Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…



In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?


My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”


“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.


Sun Dreaming – 4/11/05

Monday Poem, A Year and a Day

Sun Dreaming – 04/11/05

The winter has been long and I turn my heart towards travel.
Soft banks of snow have been transformed by the late winter rains
and now bear none of their earlier powdered beauty.

The icy mud sucks at my feet as the brown grass shows
greasily through on cold, dead patches of earth.

It is grey and cold,
Too cold to hope yet for flowers.
Too cold to see the ice banks retreat into the ground.
The wet and sharp winds bite exposed ears
and makes red cheeks sting.

Drizzling rain freezes as it hits,
making a walk to the mailbox a treacherous affair.

It is cold.
My shoes are soaked.

Then I smile.

For a moment, I am not here,
and I fly away in my mind.

For me, Southern France is always sunny,
and I close my eyes,

and walk along the terraced hillsides,
amongst the ancient almond trees once more.

Better Living Through History

“Your wife has something she wants to tell you.”

It was my Dad on the phone and he was heading off the island to do some errands in town. Action Girl had been at work on the ferries since early that morning and the wind had been whipping with gusts pushing thirty-five miles per hour on the water. Winter had arrived with a vengeance and the temperatures were in the teens. I’ve never been able to remember how to correctly calculate wind chill factors and to be honest, I really didn’t want to this morning. I already knew what she was about to say. It was hard to make out her every word as Dad passed her the phone, the white noise from the wind covering up her voice, but the sentiment made it through.

“Anyone who would willingly go out in this when they didn’t have to is INSANE!”

That might not be a perfect quote, but it’s in the right spirit.

“Don’t care! I’m going! You knew I was nuts when you married me!” I momentarily distracted her with a tale of something cute the kids did and then made my telephonic escape with what I hoped was a completely stable sounding, “Love you!”

What I was getting ready to do was not only go out in this Arctic weather, but also do it while standing very still out in the elements in a big, open space.

Oh, and there would be guns.
The guns make it all worth it.

It has been since October the last time I made it to the range and I badly wanted to go. The rifle range is where I can relax and do something I truly love. I find it calming, head clearing and most of all, really, really fun. It was going to be bitterly cold but I had three things pulling for me.

The first card I had was the company of good friends. I had gotten a message that an old buddy of mine was in the area and had brought his 1917 German infantry rifle with him, “just in case” we could carve out an afternoon to slip away and have some fun. Another friend who lives near by had asked about shooing just the week before. His brother wanted to come as well and that made a group of four of us.

My great uncle Don had a saying about boys and groups. His theory was that to find the group IQ, all you need to do was find the median intelligence of the members… and then divide that again by the total number of males present. This, I feel, can give good explanation of some of the stupidity of what men do when present in large numbers.

The second card I had was that not only my wife, but also both my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t cold out. It was super-nasty-bonechilling-find-you-dead-in-a-snowbank-come-March weather. Polar bears, had we any in the area, would have looked at the day, thoughtfully chewed a strip of explorer jerky, and gone right back to bed. I don’t know what a polar bear bed looks like, but I’m willing to bet that it was more inviting that what was outside. Well, maybe not if you’re an Arctic explorer. BUT, as we all know, there is nothing that can change a single, dumb idea in to a burning quest faster like having your wife tell you that you shouldn’t do it… Except perhaps having your parents say it to you too.

My last card was my secret weapon. My ace in the hole. And though to an outsider it might have just looked like coffee, it was much more than that. It was coffee in… The Thermos.

This thermos was made by the Thermos Company long, long ago. Longer ago, in fact, than I have actually existed. It is big, plaid, made of metal and glass and is proof that they most definitely don’t make ‘em like they used to. It had been gathering dust in my folk’s basement for decades when I spotted it on my last trip back home. It was sitting on a shelf, wedged amongst other bits of family memorabilia and debris and with permission, I gleefully snapped it up and brought it home. Action Girl was unimpressed with it when I got home and showed her my trophy. I explained that it was, simply put, “The best thermos ever built.” She pointed out the rust on the bottom and the spots where the lovely nineteen-sixties faux plaid painting scheme that covered its surface was blistering off from corrosion in places. Wounded, I hugged it close for a moment and reverently put it on a shelf in the kitchen.

In her defense, she had good reason to be dubious. I have a fairly reliable tendency of looking at my past through a heavy miasma of rose colored nostalgia. Something that I ate and liked when I was twelve, easily comes back to me as tasting of ambrosia and honey. Maybe I really did love what ever it was that much when I was a kid, but often in the adult re-trying… well… these things do seem to fall a bit flat. This time, the thermos was being viewed with similar skepticism. I knew better though.

The really don’t, in fact, make them like this any more. At least not that I’ve seen. Outwardly it looks like you’d expect a thermos to look. The cap doubles as a cup, it has a built in handle and carries about eight mugs worth of what ever you want to fill it with. What makes it different from its modern counterparts is the glass. The entire lining of the thermos is a heavy glass and once you seal it up, it will keep stuff hot or cold for ages. I remembered that from childhood and it’s why I wanted it so much, now as an adult. I recall both of my parents reminding me to be careful with it lest I crack the glass and ruin it forever. I was being very careful and now. Filling it up to the tiptop with high grade, freshly brewed, black coffee, I headed out the door with it in one hand and my rifle gear in the other.

My GOD, it was cold out.

Within an hour, I was at the range with three friends, several guns, a pile of ice cold ammo and numb toes. The wind was biting, our fingers numb and, as far as we could tell, we had the entire complex to ourselves. It was great! When one of us couldn’t manage to physically pick up new rounds to load our weapons, we’d run back to the car and warm up with some of the atomically hot coffee in the thermos. I think we all burned our tongues at some point that day. When all was shot and done and I was heading back home on the boat, I poured my self another cup and had to blow on the contents of the lid before it was drinkable. It was just as good as I had remembered it!

This morning I was cleaning up the kitchen and found a few ounces of coffee still in the bottom of my rusty, plaid friend. When I started to move to pour it down the drain, I stopped and decided to try it, just out of curiosity. It wasn’t hot… but it wasn’t cold either. Actually, I’ve been known to drink colder coffee than this when it’s been momentarily lost and neglected in a mug somewhere. I carried it to the bathroom where Action Girl was just exiting the shower.

“It’s still warm. It’s from yesterday.”
She looked at me, and then the thermos with doubt. “No way, Seriously? What does that thing have, its own reactor built into the cap?”

It’s not often that I’m definitively right about things like this and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to bask in being correct. Triumphantly, I returned to the kitchen, carrying it before me like a chalice to be carefully cleaned up and returned to its shelf of honor.

I know I have a habit of equating “older” with “better” and I know too, that it’s not always the case, but boy, things like this do tend to cement my faith in the items of the past. My lawn mower was made before my Grandfather was born, some of my favorite hand tools were from before my father was born and now my favorite thermos is older than anyone who lives in my own house. They’re all awesome in their own ways.

I hope that one day my grandkids can say the same of me.

But I doubt it.

*Siiiiiiip* Ahhhh! That’s some good, hot coffee!

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