Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Everest Quercus

A bone shuddering thud, immediately followed by an electric sting racing up through hands and arms.  The pause, surprise and awe that it did not go.  A glance filled with ill intent.  The creak of stained, heavy leather gloves.  Panting.  A deep breath and a little bounce, like a fighter waiting for the bell.  Finally, another swing, all the way from the toes, and Ker-rack!

There it is.  Now we're splitting some wood.

Splitting firewood is about the most rewarding work I can do on a cold winter morning.  The smell of cleaved hardwood mixed with sweat has been a touchstone for me since early boyhood.  Nothing conjures happy images of my father more quickly or completely.  My parents heated with wood for most of my childhood, and my step mom, Carolyn, still augments her winter warmth by burning wood every day.  So I continue to split.  Concerns of climate change not withstanding, there is comfort to be found in putting up for winter.  Canning, pickling, and splitting wood that we may emerge from the frigid dark once again, alive and raring to go.

It all began back on Maple Avenue.  I'd been an apartment dweller for my entire life, six years young as it was.  To suddenly have my own yard to dash around in, my own trees to climb, my own garden from which to swipe peas and brussel sprouts, was a gift from on high.  Then one fine autumn morning, a huge truck appeared out of seemingly nowhere, and dumped a massive load of white oak right in the center of my playground.  Another load soon followed.  Everest Quercus, a towering mountain of firewood.  Limbs longer than I was, rounds taller than I, heaped and tangled across the yard.  There were bugs under the bark and mud torn up from the yard.  It was the greatest thing I'd ever seen.

Choosing to invoke the selective hearing granted to all children when parents warn against taking certain actions, for days I clambered over and around it, sprayed the garden hose on the top to see where the water would come out, pried and pulled to see what was in there.  My jungle gym and fort, and the beginning of my first big adventure.

Soon enough, men I did not know arrived to help my father break down my fort.  They wielded chainsaws and cant hooks, wore long wooly beards over flannel shirts and pants so dirty my mom would have never let me be seen in them.  And they swung splitting mauls.  That sound of splitting the logs into burnable chunks -- half fastball jumping off white ash, half crunch of hard snow under foot.  The action, the dynamic nature of it all, was intoxicating.  I remember thinking there was a certain gravity to this new situation, though I obviously couldn't verbalize that thought at the time.  Something big was going down, and I wanted in.

So Dad would set me up with a stubby little end cut, the easiest to split, and start a wedge for me.  Wedges are often used in conjunction with a standard maul on rounds that are too big for the splitting maul.  And with six-year-olds.  He'd hand me a little two pound hammer -- I remember it now, a blue Estwing -- and I'd tink tink tink away at that wedge until I'd made my little split.  Or until I got tired or bored, much more likely.

I had to choke up on that hammer quite a bit with my little pink paws, and somehow, whether through exuberance or inattention, I finally managed to mash the tip of my right pinkie finger between the face of the hammer and top of the wedge.  I remember I cried at the sight of my own blood.  I remember my mother hovering somewhere between harried, concerned, and angry on the drive to the hospital.  I don't remember how many stitches I got, but they followed the blackened nail around the tip of my finger in a perfect tiny crescent, and I was chin-jutting proud of that in the days that followed.  I'd earned my stripes.  One of the boys.

That run to the ER aside, splitting wood has been generally good to me.  It's one of the times you can stand outside pouring sweat, the mercury burrowing below zero, icicles clinging to your beard, and not have to worry if the rescue plane is going to find you in time.  I like to unbend my back every once in a while, and lean on the maul.  Think about pioneers and lumberjacks and other manly stuff.  To feel muscled and strong, robust against the cold.  Like I actually have my shit together for once.  It's a chance to slow down and workout at the same time.  And if you practice long enough, you can ring the bell every time at the carnival, and win your girl a Bon Jovi mirror.

Of course, even on a good swing, not everything always goes according to plan.

Some woods are more testy than others.  There comes a point in almost every session involving big wood when you are forced to decide whether or not you can carry on.  You have your wedge started in a huge round, probably for the second or third time.  This guy has decided to test you, deflecting your best attempts to cleave, stack, and burn.  You begin with some slightly tentative swings, making sure the wedge is driven, and all is right with the world.  Now it's time to bring the pain.  You coil and bend, storing all the energy to be released in one massive effort. Getting your feet set, you begin that big power swing, the best one in your arsenal.  Knees, hips, shoulders snap into action as your fists slam together at the end of the handle, the head of the maul wails down squarely on the wedge, all the force you can muster behind it.  PING!  Nothing... until, after a few moments heavy breathing, you begin to hear the faintest crackling.  The frozen fibers beginning to give up their bonds.  And you know, this beast will fall like all before him.

It always amuses me when you see the leading man in a movie, lantern jawline and not a hair out of place, at his gorgeous log cabin, splitting up perfectly dry and straight pieces of maple for the fire.  They merrily crack and fly apart with barely a touch from the axe or maul.  You'll never see him sweating and cursing, trying like mad to extricate the maul from a gnarled hunk of burr oak.  It's Hollywood, where all the girls are pretty and all the firewood is kiln dried.

Elm is my nemesis.  Like all of us who carry the maul and wedge, I can spot it in a wood pile from fifty yards.  Mocking me.  Daring me to even try.  I'm sure there are more difficult woods to split.  Ironwood can give you a backache just looking at it, I've heard.  Shagbark hickory, with all it's armored bark as a warning, will test your shoulders and your will.  Black cherry strikes fear in the heart of mortal men.  But that stringy elm gets me every time because it is so tirelessly indefatigable.  So unrelenting in it's ability to hang together.  It seemingly wills itself to remain unbroken, the Nelson Mandela of the wood lot.  Many a wedge have been lost in a round of elm, waiting to be freed by the addition of another wedge.  And then another.  Until you find yourself berating an inanimate hunk of cellulose like a homeless wing nut cursing the weather and hot dogs on a street corner.

There is a hydraulic wood splitter in my dad's shop right now.  It sits unmoving since he last laid hands on it.  I found him using it more and more often as he aged.  I ribbed him pretty hard for that, as was our loving way, calling him girl names and pronouncing that I would never defile myself in such a way.  At least not until I turned forty.  I know he's watching, so I haven't touched it yet, but splitting by hand for more than thirty seasons has taught me a thing or two.

Swinging with precision is usually more important than swinging hard.  A few stretches before you get going will prevent a lot of soreness, even if you do look like a goober doing yoga in a flannel shirt.  Burn the elm in a campfire so you don't have to break it down as far.  And wood gets heavier as you age.  A lot heavier.  Only three more winters until I can fire up that beautiful splitter, according our bet, and you can call me Shirley all you want when that happens.

Paging Dr. Freud...

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