As I write this tonight, my arm muscles are still twitching from the trauma. I was splitting wood this weekend, getting our firewood stack ready for the winter. Our woodpile, hidden behind two small maples in front of our house in Connecticut, has blackened, three-year-old wood. That’s where I started.
I carted one twelve-pound, double-faced sledgehammer to the woodpile. I have two, one is newer, and from the second, the one in my hand, the hickory had split just below the head. I taped it last year with duct tape, and it seemed to be holding. The newer one’s my backup. I also carried two two-pound black metal wedges. I made a second trip to the garage, for my Husqvarna chainsaw.
We need to burn aggressively this year. Already I have two dead trees on our property that will soon be added to our woodpile. We have two fireplaces and a wood-burning stove, and there’s nothing more sublime than the fall display of colors in Litchfield County and the smell of fireplaces keeping homes warm in rural Connecticut. It takes you back in time. It instantly transports you to the antithesis of the City. It saves on heating bills.
I removed the green tarps covering my woodpile, starting with the oldest wood. I know when and where each pile of logs was placed every year. I rolled old massive oak stumps, which had already been cut when we bought our property years ago. As I split these stumps, using the two wedges simultaneously and bringing the sledgehammer alternately on each wedge, the crack of the wood revealed a nest of termites. Hundreds of them. Two of the old stumps were contaminated, and I wouldn’t bring them into the garage, even though I sorely wanted to incinerate the vermin. I rolled the split, contaminated stumps away from the woodpile, into the forest, and let the termites have their feast.
The rest of the wood was termite free. I held a wedge on the flat wood, smashed it hard with the sledgehammer, avoiding pulverizing my wrist or fingers. Once the wedge stuck, I lifted the sledgehammer overhead, and brought it down on the wedge, often imagining the face of a critic or nemesis, literary and political, as the wedge. The adrenalin flowed, and I didn’t feel my muscles twitching until hours later. For each log, for each split (thick logs need to be quartered, instead of just halved), three, four, five times I brought the hammer down. It’s like lifting weights and doing squats at the same time. You feel it in your shoulders, arms, and legs, as you split the logs, carry them to the pile to go into the garage, over and over again.
My trusty chainsaw? I used it to cut longer logs in half. It’s a machine you need to pay attention to, lest you lose a finger or a toe. It’s a blast of noise in the quiet forest, and I prefer hearing the crack of split wood, but you need the machine once in a while. The chainsaw also determined when I stopped. When I became too tired and my muscles and reflexes stopped responding as they should, that’s when it was time to call it a day, before I made a bloody mistake.
Some people might think it’s crazy to spend a significant part of your weekend doing this kind of work. You can certainly pay somebody else to do it. Or you can drive to a supermarket and buy neat, shrink-wrapped piles of wood. My wife Laura has threatened to buy me a wood-splitter, but so far I have resisted. I like connecting with the wood. I like the exercise and being outside. I like doing things for myself, instead of being separated from what I need and what I need to do to achieve it. I’m not about to slaughter my own chickens, but I will split my own wood. Writing itself already separates me from the world; I don’t need another activity to divorce myself from preparing for the turn of the seasons.