Splitting Wood

Of all the jobs I do on the farm, splitting wood is my very favorite. I learned how to split wood more than a year ago, and the lessons served me as well as a Buddhist retreat. Splitting wood is a meditation, a prayer. It’s also a gleeful accomplishment.

I always thought of splitting wood as a man’s job, picturing muscular lumberjacks who wield huge axes. Once, though, about 12 years ago, I was at a women’s gathering in the woods, and one of the women knew how to split wood. I could hear the heavy sounds of her work from a distance, and when she returned sweating with a pile of neat chunks of wood, I was very impressed. I figured she must be an exceptional woman.

When I visited the farm last January, Jim taught me to split wood. I elected to learn partly because it was a farm job that needed to be done, but also because I was in a state of mind to try something difficult. I always learn a lot by trying to do something that I’m really bad at – especially, anything that involves physical coordination. As a kid I avoided sports in large part because they didn’t come easily to me, and I was used to being good at book-learning that was so much a part of my identity then. So the skills of patience and perseverance didn’t develop much.

By the time I learned to split wood, at the age of 40, I had acquired a bit of patience, and from traveling I’d discovered the depths of my perseverance. And, as most of my friends and family know, I’m also just plain stubborn once I make up my mind about something. My first two-hour session was a near-failure, but toward the end the concepts began to sink in and were reinforced by some success. To make sure I had really learned it, I hauled myself back out to the woodpile the next day, stiff and sore from the previous day’s efforts, and went at it again. This time I proved to myself that I could really do it, and the satisfaction kept me out there for almost another two hours.

Yesterday, as I sauntered out to the orchard to attack the walnut and oak trunks we’d chainsawed, I reviewed the lessons from that weekend last year. My difficulty in learning to split wood was mostly because of my belief that it is a man’s job – that is, I thought it had to do with muscle and strength. So in my first attempts, I had gripped the handle of the maul (a long-handled axe) tightly and tried to push the blade through the wood, force my will upon a resistant object. Thunk! The blade simply bounced off with a dull sound, as though it were blunt-edged.

Jim demonstrated again. “It’s not about strength,” he said. “You let the momentum of the maul do the work for you. Let go with one hand, slide it down the handle as you swing, and follow through.” He swung, and the wood flew into two pieces – “ka-CHUNK!”

His explanation sounded suspiciously like other instructions I’d gotten for sports and working with tools. I just don’t get the physics of hammers and footballs. Before I learned to split wood, it was only in the most abstract way that I understood leverage and momentum and the power of shifting weight.

But I trust Jim, and I imitated his movements. It was very hard to make myself let go with my right hand enough to let it slide down the handle fast enough. Once I did, though, the maul could do its work. Momentum forced the energy down to the blade, peaking just at the point of contact. Thud. The blade sunk into the wood – a little.

The third step was more abstract. “Aim the maul at this edge of the wood. But think of your real target as the ground, all the way through the wood,” Jim said. This led me to backslide into my belief that I should push the blade through the wood. And sometimes, intent on the edge, I missed the wood entirely. Thunk.

“Let it swing. Let it go. Just think of the arc, not the wood.” Thud.

This went on for some time. Only occasionally did the blade make it partway through the wood, and then a couple more blows were required to complete the split. Jim was incredibly patient, but he could see I was getting frustrated, so he left me alone to work through it. Thud, thunk, thunk, thud, crack, crack, thud, thud.

Finally I got mad. Not exactly at myself, or at the wood, but mad at the energy this was taking. In a blind fury I fairly threw the maul at the wood, at the earth, at anything that resisted me, with a loose swing, not caring what happened.

Ka-CHUNK! The wood flew apart as though it had always been two pieces. No effort at all, really.

Wow. I was impressed. And hooked.

It was not, I realized, my anger that gave the blow enough force. It was because I stopped thinking so much. I gave up the fine points of technique, which by then had woven into my subconscious, and let go of that tight focus on forcing the wood to let me have my way with it. The anger freed me to go into that blank state of mind that, as it turns out, is a good one for splitting wood. Once having learned to adopt that emptiness, I didn’t need to be angry in order to split the wood. I expended far less physical effort, and the easiest swings of all were those that ended with “ka-CHUNK.”

Yesterday, remembering those lessons, I split with ease. I have learned to give a tiny jump as I bring the maul down, for a little extra momentum, but there is no strain, just a smooth motion that continues right through the wood as though it were not there, stopping more or less softly in the dirt. It’s only when I forget and try to muscle the blade through that it stops cold on the surface of the wood, and that abrupt halt is what strains my body more than anything, makes me sore the next day. It’s much easier to actually split the wood than to strike it, for there is no resistance when you hit it right. That’s how Vesper, who is only about 5 feet tall and petite, split wood until she was nearly 70. (When I asked her who taught her to split wood, she seemed perplexed and said, “Does anyone really have to learn to split wood? I guess I’d watched my father do it so much that it just came natural.”)

There are finer points to this woodsplitting craft, of course. One has to watch out for knots, burls and branch connections, which will stop the flow of energy splitting straight through the wood grain. Technique fails when I hit one of these spots. So it’s best to study the wood a bit while setting it on end, look for the points of resistance. That done, it’s possible to halve a trunk piece in one blow. I’m not quite at that level; it usually takes me two blows or three to halve a trunk, and if it’s too big I carve off pieces from around the edges first. But that can be just as pleasant, whittling away, like slicing a roast. It’s also delightful to work with thick branches, which can be cleaved into two perfect-sized pieces with one blow. As I make decisions about the size I’m aiming for, I think about our three woodstoves and the people who will handle this wood – here’s a big chunk for the overnight low-damper burn, here’s a small piece to get the coals started again in the morning, here’s some medium pieces that will be easy for Vesper to handle.

People often think of splitting wood as a fine outlet for aggression and anger, and I suppose it could be. It helps me the way any exercise does in releasing pent-up negative feelings. And I admit that when I’m wrestling with a particularly knotty piece and resort to cursing, the wood is always male and my comments sound a bit like sadistic pornography, as in “C’mon, you bastard, give it up!” or “You son of a bitch, you WILL come apart!” But I don’t picture anyone’s head under the blade, or think hostile thoughts against named foes while I’m splitting wood. It’s just me and the wood and our goal, and the more I relax around that, the better it goes.

My new insight yesterday was that I had to aim by not aiming. When I try to keep my focus on one small, specific point, I either miss entirely or the wood will not give way. What works better is this: As I raise the maul I look at the point I want to hit for only part of a second. When the maul swings, my focus widens considerably to take in the whole piece of wood and everything around it. I concentrate on the idea of the wood splitting, as though my eyes were shut, and then the blade hits exactly where the wood will give.

I am still amazed that this works, but it consistently does. When I aim too narrowly, too superficially, inevitably I fail and the wood resists like a stone. When I merely note the point of contact and then give my body over to the ultimate goal, picturing the split wood, inevitably the wood falls apart cleanly, as though the sap had shot through the grain to separate the cohesion of the cells. The wood seems willing, almost happy, to be split, and we are working together for a common purpose, as though to fulfill the destiny of the wood.

I think of this as I do office jobs, research, and planning for the farm. I hold the big picture, the dream, in my whole body and soul, and let my brain, fingers and limbs find the way to do the actual physical tasks.

And oh, the satisfaction of the right swing, the sound of “ka-CHUNK,” the sight of wood flying off in two pieces. And then the reward: casually picking up a new piece with one hand and tossing it behind me, without looking, into the growing pile.

Feb. 21, 2001

Birthing the Lambs

Diggery Do (aka Sweet 16) would not leave me alone. Erika calls her the great mother.

I walked into the pen to watch the lambs being born to Velvet, and Sweet 16 came right up to me, dug her nose into my crotch to smell me, and then stood sideways tight against me. I hadn’t really petted a sheep before, so I wasn’t sure what they liked.

I dug my fingers into the thick wool of her head, and pushed my hands down her spine, thinking that any pregnant female enjoys a backrub. She stood still, and I felt her loving it.

She is huge with pregnancy, it must surely be at least two lambs, for she is as wide as she is tall. I tried to do Reiki on the sides of her belly, and that made her breathe heavily, as though she were in labor. But she stuck by me. Whenever I moved away, she followed and pushed up against me, as though to say, “Don’t you dare leave my side!” So I kept massaging her and talking to her, feeling the pressure of her as an insistence of my own animal nature.

Meanwhile Velvet lowed and lowed, kept turning her head to see if the lamb was there yet, while Avón and I urged her to push. Finally she expelled the sac, and then she crouched to push.

When she stood again, Avón decided Velvet needed some help, so she reached her hand into Velvet and felt for the lamb’s legs, which weren’t in position. The best position for delivery is front feet first, straight out, with the head between them; this lamb was turned, so Avón straightened it and pulled the legs out, then the body halfway.

He just plopped right out then, and began to breathe right away. Velvet began cleaning off his legs, so Avón took a rag and wiped the mucus from the lamb’s nose and mouth.

Within minutes he was struggling to stand, got his back legs under him first but then couldn’t seem to unfold the front legs or coordinate them with the back. He sniffed around and suckled at her ears.

As Velvet finished cleaning him, she began to push again, and Avón hurried to assist again. This time the lamb’s front feet were first, but were folded back at the knee, making him too wide to come out with the head between. Avón stretched his legs out and he delivered easily.

Velvet cleaned his head first, with Avón’s help. In the meantime Lamb 1 had gotten to his feet and was desperately searching for a nipple. Lamb 2 got to his feet almost immediately; it was clear he is the bigger and stronger of the two. When I left, my feet getting cold, Avón was helping them both to find their way to the nipples to nurse.

The smell of the hay and the sheep’s wool was all so pleasant and easy, the feel of the thick wool under my fingers, the lambs gamboling about with their soft wool and gangly legs and cat-like bodies. The air was thick and earthy, and quiet, muffled by straw. There was a great, vast ring around the moon this night, a white perfect circle like wool, marking the earth’s dance and worship of the moon.

I was so excited when Avón summoned me to see the birth of the lambs. But it was a strangely flat event for me, in many ways. Was it the intervention of humans, the setting, my emotional jetlag in general, that kept me from crying?

Then I decided that the truth of it is simply that it is an ordinary event. Birth happens every day, every moment, not just animals but people.

I felt somewhat disappointed that I did not feel a rush of emotion, to see this new life begin, but the event is very commonplace: a sheep gives birth to a lamb, the lamb begins to breathe, the mother cleans it, the lamb struggles to its feet and finds the nipple and begins to nurse. Such things happen all the time.

But this ordinariness itself is the cause to celebrate. The fact that life begins anew over and over is comforting, the antidote to its partner of death, which also happens all the time, over and over.