Zen and the Art of Splitting Firewood
By Cam Mather
First off, my apologies for using the word “Zen” in the title of another post, especially since I readily admit I am not really sure that I get what “it” is. But since the blog usually chronicles my attempt to attain this Zen-like state, maybe I do.
Years ago I read a John Irving novel called “Widow for One Year.” I’m pretty sure there’s a scene in it (and John Irving fans will correct me if I’ve got the wrong book) where a woman comes upon a man splitting firewood. It is a fairly long section because she seems quite enchanted with this process. There is a real rhythm to it. A purposefulness.
I think of it often as I split wood. I am finished for this year. All my firewood is ready for next winter. This is an OCD sort of thing for me in which I like to have all of my firewood ready to go for the following year, by the end of the current winter. Perhaps I was a squirrel in a previous life, but I find it comforting to know where my heat is coming from next winter. Oh sure, I could go out into the woods at any time, but I much prefer to have it done in advance.
This also allows me to fill up the woodshed so that the firewood can dry well over the summer. I think of my woodshed as a big firewood kiln on those hot summer days, extracting moisture to make it burn even better.
I still split most of my wood by hand. This year it was about 90%. I did borrow Ken and Alyce’s gas-powered splitter for some of the tougher, gnarlier stuff. I used to do it all, but I guess I’m getting smarter in my old age. Ken suggested I should be splitting more with the splitter, but I reminded him how much I like dessert, and if it’s a choice between giving up dessert or splitting firewood by hand… hand me my axe. I have NO willpower.
I also like to split my wood by hand, because I absolutely love doing it. It is one of the few activities that allows me to be totally focused on the task at hand and zone out of all the clutter that bangs around in my head. And best of all, I can take a pile of unsplit wood and turn it into fire-ready split wood that I can then step back and admire. When I’m done I have a concrete scorecard of my accomplishment. “That’s 2 weeks of heat next February!”
After my talk at Transition Cornwall, one of the audience members came up to me and told me the dimensions of the woodshed he had just built and shared how many cords of wood he is able to store in it. There is a kind of unspoken bond that only people who cut and split their own firewood have. It’s kind of like those aging lawyers and accountants with grey goatees and wearing full leather biker gear who ride around on motorcycles giving each other their cool “biker” wave as they pass on the highway. The “firewood clan” members are actually accomplishing something, unlike the middle-aged bikers who burn lots of gas in a fruitless quest for the rebel past they’ve always dreamed of.
Our daughters were home over Easter weekend and our youngest, Katie, brought home a pair of her steel-toed workboots. She wanted me to teach her how to split wood! Needless to say, I was over the moon!
Katie works doing archeological digs in the Toronto area. Some of the digging involves moving soil with shovels, which she does well, but often they encounter roots, which need to be dispatched with an axe. This is something the males on the crew usually accomplish, but Katie wanted to practice her “axe” technique so that the next time they encounter a root, she’ll be able to deal with it herself. And really, what father doesn’t want his daughter to be handy with axe?
She did great! She’s not as good as I am yet, but I have about 4 decades of practice behind me, so it’s not a fair comparison. And as a feminist, I believe that a woman can do anything as well as a man, and in fact, much of it better. I also believe that like most species on the planet, males have a little more upper body muscle that makes splitting wood easier for us. I expect the local women’s boxing club to arrive shortly and pummel me until I admit this is factually incorrect.
Katie persevered and split a lot of wood. I think the challenge for her was hitting the target, because a lot of the wood that I provided to her was some fairly small ash that splits nicely, but makes for a small target. And until you get into the groove, there is always this instinct to hold back in case the axe goes awry which impedes a good clean chop.
When I have some nice easy to split stuff, like poplar or well-dried ash, I like to line up about 10 or 20 logs and then go down the row, splitting each log as I go, like a robotic splitting machine! This is probably part of the male destructive tendency. It’s like those images of little boys building sand castles and then stomping on them like Godzilla. I’m like that, but with an axe.
Of course I prefer to think of it more as a creative destruction process. Yes I am raining terror down on these defenseless logs, but I am in fact changing their physical manifestation to make them burn more efficiently.
I can analyze it all I want, but I just love getting into that “zone” where it’s just the axe and the log and me. No malls. No traffic jams. No unfunded retirements. Just the act of splitting wood. And every time I walk past one of my woodpiles this summer or next fall I’ll enjoy the wonderful “energy” that they give off. Those piles say, “Look at me! I did this! I split this!” And next winter I’ll be toasty warm with sustainably harvested and completely renewable carbon-neutral firewood. It’s a pretty big deal! Pass the cake – I’m celebrating!