Woodchopping

Log-splitting is a satisfaction that ranks far above popping bubblewrap and just below squashing mosquitos. These days I live to see two quarters of basswood fall away from the blade like flakes of cod.

It’s lo-og, lo-og,
It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood.
It’s lo-og, lo-og,
It’s better than bad, it’s good.Everyone wants a log,
You’re gonna love it, log
Come on and get your log,
Everyone needs a log.

–Ren and Stimpy

Ranger Rick is a hero of mine, the Soo’s own Renaissance man. Here is how to make a Canadian Renaissance man, in case you’re wondering:

  1. Plant him in a home-built cabin eight miles up a dirt road.
  2. Give him ten brothers and sisters to knock the corners off him, and a mother and father who teach him not to be scared of anything.
  3. Keep him away from school until he is old enough to resist indoctrination. Let him regularly stash his hated city shoes at the gate, “borrow” a boat, and wave to the foxed truant officer standing on the bank.
  4. Marry him off to a fine and formidable co-conspirator at the ripe old age of nineteen.
  5. Endow him with a quick mind, a boxer’s speed, a seanchaí’† art, an aesthete’s eye, and a woodsman’s soul.

My woodpile

On the phone, Rick coaches me on woodchopping. When he worked at a ski-lodge as a young man, he was given the job of splitting wood one whole day a week. Since he could split enough in eight hours to keep the entire resort going for the week, it was pointless letting anyone else do it. He spent his solitary chopping marathons inventing jokes for his large collection, and new material would be demanded by the other grunts as soon as he finished.

“Now, you’re stacking the logs end in?” he enquires. I have no idea. He explains that if I’m loading logs against the cabin, the fat end goes against the wall (or was it the other way around?). Of course, I tell him, as I realise this is why my drunken woodpiles need to be braced. Wood warms you five times, he says. Chopping the tree, splitting the logs, stacking the pile, carrying it in, and finally burning it.

This summer I was given a gift of an Annie Dillard book, _On Writing_. I haven’t read her famous _Pilgrim at Tinker Creek_, but I suspect she is too exquisite for my taste.  This guidebook is a series of metaphors comparing the act of writing to various kinds of hard physical labour. For God’s sake, woman, I wanted to tell her, writing isn’t tin-mining. Tin-mining is tin-mining. Ask the Bolivians which they’d rather do.

But she has a chapter on log-splitting that stuck in my mind. Every morning she had to split her firewood to heat her draughty writer’s cabin on some island on the Pacific Northwest. The epiphany eventually ambles in: _aim for the chopping block, not the log_.

This is absolutely true. I forget how Annie Dillard ties it to writing, but it applies to Rick’s ski-lodge punchlines, too. Log-splitting is a satisfaction that ranks far above popping bubblewrap and just below squashing mosquitos. These days I live to see two quarters of basswood fall away from the blade like flakes of cod. I’m hampered by poor coordination (will I hit the log?) and a weakling physique (will I be able to swing a maul without braining myself?), but splitting wood requires technique more than strength. My technique so far is focused on not whacking myself in the coccyx when I drop the axe behind me, and on hitting the log with the sharp edge when possible. The really big logs have bested me and my maul, but I have the aching shoulders to prove I’ve tried.

Woodfires are luxuries in Ireland. Our native forests were cut down centuries ago, now replaced by dreary ranks of non-native Christmas trees. We burn turf (peat) or more usually, coal. I love these Canadian trees that turn colour and drop leaves just like storybook trees. I love that this cabin is built of logs still wrapped in silver bark. But lordy, after splintering birch into toothpicks all day long, I can hardly grind the pepper on my dinner.

† _Seanchaí_ is an Irish term for a storyteller or yarnspinner. It was a dedicated role in the community, and taken very seriously.

2 thoughts on “Woodchopping”

  1. Now there is a mighty woodswoman, wielding her weapon of choice, having cleaved the forest in two and neatly stacked it between two maples.

    She is wearing a watch, a cheap, but durable Casio digital, I would guess, with the plastic wristband. And so she has almost, but not quite learned that to engage oneself in the task of bucking and splitting wood is to lose oneself in a place where time does not flow. The only flow is that of muscle to wood to iron to wood.

    But she has figured out one secret, the secret that Annie Dillard tipped her off to. Aiming for the block, directing the force through the wood and to the earth. Do that right, and nine times out of ten, the two halves will fall away simultaneously, hitting the ground with one sound: a single, dull, thud.

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