Splitting Wood

Splitting Wood

I suspect we all know that firewood heats us many times. There is the cutting, the hauling, the splitting, the stacking, the trucking of armloads to the house, and finally cleaning up the mess, the chips, the bugs and the ashes. None of this is any secret and none is unanticipated. It is all just part of the deal, and that deal is the unbelievable comfort of sitting next to the old stove warmed by the radiant push of nature’s captured sun.

While my lust for warmth, of comfort, now seems paramount to my daily life, and it may have to do with age, those other activities also have their merits, from exercise, to pursuing a worthy cause, maybe the drive to organize, or possibly even to fulfill an ancient drive to survive in a long gone Paleolithic past.

While, like Ronald Reagan, I not only can’t resist spitting wood but genuinely relish the total experience. For Ronnie, his handlers would absolutely go into fits when he was found in the backyard banging away at the woodpile instead of communists. He could have been injured but he would continue, stating it was part of his well-being. I suspect they took his woodpile and axe away.

Seeing as how I am not needed to fight commies, and always have a woodpile, the game goes on. So what is it with this splitting—or all the rest that goes with it. Tony loaned me a book because he, like me, relishes the very touching of wild wood. The book is titled Norwegian Wood—Chopping and Stacking—The Scandinavian Way. It was not written by the Beatles but by an actual Norwegian, Lars Mytting. I would have preferred it was written by a Swede because it would have been better yet, still I settled for the ancestral neighbor.

The book got me thinking, mulling if you will, about this affliction, maybe even wondering if this desire was, like many behavioral patterns (say fire watching), buried in my genetics. Are there certain patterns of behavior in folks of northern European ancestry, the same peoples who for thousands of years had to fight the cold of the north? Is this innate, ingrained? Did we evolve to seek out a source of warmth and energy that kept us alive? The draw appears strong, maybe subtle, but after all, one hundred thousand years of struggle in the wintery north certainly must have favored the rough beasts known as Homo sapiens who sought out the best wood. Why would Ronnie do that? And me, and now the grandkid?

So the bigger question might be, just how far does this wood lusting, this innate fascination, this possibly hoarding desire go? It is not simply the grabbing of any wood, throwing it on a pile, then waiting for the cold or for roasting a mammoth steak. It appears more fine-tuned, more engulfed in nuance.

For instance, and this may just be me, there is a tendency to evaluate each piece of wood. “Nah, I’m not gonna mess with that damn white cedar.” I might think, but then the grandkid says, “I’ll take it because it is great in the early fall when I want a low fire, and it is easy to split.” Really! The white oak can be difficult and requires a little extra push of the maul. Still, it is easy to feel the heft of it and know the energy that is within, just like the black locust. It seems my mind is doing a subtle but necessary evaluation of energy invested to energy returned. I move toward the red oaks because it splits easily and stacks well. The maple is lighter, but adequate, not like the willow which has less energy than a fresh buffalo chip.

The working of the mind does not end just in the practicality of each species but there is also a strange draw to the nature of each type of wood. Our grandson favors those woods that allow him to just swing away wildly with his three-quarter weight Hudson Bay axe, almost as if he is playing golf. Is he seeking out the easy pieces, maybe the ones that could have been split with ease by his Cro-Magnon ancestors? He wants a lot, he wants it now and he knows that while it is wet at the moment, in two weeks it will be dry and useable. There is an evaluation of all wood it seems. Ignore the difficult, the nasty joints. I have been ‘ordered’ to cut out the knots and leave the straight grained pieces of the red pine or polar so kindling can be made, I noticed, with great pleasure.

While this discussion could go on and on, one more notable aspect of wood has to be mentioned. This also may have to do with the knowledge of wood and what each species can do. It is the scent. It seems that each species has its own odor and many are interestingly enjoyable, pleasant if you will. Possibly, this developed as a way to identify different woods for different uses, maybe just for aesthetics for all I know. In any case, this is an allure that draws memories and possibly rattles the Paleolithic mind. 

A couple years ago, while pounding away at some cantankerous white oak, I noticed a very distinct odor lifting from the cut pieces. On lifting it to my nose I realized it was the faint but tantalizing scent of fine whiskey. I can’t talk to Ron Reagan, so we’ll have to leave it there.

Hans Borli may settle it here;


 The Slow Lane.

Berry picking, and I don’t really care if there are stink bugs on them, always drew my attention, even when I was a snot-nosed kid of 10. If a berry showed up, even a tomato-like ground cherry (an elegant nightshade} or a prickly dew berry on the sandy open fields of Marquette County here in Wisconsin, I ate ‘em. Just plopped them in my waiting mouth as if I were a hunter/gatherer back in the day, you know twenty thousand years ago when my people were drifters.

I suppose it was my Old Man, though born in New York City and raised in Chicago, was always doing it as if he too was just out Africa following his Cro-Magnon genes. Hell, he’d even chew on wheat grass grains. As a result my parents foraging habits, if it was a thimbleberry up north and a half, a wild raspberry, a cantankerous blackcap, into my young mouth they’d go. “Hey kid, look at these huckleberries.” We’d scarf ‘em. It’s never changed.

I’ve got the grandkid doing it now, just like our kids did, and he hunts them down like a Neanderthal looking for a noon meal of grubs and berries (an old favorite I am told). “Hey gramps there’s a bunch of gooseberries in Merlyn’s front yard. What should I do?” He looked at me as to imply the neighbor didn’t know about it and he had a hankerin’. “Better ask.” I said with lifted and twisted brow.

A person can only hunt and gather so much in these modern times, so this last summer, our raggedy troupe hit the commercial berry patches and secured one hell-o-a-lotta berries, big puppies and froze those suckers up. That is why today, in a cold-adverse state, I made a pie. To top it off, part of the sweetener I used was some freshly made maple sugar. Sweet Jesus skipping across the tundra on a rubber crutch, that pie was good.

I know this was not done as if we were still hunter-gatherers, but it was still by our own hands gathered from the land. That is my thought for the day on keeping it simple. Just remembered we had ground up northern pike a few days ago, and the squash Jake grew. Life is good in the slow lane.

It’s not too late to go back to the river.

Dropping into the hardware store to grab some suet for the waiting woodpeckers or get a paint brush, is a common experience. This is usually accompanied with some chatter, maybe gossip, very possibly advice and a chance for me to offer some under-appreciated life coaching.

In a small town this exchange is important, invariably because there will be someone there I know or someone who needs to be relieved of some fishing information. Standing by the minnow tank it’s possible to hear an angler mumble a few leading words, “Ya, been getting some nice bluegills over on Mykl—b—s.” Pointing an ear, I like to sidle-up, maybe looking at the fan belts up high. “Where you been gettin’ those gills?” “I been getting a few on Brek—, but a little slim picken’.” A subtle inquiry.

I might add that don’t think I’ll be getting out again but just trying to get a feel where they’re at. He might say he’s been getting some good ones on the river. “Ya just out from Plover.”

Well, I heard a ‘mi’ sound in the first exchange and after he leaves, I’ll go to the next source. “Mark, d’you here what Elmer said?”

It just goes like that, unless of course, Elmer just flat offers it up.

So, the other day I went in there for two paint brushes and furniture oil. If I recall it was too cold to fish, I was too lazy, and my mind was generally afuzz. At the back register, and not far from the minnow supply there was a younger gentleman unknown to me who was making an enquiry about percussion caps. “You a black powder shooter?” I questioned, not that it was any of my business. He had a twinkle in his eye and after a short discussion, he told a story about having two very old flintlock black powder pistols he recently purchased. Of course I was all ears, and probably starting to drool over such an exciting find. He was clearly looking to put them back in shooting condition, but not for dueling.

The talk went on and I admitted that our family had been involved in mountain man reenactments and had once upon a time enjoyed blasting away with ancient muzzleloaders. As I was about to leave he asked if we had ever been to the encampment over west next to old man river. “No,” I said we still have all our gear but just can’t seem to get to it.”

As he was about to slip out the back and I out the front, I motioned to him, “Have fun with those pistols.” He paused and said, “It’s never too late to go down to the river.” I walked out the door almost rattled, “It’s not too late to go down to the river.”

I wasn’t sure where that came from but yes, it could mean the Mississippi rendezvous but my suspicions, all tangled in this age of mine, was running too many algorithms through my hard drive.  I knew there were religious connotations there but there was also some history wrapped in my younger years.

I could see Springsteen soulfully singing The River.

“That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh, down to the river we did ride……”

This is not a pleasant song about small town living to say the least, but the river still was a place of some sort of salvation, a place to hide, maybe a place to cleanse.

There was another country song out there that went,

“I’m going out to the country, gonna bury my head in the creek
I’m gonna jump in that water, baptize both my feet
‘Cause everywhere I’ve been walking, I’ve been getting in trouble deep
I’m going down to the river, gonna wash my soul again”

I tried to discard the songs because I, for one, didn’t think I was a sinful man needing a cold bath. I had to shy away from the tunes. There was just too many of them and I found myself singing that religious number from Oh Brother, “ As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way…” I was going religious right then and there and I could almost see myself back in the church choir, loving to sing—- and snapping the bra strap of the cutie in front of me—was that a sin?

That’s when Huck Finn came to mind, Ya, Huck Finn floating down the river—and this shopper was talking about the Mighty Mississip. Right? There it was the river of life, the flow line to adventure, and the stream of wonder for an aging man just like as it was for a young ratty kid full of what was to come.

The guy was a messenger from Huck Finn telling me it ain’t over yet. Forget about cleansing anything, get a boat in the water, don’t sit around procrastinating and complaining, get on with life, start a motor, you don’t even need to be clean. Maybe I’ll even rewrite the sad song from Bruce.

“This morning we went down to the river,                                                                  and to the river we did hike, went down to the river,                                                         down to the river for pike.”

That sure felt better and my mind now, not rattled, has settled and will ramble and flow on forever.