I had forgotten how much I enjoyed splitting firewood.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed splitting firewood, outdoors on a crisp Virginia slightly-below-freezing late November afternoon, and having the muscle memories start to come back.
I have brought down a wheelbarrow full of large pieces of firewood from the half-frost-covered stack on the trailer behind the shed, a trailer that probably hasn't moved since I left seventeen years ago and we sold the tractor that it would hitch to, though Mama says the firewood on it is newer than that. In any case, it is good firewood, just a bit too large to use as it is, and so I have set up a makeshift chopping block and brought out the maul to split it.
There is a moment of, for just one swing, managing not to overthink the motions and just be in them, not even measuring distance, swinging the maul up with one hand and then back down with both and cleaving a wedge of years-aged red oak right down the middle so neatly that the two halves bounce up off the chopping block in a symmetrical dance -- that is a moment of joy.
It doesn't matter that I’m enough out of practice, and this stack of wood enough more made of tough poplar logs that don’t split nearly as well as the oak, that I’m unlikely to have it happen perfectly like that again this afternoon. Once is enough, the reminder that it is possible, and the practice of trying.
I knew this tree well, the tree from which this one log came. It was a cherry tree, an old tree for as long as I can remember, and had big dark sweet cherries at the end of summer. But, as the years went by it had more dead branches and fewer branches that grew leaves and cherries, and eventually one year not quite so long ago there were no branches at all with leaves and cherries.
This log cut from it clearly shows why; though it’s almost a foot in diameter, it’s an annulus not even a couple of inches thick, the inside completely hollowed.
I split the annulus into halves, then one half into thirds. The other half resists neatly dividing into thirds; the grain here is twisted in a spiral, and the piece splits off along a diagonal. I look at it with only-slightly-grudging admiration; this log is not going easily back into the air and water from whence it came. And this piece is reasonably straight, the diagonals on each side parallel and not too tilted that I couldn't cut a flat board from it. So I set it and the adjacent wedge aside to take home with me.
I have mostly finished with the stack of wood I brought, now three wheelbarrow loads, and pause for a moment to look up at the mountainside behind the house, behind the old red tarpapered barn that was old even when I was a child, the air inside it thick with hay dust and the floor next to the stuck-open window too fragile to walk on. The gray mountainside is painted all red-orange with the light from the setting sun, painted the bright red-orange color of good brick clay like the clay from the middle of North Carolina where my father grew up.
I remember, when I was a small child, that I would sit on a fence-rail and watch my father splitting wood, and that he would ask me to help him by grunting for him when he swung at particularly tough logs. I look forward to someday teaching Morgan, and hopefully our maybe future other children, to do that for me too.
And so, as I swing at the next log, another wedge of red oak carefully balanced on the block, I grunt as I swing the maul down firmly. It hits just in from the edge of the wood, flinging a large chip off into the nearby rhododendron and knocking over the log, and I smile at the failure, and the thought that of course it didn't work; I can’t grunt for myself while chopping because it doesn't work that way.
I turn the oak wedge and reposition it, and on the next swing I imagine Morgan laughing behind me and grunting for me, and this time the maul swings true and cleaves the oak wedge into two symmetrical dancing pieces. The wood grain left by the split has a nice wave to it around a knot, and I consider that one of the halves is fairly flat, and place it with the pieces of cherry I've set aside.
There are three more pieces left to be split; all poplar logs. Even these cleave cleanly down the middle in one swing, though they don’t dance like the oak.
The set-aside pieces of cherry and oak have thick bark on them, which would be good to remove before trying to pack them in my suitcase. The axe is no good for this; I go up to the workshop in the shed to see if I can find a hatchet or something that will work better.
The latch to the door on the workshop is no longer padlocked; in place of the padlock there’s an old screwdriver that is too old and rusty to be useful as a screwdriver, but it’s still a good latch-peg. The walls and bench in the workshop that used to be cluttered with old tools are now empty; my brother and I have mostly cleaned out everything that is still good and stored it somewhere warmer. However, I do find a couple of weathered hammers, and a new blade for a lawnmower that we no longer own. It is sixteen inches of thick carbon steel strip, somewhat wiggled, with one edge sharpened to a chisel edge, and while it is not in fact a splitting knife it will serve much better than anything I expected to find.
So I brace the saved piece of oak against the woodpile, finding a way to hold it with my knee so I have one hand for the blade and one hand and one hand for the hammer, and carefully hammer the lawnmower blade between the wood and the bark to split pieces of it off. It is slow going in the tough oak bark -- the cherry later will be quicker -- but it works more than well enough, and I make steady progress.
And I watch myself, in the fading November light and chill air, hammering a makeshift but good splitting-chisel through the bark of a piece of salvaged firewood so that I can take it home with me and maybe make something with it, and remember with a rare clarity -- and not just remember, but actively claim: This is who I am. This is where I came from, and who I want to be.
In the last glow of the twilight, I gather up the hammer and lawnmower blade and bring them back up to the shed, and latch the door back with the screwdriver, and bring in the splitting maul and the pieces of saved wood.
I look up again at the mountains behind the house, now dark blue gray in the night, not quite too dark to make out the spot where my father’s gravestone is placed, which someday should have the King James version of the 121st Psalm inscribed on it. This is where I grew up; these mountains have always been home. Will always be.
I will lift mine eyes unto these hills,
from whence, also, I come.
Crossposted from Dreamwidth (original here), with comments. Comment here or there; comments here will eventually be duplicated to there.