#37 Discovering Split-Worthy Wood

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Today I was almost crushed by the wood pile, but I got revenge — I put it in its place.

One day last fall, while I waited for the washer to finish its wash cycle, I picked up the ax. I had noticed earlier that morning that the woodbox of split stove wood was getting low. I got a few pieces of wood from the shed with grand plans to fill a couple of milk crates with split wood.

“Oh, won’t he be proud of me!” I thought to myself when I envisioned my partner coming home and having one less task to do.  I envisioned myself swinging away on the well used ax. The original color of the fiberglass handle looked like it might have been white at one time, but it was now a mottled grey with so many chips, crack and splits that it resembled the bark it cut through. He tells me later that it used to be a “safety red” color. It has certainly seen many years of use.

I have lived on the island with him for the last ten months. I want to be able to do everything he is able to do. Well, almost everything. I know I will not be able to pee into a water bottle while sitting in a deer blind or design and build a 36 foot modified New Haven Sharpie sailboat all on my own. I have continually worked by his side here on our 40 acres of heaven — driving the boats, working on the docks, driving the farm tractor, logging, pumping water in frigid subfreezing temperatures, washing clothes in an old fashioned one-speed wringer washer and cooking meals on the wood cookstove. These tasks are common day chores for us as part of our off-the-grid life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on Lake Huron. Splitting wood was one thing I had not yet become accomplished at.

Normally the conversation went like this:

“Honey, we need some wood split for the cookstove,” I informed my partner. “Could you split us some?”

“Sure.”

I would later see him split wood with the ax and think about how effortless he made the task look. Though, for some undeclared reason, I had not made the effort to split any stove wood myself. I had helped him log trees, split them into cord wood and stack them. When it came to splitting wood, it seemed easy enough to just mention to him that we needed more. The next thing I heard was “Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!” Within ten minutes, as if the Sorcerer’s Apprentice had waved his magical wand, the woodbox was full again.

I knew that he enjoyed taking care of me. This is an easy way that he could. So I left the wood splitting to him while I focused my energies on other things, like making delicious meals. They always say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Cooking on the wood cookstove was becoming easier and I really enjoy it. Sure there is also the saying that a woman’s work is in the kitchen, and all the implications behind that. That was not the situation. He was always quite happy to have me laboring with him, getting as sweaty and as dirty as he did.

That fall day, as the washer chugga-chuggged away, I placed a log on end on the chopping block. I swung the ax and listened for the magical “Thwack!” All I heard was “dunk.” The ax head was lodged in the log. As I freed the ax I thought, “Well, at least I hit the log.” I swung again and again, sometimes hitting the log and sometimes missing. Slowly I began to get hot and tired. My arms and shoulders were not used to working with my wood splitting muscles. My forearms were sore from tightly gripping the handle, preventing it from flying out of my hands. My palms were a little numb from the shock and reverberation that came through the ax head to the handle.

I would not be daunted. Yes, he had made it look easy, but he had been splitting wood for decades. This was the first time in a long time that I had used an ax. I knew that I just needed some practice. Eventually I filled a milk crate with an assortment of sizes of split wood. There was a lot of kindling to go along with the thicker pieces I could not figure out how to balance on the chopping block. If it was small enough to fit in the stove it then made it into the crate. Exhausted mentally and physically, I was happy to put the ax away and resume my washer-woman chores. One crate of wood would suffice for the day.

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It was not until this past December that I picked up the ax again; it was time to expand my handy-gal skills. When I started attempting, yes attempting, to split stove wood, I stood on the wood ramp or platform next to the chopping block. I thought that I could get a better vantage point with my body and the ax up higher than the top of the log balanced on the chopping block. One day he saw me trying this and shook his head.

“Stand on the ground, next to the chopping block,” he insisted as he stood by the breezeway.

I wanted to protest but he was the master. If he said pick up twigs and sticks for a month before picking up an ax, I would. He explained that standing on the platform was actually dangerous.

“You have to reach too far ahead of you. Your swing carries through too much when you miss the wood. You could hit your toes.”

The independent, stubborn me was trying to reply, “But,… I know what I’m doing.” My brain knew better than to allow me to open my mouth.

“Oh,” was all that came out. I moved off the platform and onto the ground, positive that I would not be able to land the ax on the log. Now I was uncomfortable with my stance and was nervous having him observe me.

“That’s a sharp ax,” he said trying to both warn me about being careful and encourage me, letting me know that it was sharp enough to do the job.

I swung the ax up, around and down, hoping to hear a successful “Thwack!”

“Dang! Crap!” My inner critic started growling at me. “Now what are you doing? You obviously can’t hit the log very well.” I only nicked the edge of the log before it spit out and under the boardwalk next to me.

“Keep your hands together. It’s really difficult to be accurate that way.” He was referring to how I had my left hand on the end of the ax handle and my right was on the middle of the shaft. I swung the ax to my side, then up and as the ax came down I allowed my “shaft” hand to slide down so both were gripping the end of the ax handle. “Here let me show you.”

He came over and I handed him the ax. “Grip it with both hands down here.” He easily swung it up, around and down to split crisply the log. He picked up the larger piece, placed it and chopped again. And took another log and began splitting it. I was afraid he was going to split all my wood and I would not have any reason to play.

Yes, splitting wood is a bit like playing for me. After my morning walk I do not want to go in, even if it is only 15 degrees out. The air is tasty to my lungs. The birds chittering, squirrels chattering and waves crashing sound delicious. I am invigorated when outside. Even though I have lots of work to do, I search for reasons to stay out. “What other things or chores can I do out here?” It is similar to but not quite procrastination. Splitting wood is an excuse to not go in.

“If I hold the ax that way, my aim is not very good.”

“Give it a try.” He then handed me the ax.

Was it a Zen thing — being able to take the ax in both hands, swing it around my body and have it magically hit the mark?

I have a propensity to blink and I knew this was part of my ax/log/aim problem. I blink at the exact moment a camera flash goes off, causing the photographer to have to take another picture or two. I blink hard if someone waves their hand too close to my face. I blink when watching a baseball be pitched on television. I blink hard when I hear a loud bang of any sort, even when chopping tough carrots as the knife hits the cutting board. I blink in anticipation of the noise of wood parting at the mercy of the ax. I know a lot of people blink, but my blinking seems extreme.

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Previously he told me, “I just want you to be comfortable,” referring to the fact that he considered life on the island as “glorified camping.” We do not live a typical 21st century rural life. I consider that the way we live is a little bit simpler than most folks. However, there is nothing camping-like to it. We have on-demand hot water and a huge bathtub to soak in while watching midges, fireflies or bats dancing outside the window. I do not consider myself to be camping when I can walk to the full-sized propane refrigerator and freezer and pull out fresh eggs, cheese, veggies, butter, milk and bacon to make a tasty omelette for breakfast. Having my choice of using the outhouse or the indoor composting toilet is a luxury if I were to be camping, but I’m not camping. Eight inches of foam panel insulation in our post and beam house keeps me warm when I am not snuggled under flannel sheets with him in our queen-sized bed. And I can easily log on to surf the web, update my blog, schedule clients and shop for everything I could ever imagine wanting. No, this is not camping, glorified or not. This is living comfortably in a beautiful and remote part of the country that not many people even get to visit. I consider myself blessed and lucky.

“I’ll tell you if anything is uncomfortable or would be easier for me if it were changed,” I reassure him.

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During one of our conversations about him wanting me to be comfortable, I had asked him if he could put out a different piece of wood for a chopping block. The one he uses is tall and is not very wide, nor flat. Logs have to be carefully balanced. He tried to explain that the little dip in the middle of the chopping block actually was quite helpful to balance logs that are not cut straight. Again I wanted to protest my difference of opinion, but he had more experience and probably knew something that I did not. If he could do it, then so should I.

I changed my grip but still struggled. I struggled with my aim and lack of power. Perhaps a different ax, one with a shorter handle? Or a better handle? He must have heard my thoughts as the next thing I knew he handed me a maul. The handle was not shorter and the head was actually heavier.

“The heavier maul head might help carry your swing through. You’re working too hard to push the ax through the wood, rather than let it swing through.”

I set the ax aside and reached for the maul. “Thanks.” I appreciated his feedback more than my grumbling perfectionistic gremlin would allow me to quickly admit.

He then disappeared.

The maul theory sounded good and provided me with information from his observations — I was trying to force the ax through the wood rather than let momentum do the work once I had the ax at the peak of the swing’s arc. I am strong and figured I should be able to easily split some dry wood.

I was not willing to admit incompetence or defeat, but I could not get the maul to work properly. I knew it was a simple tool — handle and metal pointy thing on the end with no on/off switch. I could only get it into the wood, not through. I wanted to find something to blame rather than my inability. Perhaps rather than operator error the edge was not sharp enough. The maul got set aside and I went back to the ax.

“Let’s try focusing more on this aim thing.” I told myself. Only a trace of the ax head’s red paint had not been scraped away. Nicks covered the head like the nicks in a gunfighter’s gun handle. I knew I was quickly contributing to the use and abuse it had seen over the years.

I balanced the log on the chopping block. It seemed precariously placed and I hoped it would not jump, as they were apt to do with the slightest disturbance. It stayed like a well behaved dog.

I eyed the log and gripped the handle at the end with both hands as he had shown me. I raised the ax above my head. Holding it briefly in midair I eyed the spot on the log where I wanted the ax to land then I eyed my hands and eyed the log again. Trying not to hold my breath nor blink, I let the ax come down, headed towards an imaginary big red and black bulls-eye. “Thwack!” was music to my ears. As I blinked I saw a piece split off.  It worked! I hit my mark. I tried it again: balanced my log on end, gripped the ax, raised the ax, eyed my mark, eyed the ax, eyed the log and released the ax. It split again, not quite where I was aiming but it was still a direct hit.

“Maybe I’m on to something,” I mused. With more confidence I continued splitting wood. Piece by piece they became smaller and started filling the milk crates. “Okay, I can do this.” I did not let it go to my head, nor did the next piece. It put up some resistance, but finally succumbed.

Split-Worthy Wood

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Now, one of my self-appointed chores to do on the days I am at home, while he is off at work, is to bring in fire wood for the parlor stove, which heats the house and for the cookstove, on which we cook most of our meals. I stack four or five wheelbarrows of wood in the breezeway, just outside the front door. There it is close at hand and under the protection of the house, which makes it easier to carry an armload of wood up the stairs into the living area while slipper- or sock-footed. The house is heated by wood on the second floor, where our 1200 square foot living area is. The first floor houses his workshop and two storage rooms. One is the mechanical room where the water pump and two water pressure tanks keep company with the composting toilet’s holding tank and the single-speed wringer washer. The other is the “tool shed.” Shovels, chainsaws, and mountain bikes keep company with paint, charcoal, pry bars and rope. The inconvenience of having our home upstairs is outweighed by the security and safety it provides us from large, four-footed mammals — primarily black bears.

We did not see any on the island this past year, but they do come wandering by. On our walks through the woods we see overturned rocks, which is a sign of bears looking for creepy-crawly meals. To prevent bears from ransacking his cabin our neighbor has in front of his windows and doors boards with nails pounded through them and placed points-side-up. In September, driving home from work I spotted a bear about to cross the road. Quickly I stopped in the middle of the road, a couple hundred yards away.

“Dang! I wish I had a camera with me.” I exclaimed to no one except myself.

The bear stopped. He was halfway into the opposite lane. He looked at me.

“Don’t have your camera?” I could hear the bear ask. “Well, I can’t wait for you to go get it and come back.”

He turned around and proceeded back into the woods. A couple yards from the road he paused, turned to look at me still sitting in the truck grumbling to myself. He asked, “Still no camera? Okay I’m outta here!” And off into the woods he disappeared.

We respect bears and hope they respect us. We try not to give them any enticements, thus our living quarters and food are on the second story. Yes, they can climb trees, but they are less apt to climb to get into a house for food.

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This past summer we logged about a dozen trees from the island. He had been scanning the shoreline for limbs that lacked leaves, indicating a tree that might be better in our wood pile than feeding the woodpeckers. The procedure was pretty simple. Once we identified which trees might be cut we determined if it was close enough to the shoreline to pull it out with the tractor or boat. He would beat trough the brush and cut the tree(s) down. Once felled, I then tied a rope or attached one end of a chain around the tree and attached the other end to either the tractor or boat. He then drive the tractor or boat to pull the tree out of the woods to the shoreline. When we used the tractor, he picked the trees up with the tractor forks and took them to north dock for further cutting. If he used the boat for pulling trees from the woods, he dragged the tree off the shore and towed it over to the north dock where we dragged it onto the shore. The dozen trees we logged were later cut to firewood length, split with the gas powered log splitter and stacked for drying. Some of it might be dry enough to burn, but probably not until later in the winter.

Even though the woodshed was full, it would not be enough to take care of our heating and cooking needs through spring. Winter preparations, in addition to eventually taking the boats out of the water, meant making sure we had enough fire wood for the season. We would have to buy more wood because the wood from our own logging would not be dry enough, ideally cord wood should season or dry for a couple of years for optimal burn. A sign in a neighboring town said that seasoned wood was available. We bought a face cord, which would go quickly. We would need more for this winter. And we would need more for future years.

There was a trailer full of cordwood with a “For Sale” sign at a local restaurants. The price was decent for three ricks or almost a full cord, and delivery was free. Well, delivery to the boat dock was free, from there we had to take it by boat to our island. This wood was fairly dry, dry enough for burning this season. It got stacked by the walkway to the house and covered with a tarp. It was some of this wood that tried to fall on me, but more on that later.

In preparation for future winters, he ordered us ten cords of pulpwood from a local logger, delivered to the dock in eight foot lengths. We roped them together, end to end, ten or twenty at a time and towed them over to the island. A few times he even had two dozen logs strung together; they bobbed up and down and dove like dolphins. It was quite a sight to see. Our neighbors were used to seeing us come and go in the boat past their house. Apparently they were very curious about what we were doing. One Saturday we stopped in at a local restaurant for a rare lunch “in town.” They were there and we satisfied their curiosity about our undertakings. On shore, by the north dock 250 logs wait for their date with the chainsaw. This wood however still needs to be cut, split, stacked and seasoned; it was not for this winter. It is for next year, the year after and the year after.

Wood gets graded when I fill the wheelbarrow. I have taught myself what to look and feel for as I have learned much from my struggles of splitting wood. He has always made it look simple. I have learned there is more to it than just hoisting the ax to smash the log into smaller pieces. Splitting is easiest if the process begins when it is collected from the woodshed. Not just any piece will do; only those that are split-worthy.

As I take it from the woodshed, I give each piece a quick glance to determine its split-worthiness. How long is it — will it fit in the 20 inch stove box of the cookstove or is it better suited for the parlor stove? Which way does the grain go? Is it straight or wavy? Are there any knots or remnants of limbs? All these determine the ease of which it can be split. Sometimes bark will also prevent a piece from being split easily. Pieces from old birch trees often have thick bark that is very dense. Bark up to a half-inch has given me trouble more than once. I smile when I come across a piece of nice, straight grained oak. It splits well and provides a long burn. Spruce will look easy, but I have to look carefully for knots. I have held a piece thinking it was knot-free only to realize that a twist in the bark, a tell-tale sign of a knot, hides under my thumb. Eventually I find the knot.

I bring in a couple loads of wood from the woodshed, where the older and drier wood is, and from the stacked wood by the walkway, which is a little greener. I mix them as I re-stack them in the breezeway. The newer wood does not make it as often into my cookstove splitting pile as the more seasoned wood does. The pieces are large and long and have lots of knots. The artist in me wonders if something beautiful could be made from this lusciously wavy and curly beech and maple. My eyes caress the undulations of the grain, but the cellular memory in my arms and hands remember what trying to split anything with a dull wave does to the ax — stops it dead in mid-swing. It would probably test my patience if I were to carve it. No, this wood is not for crafts it is for burning; more specifically it is for burning in the parlor stove. Today it is only good for making heat.

We are working our way through the days of February. Lots of wood is still available to fill the stoves. Almost everything we logged this summer and fall is still stacked and drying on the flat rock, an area out in the open where the wind wicks away the wood’s moisture. The purchased face cord was burned at the start of the season. The woodshed is a little less than half full. There is about a rick left of the artsy-looking firewood. All 250 logs are still unburned and full logs. It is good to see so much still available. As we discuss how much of our North Woods gold we have left, I am told that the last third or quarter goes quicker than imagined. This is similar to the phenomenon of when driving a car there is a quarter of a tank of gas left, you know you have gas in the tank to last you until ____________, but the next thing you know the little light is flashing at you to tell you to visit the gas station very very soon. Firewood is similar; you think you have enough until you wake up one morning and realize that Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast did not mention that heating season continues into the beginning of May. Stacked and dried firewood is like money in the bank — a good investment, any time of the year.

North Woods Gold

My split-worthy wood gets put by the chopping block and I get the ax and empty milk crates. We have reached a point that we, the ax and I, are becoming friends. Its appearance that it could loose its head any moment belies its age. The upper shaft has been hit too many times on the edge of logs by misplaced swings and has been chipped off, exposing the core of the handle. I know I have contributed to a couple of those chips. The fiberglass handle core is a mere five-eights by one and a quarter inches, but is still solidly embedded in the head. It is trustworthy.

I eye the 13 logs, and three old milk crates, two red and one brown; the wood should pretty well fill all three crates — one to go immediately into the wood box and two to sit in the breezeway, awaiting their turn. I am plenty warm from my ritual walk. Each morning I try to take a walk as close to sunrise as I can peel myself out from between warm, cozy flannel sheets. I shed my parka and neck warmer and swap my wool and leather mittens for Mechanix winter work gloves. Once the ax gets swinging, my Carhartt overalls, LL Bean flannel lined jeans and wool sweater will keep me plenty warm.

The first piece wants to taunt me. It is hard and densely grained. I am barely able to get the blade in the end. I examine more closely the grain. Once I get the first split made it is more obvious that there is a slight twist to it. I whittle away at the log, first one side then turn and chop. It flies off the chopping block and I set it “up-side-down” and attack it from the “underside.”

Today is a warm 34 degrees. The sun is out and makes me happy. The sun feels good on my face, still the only exposed skin. We are beginning to see more sunny days than cloudy ones. This helps the solar panels charge and top off the batteries. Perhaps we will not have to run the generator tonight. When it has been cloudy all day and the batteries get low we turn the little Honda gas generator on at dinner time. All year we are conscientious about how much electricity we use. During the winter months we carefully monitor our usage so we do not drain the batteries. Running the generator gives us the luxury of having as many lights on as desired, being able to charge our laptop computers and cell phones and play the stereo  all at once. This way we do not worry the batteries will be depleted during the night when the heat tape on the water drain line turns on.

The wind is coming from the south. I hear deep soft booms from behind me. The waves are strong and force large pieces of ice, some weighing up to four or five hundred pounds each, to be pushed into each other and onto shore. They produce a deep bass sound of “Thud!” It is a sound that is almost more felt than heard. Roof melt drips onto a nearby spruce. The spruce catches it on its shady side and forms earrings of ice.

Where are the birds and squirrels though? On a day as beautiful as today, there are normally red squirrels scampering around, chattering and chasing one another or yattering at me that I am bothering them. I have learned that when the animals are not around unpleasant weather is on the horizon, or will be coming in a day or two. Part of the joy of splitting wood is having an excuse to be outside and be able to listen to this unspoiled environment that surrounds me.

One evening I had asked him,“What would we do if we did not have the luxury of having so much wood to select optimal splitting wood? Or, what would we do if we did not have the luxury of using the propane cookstove when we did not want to cook on the wood cookstove?”

“You would pay even closer attention to which logs might be easily split,” was his reply.

I place the next log on the chopping block. My accuracy has improved that I no longer have to do the “eye the log, raise ax, eye ax, aim at log, bring ax down” routine any more. Now I pay more attention to calculating what amount of effort I need to strike the log and move the ax through it, splitting it completely in two. Too much effort can wear me out, exhaust me too quickly. Too strong of a swing could cause me to miss my target, which then if I am not careful could land the ax in my foot or leg. This is definitely not something to do on a remote island where the closest road is either a twenty minute boat ride, if you could even get in the lake this time of year, or a thirty minute ride on a two-track trail over bumpy boulders. Then it is another twenty minutes, well maybe ten if you are driving really fast and really carefully, to the doctor’s office. The nearest hospital is about another two hours away.

I swing the ax. The wood explodes into two pieces. I did not see it split. I blinked! I practice not blinking but this seems to be impossible. I go back to concentrating on accuracy and calculating making the most amount of results with the smallest amount of effort. “Hhhhh!” is the sound of my breath leaving my lungs as I arc the ax up, around and down with a strong swing.

When a piece is small enough for the cook stove it gets tucked into the crate. I am the type of person who easily learns by watching what other people do and then I copy them. Comments and suggestions are always welcome about how I can improve or do something better. If my partner is not around to offer tips, then it is difficult for me to improve except through my own trial and error, otherwise known as frustration.

When I first started splitting wood I had the crate sitting up-right and filled it from the top. One day he saw me filling the crate with my split wood. “Turn it on its side,” he said. At first I did not know to what he was referring. He had seen me struggling to slide a piece of wood into a crate three-fourths full and the split pieces were getting in the way of its new neighbor. He motioned for me to turn the crate on its side, letting gravity keep things tidy. Yes, that worked much easier.

Each log usually splits into three or four pieces. Do I now make them into smaller pieces? Or do I leave them a little thick? I like to keep the pieces that have a tight dense grain, like the oak, thicker as they burn longer. If we do not have much kindling from his wood shop I will chop a log into many thin pieces as possible.

Wood feels different to my fingers than before I started splitting wood; I sense the moistness of a piece of wood when I take it from the woodbox. How hot do I need the stove? A fast and furious burn will be greatly dampened by moist wood. A piece that has moisture in it is fine if a slow, low smoldering temperature is suitable.

Sometimes, in my head I have grand illusions that I hear an announcer shouting forth, “Our next contestant in the 50th Annual Great North Woods Lumberjackess Log Splitting Contest is…!” And the crowd roars hearing my name. I play a game with myself to see how small of pieces I can make. This requires my ax blows to hit the bulls eye, where ever I have mentally placed it. I can whittle a log down to skinny sticks, but I am not mentally delusional. I know I am not going to bring home any time soon any gold-plated axes. My wood splinters and chips prove this. Also, to help me practice my aim, I “name” the area where I intend for my ax to encounter the wood. This reminds me of playing pool, when one calls the pocket in which one is going to sink the eight ball.

I retrieve a split from the ground, it goes in the crate. I then unwedge my blade from the bite of the wood and set the log up for the next swing. Sometimes when the log will not let go of the ax, I heave the wedged ax and log into the air then smash it down onto the chopping block to finish splitting the piece.

Like teasing apart a knot, I position my ax falls to get the thick bark off first, which makes it loosen its strong hold on the inner log. I am learning, slowly but surely, how to read the wood. A piece that is straight grained and dry, I consider a jewel of the North Woods and am always on the look out for such. It splits easily and burns well. As I balance the log on the chopping block, I must also position my body with the grain. There is no rule that says I must stand in the exact same spot each and every time. I find myself dancing with the logs. Who the leader is, I am not sure. The grain and bark show me where to position myself for optimal splitting, but it is I as the ax bearer, the log splitter, that tells the log what to do — split in two.

The smell of fresh split oak takes me back to being a kid and walking into Dad’s wood shop after he had just ran some wood through the table saw or planer. It is a delightful and earthy smell with a sweet note to it.

The more the next piece is split the more what appeared to be straight grain, reveals some grain undulations. There are a couple of knots hiding at the bottom of the log. Splinters peel in resistance to revealing the knot. The two pieces are attached by multiple “strands” of wood, trying to stay together. It shows the strength that the simple structure of a tree has.

My relationship with the chopping block has moved from acquaintance to colleague. It has graciously endured my amateur swings and bears the brunt of my misses. Slowly I have helped it loose some weight by whittling down its waistline. Whenever my ax misses its mark, the edges of the chopping block get trimmed a little. We have two chopping blocks, one higher and narrower than the other. The one that we primarily use is the higher one. The lower one is not as easy to use even though it is wider, it has a larger slope than the taller one. This lower one finally comes in handy with a log that has an end that is cut at about a thirty degree angle. I study the angle of the base, its grain direction, and the bark (I prefer to have the bark-side away from me, as I find it easier to split the wood when I do not have to cut directly through the bark). Sometimes I am able to easily set the log in place. It is perfectly balanced for the first swing to be clean, splitting off a few inches of wood while the rest remains seated ready and waiting for the second blow.

I can make it almost all the way through some pieces with my ax, but the strength of the fibers slows the ax. Wood strands cling together, like two amorous teens, making me remove my ax from the deep crevice. Then I attempt to pry the two pieces apart any way I can.

The clear sky foretells of bright stars to come. Behind me the thunderous crashes of the waves break on the south end of the island. There are trees between me and water, which is only two hundred feet away. Sometime a waves hit the ice and it sounds sharp like a gunshot; it would startle me if the sounds were not buffered by the distance and the familiarity of the sound. Anyone who has spend a good amount of time at the seashore knows how soothing it is to hear the sounds of waves rolling and crashing in the background.

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In January I had to go to Baltimore for business. I was gone for two weeks. The first week I was gone, my partner also had business out of town. We had to close the house up completely. This entailed emptying out the refrigerator, draining the water tanks and water lines, turning off the propane to the fridge and stove, and pouring antifreeze in the drain traps. Anything that could possibly break upon freezing was taken out of the pantry and put in a large plastic tote. He took with him the perishables from the fridge and fruit basket. After being gone a week the inside house would be almost as cold as it was outside. Upon his return, heating the house up would be the first order of business then water. He would need to cut a hole in the lake to hook the water hose up to pump water into the house’s pressure tanks. A fresh stock of perishable groceries would need to be bought. Drain traps would need to be flushed and the propane would need to be turned back on.

I was sorry that I would not be home to help him. A few days before I left I stacked wood in the breezeway and split cookstove wood. I found my consolation — I stacked extra wood in the breezeway and left him an extra crate of beautifully split stove wood – it was dry, straight grained and dense wood. It would light easily and burn for a long time. Even though it would not have taken him nearly as long to split it as it took me, it was one small thing I could do, it was one less task that he would have to do immediately upon coming home. Later, he told me that when he came home the house temperature was twenty-three degrees!

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“Here, it’s a good one. Save this one for splitting.” He hands me a log that seems to be straight grained.

I had initially thought so too when I put it in the wheelbarrow, but had seen some worm holes and maybe a knot. I was not going to argue with him, I would try to split it. It split just fine with the knot down. I am beginning to amaze myself with how easily wood now splits. Is it that I am that much stronger? A few weeks ago I took some boxes to the UPS Store. I thought the box might weigh about thirty pounds. When it was put on the scale I realized how much strength I had developed by chopping and carrying wood. The box was fifty-six pounds! My shoulders, upper arms, forearms and hands have always been strong, from being active in general, playing the piano and doing manual therapy as a profession. But carrying four and five pieces of wood up the stairs a couple times a day, seven days a week for months on end and now splitting wood twice a week has made my piano playing arms even stronger than I had realized. I began to feel sorry for the UPS drivers who had to deliver my package.

Is the splitting going easier because I am finally learning how to read the grain and rings? I am continually noticing little nuances that make it easier. When wood is dry and starts to check, it will split relatively easy if I aim my ax for those splits. Or if there is a small visible knot close to the log’s end, I place that end on the chopping block. The force of the ax is not immediately stopped by the knot and the splitting of the wood begins to weaken the knot, making it susceptible to the ax.

Is splitting going easier because my aim is improving? I now easily grasp the handle with two hands, and with one smooth motion swinging it up, back, around and down. I hit my mark the majority of the time. And even when the ax does not land where I had intended it to, it lands with a “Thwack” as the wood splits in two. But when my aim starts to falter or it is more difficult getting a log balanced these are signs that I am tiring and my blood sugar is getting low.

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For the last two weeks, logs in the maple and beech rick were frozen to the ground. They were getting underfoot, figuratively and literally. It was getting tricky not to stumble over them while filling the wheelbarrow. I could easily twist an ankle if I kept trying to walk on or around them. So three days ago I picked them up because I knew an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Some lifted up easier than others. I knocked loose the stubborn one by hitting them on the end with another piece of wood. This morning as I began to fill up the wheelbarrow the maple and beech tumbled out of their seemingly tidy stacks and began to fall on me. I easily got out of the way because none were underfoot. I filled the wheelbarrow with the rambunctious logs that had tried to crush me. Those that were split-worthy made their way to the milk crates. The others were put in their place in the breezeway. The next resting place for this unruly wood was the parlor stove, it would heat the house for the next few days.

Ahh, the smell of fresh split wood. It is rewarding to look at the wood stacked and split and think about all that I have learned over the last few months about splitting wood. There is certainly a lot more to it than just picking up the ax. The chores are now done and it is “half-past” snack time. It is time for a long, deep drink of refreshing lake water. And upstairs in the house, waiting to feed my grumbling tummy are some oatmeal cherry pecan cookies. Of course they were baked two days ago in the wood cookstove with wood that I split last week. “Yum!”

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About juliemckaycovert

I am a therapist, teacher, photographer and published author. I am a lover of life and nature. My husband, Hugh, and I live off the grid on a remote 40 acre island, Shelter Island, just off of Drummond Island in the far eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This blog is about my life, a life I thought I'd never be able to live. This blog is about dreams and ideals being manifested. It is about daily events with a backwoods twist. It is about the simple pleasures and wonders being brought forth. I invite you to be inspired and even, as some friends have, live vicariously through my words.
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One Response to #37 Discovering Split-Worthy Wood

  1. Pingback: An Author’s Oath | Julie McKay Covert

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