A spring windstorm late last year removed the top from a tree ten feet from our house. The house was spared from damage. The tree was dead where it stood. Though handy in the woods, I’m not one that can identify a tree based on bark and shape alone. I need leaves to make my arboreal diagnosis. The topless trunk sat idle all summer, into fall and winter, before I thought it time to rid the yard of his threat. A good friend gave me a hand at dropping the 100 foot by 3 foot diameter telephone pole shaped spire. He showed me how old timers used gunning sticks and cutting techniques only a surgeon could appreciate to drop trees on top of hats. I needed to just avoid two “good” trees and the kids’ tree house. As two nervous, albeit excited, little ones watched through sliding glass doors from the safety of the living room, I managed to drop that tree exactly on the spot. The log thumped heavy on the ground. A faint echo of the saw and a waft of 2-stroke held in the air as my buddy remarked, “That’s a hickory. Good luck splitting that…”
When Max came to visit us in Delaware mid January of this year I had all but 30 feet of the monster; quartered, hauled up the hill, split, and stacked. In no hurry, I would quarter two or three of the dense cylinders whenever I needed to clear my head. It was my winter release. Therapy. A substitute for my usual snowy 3 miler. I asked if Max wanted to give me a hand finishing up the chore and he was quick to grab his coat. I handed him the splitting maul and pointed to the stack of quartered hickory by the wood pile. We would start there and work our way up to needing more cut from the downed log. “I’ve never cut wood before”, Max said as he hefted the maul dangerously above his head. When the shaft of the tool struck the hickory on the down swing, the maul all but jumped from his hands. The un-touched hickory quarter fell to its side in the snow. “I see that”, I said.
I started relaying the lessons I’ve learned from 20 years of sporadic wood cutting. As a kid, our house was warmed almost exclusively by water circulating through ancient radiators, heated with wood burned in a wood stove. I’m familiar with the most efficient way to raise, and lower the ax. Splitting wood isn’t a race. It’s about a slow steady pace and consistent placement of the tool. It’s about that split second when steel meets wood. Steel wins. Max struggled through a few pieces before he found his rhythm. He went on to split as much of that hickory as I could cart up the hill. The inconsistent footing at the hand of the melting snow be damned. Max Wastler learned to split wood in Delaware.
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