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