A beginner's guide to splitting firewood
How to split wood when you don't think you can lift the axe.
To be clear, you do need an axe.
You also need wood.
And it helps if you have a bit of a stubborn or determined streak.
And something to meditate on. Like all the wrongs done to you by an ex. Or the frustrations of the daily office grind.
There will be bugs. Be mentally prepared.
Once upon a time, I worked for a company that made mobile apps. I was part PO, part QA, part UX/UI writer. On my door was a photo of a red Volkswagen Beetle with the caption, “it’s a feature.” My boss and her boss were less than impressed. But they stopped short of telling me to take it down.
Today, I split through several nests of carpenter ants — or perhaps they were termites; I can’t tell the difference — and relived scenes from that office. The blue-black bodies tumbled out like zombies from their snug wood tunnels, a haphazard jumble of oversized California raisins sluggishly, reluctantly waving at me from the chopping block before I brushed them aside or dropped a new log on them.
9:05, morning huddle! Gather ‘round for the stand-up meeting. What are you working on today?
Zombies, the lot of us, cupping our coffee mugs and going through the slow, resentful, complacent and compliant motions before shuffling back to our offices, closed doors, our hushed, furious whispers.
The carpenter ants can eat the structural integrity right out of a home. So can a team of disgruntled employees.
The heft of an axe is surprisingly satisfying.
At first, lifting it one-handed in the store, testing its weight, you’ll think no way. No way can I swing this thing — much less raise it over my very fragile head and bring it down with any effect on a log. I will never get warm. I will die trying.
Believe me, you will surprise even yourself.
A splitting axe is long. Long like the long arm of the law. They are not, as I have learned, the same as hatchets or chopping axes. The leverage is different, the motion. When you’re splitting a log, you’re playing the long game.
Are we aligned? they’d say. We need to align on this.
Alignment is what counts. Your elbows, your feet. Eyes on the prize.
Ignore the pinching in your lower back. It’s just your conscience telling you you’re enjoying it too much.
Much bending will be required. And I have some advice in that regard.
You think the axe swinging is hard? The bending hurts more, and you’ll be doing far more of it. For each swing you land with a satisfying crack, you’ll collect two pieces of wood — flung in opposite directions — off the ground. And then split them yet again. Bend again. Split again.
And then, when they’re small enough, each piece needs to be picked up and thrown, chucked, or placed on a pile or straight into the wheelbarrow (if you have notions of this being more efficient, you’re deluding yourself).
Often, they mock you. A perfect pitch to the top of the pile, and the wedge with its archeological insect tunnels tumbles down, flirting with the idea of stopping at this piece or that, before it finally hits the ground and, for good measure, bounces off a couple of feet away, nearly back where it started. Smug and self-righteous, stubbornly mute, dumb as a log.
And so you bend again. And again.
Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it eventually.
You’ve got a whole lot farther to go.
have use two splitting axes — baby Bob and his big brother Butch. They have shiny black lacquered axe heads, long bright yellow plastic handles, and black rubber grips. Everything about them says Tonka truck, but I don't mind.
They hang out just inside the door of the summer kitchen behind the garbage can along with the two walking sticks husband found in the forest, a varnish-hardened paintbrush, a screwdriver, and a machete.
We get along OK, the brothers and I, though I admit they intimidated me at first.
Husband keeps their edges sharp and cleans up after me if I forget to wipe off the axe heads before putting them back. Maintenance is a full-time job around here — it is the never-ending task of fending off the inevitable: rust, rot and decomposition.
Lurking in their shadows is the damp wilderness of fecundity — that dark art of drawing something abundant from next to nothing, of delivering the useful from the decrepit.
A few days ago in the forest, I found a flush of oyster mushrooms on a stump left behind by the lumberjacks. It’s this random thing, sitting alone in the clearing as if they’d forgotten to take with them, covered in the makings of a delicious meal.
I harvested the mushrooms of course, swiftly, greedily. I briefly contemplated hauling the stump home (but I’m quite sure carrying it for 2 km would do me in).
So I have come up with a new plan:
Move the stump off to the side, into the edge of the forest where others are less likely to see it fruiting or
Try to inoculate one of the logs in my firewood pile with some of the pores
Can’t you just imagine if this whole thing were covered in lovely oyster mushrooms?
For now, this jumbled and slightly molding pile provides the heat at the center of our home and the daily motivation to move and make something more out of something less.
Of myself, I mean.
Just one more, and I’ll stop, I tell myself over again.
But I keep bringing Butch down on the problem, making it smaller, turning it into slender kindling, slivers and smithereens.
Where are we, and what have we brought into the game?
Winter has settled in, and along with it, many of our questions. Heat conservation; a hunkering against hunger, against want; a huddle in our finest hour.
Are we feeding the loamy leaf-layered earth of the forest floor? Is it enough to keep building a dark substrate primed to grow something more?
Perhaps it’s enough to know you can.
And to be ready, axe at hand.
They aren’t mine so much as my husband’s, though I use them the most. He’s the hatchet guy.
For Kristina Drake every difficulty is only the next challange
to conquer in an unknown foreign country, while totally
renovating the home they are living in, for a while even
without roof. Kristina Drake is such a woman, wife and mother. And an eloquent writer.
Such a fun read this was! I enjoyed it tremendously. Thank you.