligate. Foolish. Fun. I dimly recall someone expressing concern about the waste, but while I can’t be 100% clear as to who said it, I certainly remember the jeering and boos that followed. Even those who agreed with the precaution only mumbled their agreement. No-one wanted to be labelled a killjoy.
I don’t know how long it was until someone did an actual inventory, but when the first assessment was made, everyone agreed that it must be wrong. But a recount proved it—we were already running low on firewood. After the initial gloom, we were rallied by the thought that the storm couldn’t possibly last much longer. Besides, we were in a forest. There was fuel all around us. The fact that it was temporarily out of reach didn’t mean we would never be able to get at it. One had to be optimistic, the argument went, and not lose faith in tomorrow. Someone actually said ‘water, water everywhere.’
Our patience with each other shrank at roughly the same rate as the woodpile. Sniping became the primary mode of communication, and the divisions in our happy camp became plain to see. There were those who said that this was about to turn into an emergency, that if the fire died then we would, too. There were others, though, who thought that these pessimists were just agitating everyone and making the situation worse. OK, so firewood was running a little low, but it wasn’t all bad news. We still had plenty of marshmallows and there were plenty of other options to explore when the last log went on the fire.
Contrary to what you might think, there was no debate about burning the books. They were the first to go. Then the shelves and the table by the fire. Everyone agreed that heat was more important than comfort, so we smashed the chairs and cast them to the flames. Then it was the beds and blankets.
It all burned so fast, though, and in the heat of the moment we were desperate to find something, anything, everything, that would keep the fire burning just a little while longer. We sacrificed everything to the flames until we stood sweating, shivering and naked in front of the fire, looking around in the dimming light for anything else to burn.
But there was nothing left. Everything in the cabin had been burned.
Apart from the cabin itself.
It was made of wood, went the argument. Why shouldn’t we use all the resources available to us? It made perfect sense, at least to some. Others pointed out that the cabin was the only shelter we had, that without four walls and a roof we couldn’t survive.
The group split into two—those who wanted to use the cabin logs for fuel and those who were firmly set against it. Neither side could understand how the other could be so short-sighted. The argument went round and round, over and over, the same points again and again until someone eventually proposed a compromise.
Two walls and a section of the roof.
Some said the compromise was ridiculous, but they were soon shouted down. Everyone else was just so relieved that we had come to a decision and were finally doing something. Log by log, the first wall was dismantled and turned into fuel. We told ourselves that the new fissures were not so bad, that the blizzard coming in was perfectly tolerable. Some even said they found it a refreshing change from all that heat. As each log was removed, the hole got bigger and the cold got worse and the more people demanded fuel for the fire.
So, here we stand, our fronts too close to the flames and our backs to the chill of the wind. Periodically, people will rotate to swap hot and cold and when they do, others inevitably complain about the jostling. In those moments, knowing glances are exchanged and a silent understanding is building.
The problem isn’t heat, or fuel, or space.
The problem is people.
There just are too many people around the fire.