Against the grain

I fell into woodchopping by chance.

Truly the fates forced my hand. I came home from work one day to find a tree surgeon shimmied halfway up a large dead oak in my back yard, spikes sunk deep in the bark and chainsaw screaming in the sky. The next morning, I awoke to discover 2-foot hardwood stumps littering my yard, a scent of winter in the air and the promise of a wood-burning stove from my landlord. I am not a man given to physical labor, but what else could I do? You can see I had no choice.

I was at the hardware store the next day, picking up an 8-pound maul, a hand ax and two splitting wedges.

I fell to the task with a brash innocence trumped only by my brash ignorance: I knew not what the hell I was doing. Any fool who watched the Gipper split wood on national TV in the ’80s knows you set the stump upright and bust from the top, chopping with the grain of the wood. I attacked the log from the side, against the grain; in 10 minutes of strenuous work, I managed to pull three muscles, blunt a perfectly good ax head and gouge a 3-inch trough in the side of the log. My soft writer’s palms screamed with incipient blisters, and sweat poured freely from my ears.

How was I to know? For the previous nine years, I’d lived in Texas — where 75 degrees is not an uncommon winter temperature, and where I’d once taken an outdoor swim on New Year’s Day. In Texas, we rarely closed our windows, much less built a fire. Any woodchopping would have been done for the sheer orneriness of it, or perhaps to smoke a side of beef.

I learned. I’ll say this about chopping wood: While it may take some practice to do it artfully, the basics can be learned in 10 minutes. With a short lesson from my landlord, I was off and chopping, and my meager woodpile grew with each new day. Bustin’ wood became my favorite phrase: “I’m off to bust some wood,” I’d tell my wife, pulling on my work shoes and grabbing my maul from its spot behind the washer. “I’m done bustin’,” I’d inform her when I came in a half-hour later, breathing hard but full of pride.

I’ve found few things in life more satisfying than busting wood. It fulfills so many needs that the rest of my life does not address: physical exertion, material evidence of a job well-done and the chance to wield a large, heavy farm implement with a glint of pure menace in my eye. Do not discount these things. The joy of putting idle muscles to use, the palpable destruction that unfolds beneath one’s hands, the evolving geometry from stump to split to woodpile — order to chaos to order once again — all these are part of the woodchopper’s joy. There is even, when the blood is pumping and a groove is struck, a certain grace to the endeavor, a blade-swung ballet of clean motion, clean cuts and not an ounce of wasted effort.

Woodchopper’s ball

Where else does such uncomplicated satisfaction exist these days? In my work as a teacher and a writer, success is always partial: The work is never perfect, the progress hard to gauge, the results always open to interpretation and criticism. Achievement is tempered with uncertainty; there’s no final word on how well the class was taught, how well the essay crafted.

Busting wood is more straightforward: The log splits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t split, I swing again. At the end of the day, I have a stack of firewood. To be sure, there are better and worse cuts, and better and worse woodcutters — but it’s hard to argue with a woodpile. If someone could have done it quicker, or cleaner, or with more resounding cracks from the splintering wood, who cares? Mine’ll burn just the same.

Ah, the burning. Let’s not forget that — the primal satisfaction of the fire, of seeing your work provide such poetic pleasure, of hearing the sap crackle and watching the embers glow with their own calm magnificence.

James Cole, a one-time friend of my family’s, was a man who seemed to have won at life. From his student days as a UNC basketball player and graduate student of philosophy, he’d moved on to a well-paying job in the New York City textile industry. He came home every weekend to a loving wife, two happy dogs and a case of cold beer in the fridge. Yet he was heard to say that nothing gave him such joy, such happiness, as busting wood.

I know how he felt. I fell into woodchopping by chance, but love has kept me in it. And as the hot summer nights give way to cool fall afternoons, I find myself reaching behind the washer to test the reassuring heft of the maul in my hands once again. I’m ready to bust some wood.

How to split wood without ending up at the chiropractor

I don’t claim to be a champion wood-splitter — I’m sure there are 6-year-olds reading this that could outbust me on their knees, left-handed — but after a season of blistered hands, bruised shins and lengthy streaks of flaming blue curses, I did learn a few things. Here are some tips that might prove useful:

1) When busting large “rounds,” use a splitting maul, not an ax. A maul is bigger and has a wider head, which produces more outward pressure on the wood. That doesn’t mean you need to get the biggest maul you can find; many wood-splitters profess an almost unholy affection for their 8-pound mauls, and some go as light as 6. Firewood physicists will tell you that the velocity of the maul head matters more than its weight, and even I can tell that a solid strike with a light maul beats a clumsy stroke with a heavy one. Use a 10- or 12-pounder only if you really like grunting.

2) Get set up with a good chopping block. An old stump will do; just make sure it’s stable, tough and doesn’t rise above your knees.

3) Warm up a bit. Remember your Little League coach and take a few practice swings before stepping into the box. Eyeball your target and slowly bring the maul head to rest where you want to strike the wood, to give yourself a better feel for the length of the swing.

4) Avoid the middle. Especially on larger rounds, it’s better to strike around the edges than to try to whack the wood dead center. Take out a wedge at a time. Look for existing cracks or make your own, then bust away. Get angry if you have to.

5) Get a splitting wedge or two. For particularly large or troublesome rounds, drive in the wedge as described above, then smack it with the sledge side of your maul. Feel your wrists tremble yet? Now we’re talkin’!

6) Whether it’s best to split wood green or dry depends on the type of wood you have. Can’t help you there, buddy.

7) Consider eye protection. Hey, it’s your sight; I’m not going to tell you what to do. But flying chunks of wood can sail into your face quicker than … well, quicker than the blink of an eye. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

8) Cut the wood shorter than your stove! This is easy to forget, but when the candles are lit, the red wine flowing and the lasagna bubbling in the oven, you’ll be glad you remembered. Enjoy.

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