Fetch Wood, Carry Water

is the title of a Peter Rowan song I’ve been kicking around in my head for awhile. Like most of Peter Rowan’s stuff, it has a certain ageless quality that makes me feel like I’ve known it all my life. When I first heard it, I sort of assumed it must belong to the same storied vernacular as songs like Whiskey in the Jar, Stagger Lee, Jack-A-Roe, Man of Constant Sorrow, songs that have existed for so long in so many different versions nobody knows who wrote them anymore, and it feels perfectly possible nobody wrote them at all, they just appeared, fully formed, out of the fabric of the universe just in time for the invention of the fiddle. Archetypal. Like the figure of a Michelangelo slave inside living granite waiting for the chisel.

There are stories like that too.

When I hear something like that for the first time, I have a tendency to go digging for its history, trying to feel out the shapes of the ideas that formed its roots. I figure for an element of story to hang on so long, to endure so many changes and keep going, is a sign that there’s some fundamental truth at its core, some lesson to be learned. The study of the horned god I undertook for last year’s solstice is an example of this; I’ve done it with King Lear, Baba Yaga, the myth of the Flood.

I tried to do this with “Fetch Wood, Carry Water”, and found out I was wrong. Rowan wrote it in 2001; that’s as far back as the song’s history goes.

Or so I believed until the other day, when I came across the following Buddhist proverb in some insane occult/new age literature, while researching the concept of spiritual ascension:

Before enlightenment, fetch wood, carry water. After enlightenment, fetch wood, carry water.

Turns out Peter Rowan, bluegrass balladeer, pulled those lyrics out of Eastern philosophy and used them to write a reggae song. That is exactly the kind of universal wisdom I’m looking for.

Now those words keep coming back to me, whatever I’m doing.

I’m pretty sure the point of these koan thingies is not to try to explicate all the wisdom out of them, but to contemplate in silence, glean from them what lessons you can without having to put it into words.

But words are kind of the point for me—both means and end, if you know what I mean.

Suffice it to say I think there’s a powerful message here for the struggling writer. It’s about perseverance, about knowing what’s essential, and about the importance of returning often to the fundamentals no matter how far one may stray. There’s no such thing as too much enlightenment. In fact, you can never have enough. But you’ll always need water and wood.

Here’s a version of the Peter Rowan song I’m pretty sure it is legal for me to share:
“Fetch Wood, Carry Water” – Peter Rowan & Donna the Buffalo, 5-2-2001 (13.5 mb)


  1. I was enjoying reading your good writing and was thinking about adding a permanent link to your blog but I tend to limit to a narrower range of topics. I’ll try to visit occasionally and I hope you will let me know if you find anything unusual built in woods.

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