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Politically Incorrect

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Politically Incorrect

Reflections on splitting firewood

I don’t know where Austin and Justin got their tree-cutting work ethic, but I was flabbergasted when they pulled into my yard and began unloading my firewood from their truck last fall. Flabbergasted, and feeling just a little bit guilty. Given the size of the rounds that were hitting the grass, the tree they cut on behalf of my winter’s heat must have been about eight billion years old. I really hoped it was infected with bark beetle or something.

I don’t cut my own firewood. I’m scared of chain saws and, given my relationship with power tools, that’s probably a good thing. But most of the time, I do split my own wood. Mostly that’s because I’m too cheap to buy firewood already split, but it’s also partly due to my desire to feel that I play an important role in maintaining my life.

Yes, I actually like to split wood. Not as much anymore as I used to, but there’s some sort of primitive satisfaction to be found in hefting an axe and splitting rounds that you know will be keeping you warm in the months to come. It’s also a good activity when you’re irritated about something or with someone, a situation I often find myself in, though I’m not sure what it says about me that I can get release from such an activity.

And boy, was this wood going to need to be split. The individual rounds littering my yard were bigger than my wood stove—my entire wood stove, not just the firebox.

I discovered rather quickly that yes, this tree had indeed been infected with something, as each split with the axe revealed the most disgusting little worm things I’ve ever seen in my life. Fat, white, segmented monsters with a flat head featuring a large brown spot that was probably an eye or something. I definitely wasn’t going to be stacking this wood in the house. As each worm was revealed I would dig it out of its hole, and toss it into a cat food can for later disposal. This became more difficult throughout my wood-splitting day as, after seven or eight worms, I had to deal with an almost uncontrollable urge to vomit whenever I got within a foot or so of that can. I’m not a fan of worms. I called my expert (Ernie) and he said yep, it was bark beetle larvae. Or maybe the larvae of wood boring beetles. Guilt headed out the door, while disgust walked in. “They make good eating,” Ernie added, knowing I couldn’t reach through the cell phone to smack him upside the head.

I mentioned before that I’m not as thrilled with firewood splitting as I used to be. In part that’s because I’ve done it long enough that I no longer feel the need to prove anything to myself. In part it’s because I’ve done it long enough that I know just how much trouble I can get myself into. Usually, that’s a lot.

Brian had brought me his electric splitter to use, so I not only had this new load of wood to split, I figured I should take care of all the rest of the firewood I had under tarps while I had a machine available to make things easier.

David put the tarp over the wood, and he weighted it down with a whole bunch of stuff so it wouldn’t blow away in our autumn winds. That meant I had to climb up to the top of the wood pile to dislodge the weighty tarp-weights. That was my first problem. I’m not sure how it is I can move one silly piece of wood and bring the whole thing down, but I can. Too bad it’s not a talent I can market. I’ve always enjoyed wandering through the Bonner County Museum and looking at the pictures of those guys who ‘ride’ logs that are floating down the river, but I’ve never had a desire to do it myself. Nonetheless, that’s kind of what this was like as, balanced rather precariously, I danced and dodged to avoid the logs crashing down around me.

The tarp came next. Not that the tarp would actually fall off the remaining wood (that would take more effort yet), but the small lake of water that had collected near the top, the surface already frozen over, was on its way down around me as well.

I climbed back down the remaining wood, cold and wet, ready to begin splitting. Although many of the rounds the boys brought were much too big for the splitter (even at a quarter size they were much too big) others were close enough to make an electricity expenditure preferable to a muscular one.

It went well for the most part. Super dry wood I was able to split smaller than I can with an axe, for a ready supply of kindling. Bigger rounds were cut into manageable sizes for my wood stove and I kept up a steady rhythm of haul, split, haul and stack. My lower back began to ache, my right elbow began to scream, but the pile of split wood was growing nicely and there was still daylight left outside. I enjoyed the cold, the smell of fresh-cut firewood, and the camaraderie of joining others in getting ready for winter, as evidenced by the crack of firearms echoing from the mountains around me.

And then I got the log from hell. Why there is always one in every pile I don’t know, but I hit this one with about an hour left ‘til dark.

A big, beautiful piece of Doug fir, this massive round was destined to provide many, many hours of heat to my winter house, but it had less interest in meeting its destiny than I had in getting it there. I tried every trick I know to get that darn log to split: searching for the most miniscule “starter” splits to aim the axe at, carefully peeling off the bark… nothing doing. I put down the axe and loaded it onto the electric splitter and began cutting wedges into the log, three inches apart all the way around, first one end and then the other. Each end of the log looked like a cut pie but the darn thing was still solid. I hammered my own wedge into it with the back of the axe until the wedge was buried and still no resounding crack. Back onto the electric splitter to try some more and the log, obviously irritated with my persistence, went from passive resistance to active mutiny, trapping my finger between itself and the splitter’s wedge. I squealed as the wedge sunk a corner of itself into my nail bed, shrieked and moaned and called that log every name in the book while I pried my fingernail off the splitter and then went silent as the pain finally hit. Within minutes the end of my finger felt like it had grown to the size of my hand as I alternated between staring in fascination at the blood dripping on the ground and glowering at that piece of Doug fir, all the while trying to figure out how to explain this injury to those people who would immediately ask, “Why weren’t you wearing gloves?” (My fingers are long and skinny and I’ve yet to find a pair of good firewood gloves that fit—I feel unsafe when wearing gloves. At least, up ‘til the point I injure myself.)

“Damned piece of firewood isn’t gonna beat me,” I said, one of those rare occasions when I realize why some people think I’m stubborn.

I went back to work with axe, wedge and electric splitter and Mr. Doug fir finally gave up the ghost, splitting with a crack that could be heard from blocks away and leaving me with two pieces of wood that were both way too big for the firebox.

Splitting that wood further still was no easier than making that first cut and I had to admire that spunky little log despite the throbbing agony at the tip of my middle finger. The very last piece, hanging together by mere threads of wood and still refusing to come apart, I wrenched in two with my bare hands, screaming yet again as I ripped off part of a fingernail—the very same nail that was punctured by the wedge.

The final score was about 67 to zero in favor of the log, but I prevailed in sudden death. And yes, that log was the first one into the night’s fire.

Now it’s almost April. All that firewood so painstakingly split, and all the firewood that both David and I split later, has been transformed into a fine film of creosote lining my chimney. Only a small pile remains. The snow continues to fall but the fire is quiet as I prepare (with David’s help) to clean the chimney and make the woodstove both usable and safe for use again. After I do, there are still 20 or 30 of those big logs waiting to be split. It’s still to be seen whether a few months under tarps and several feet of snow will make them more amendable to the axe. But if you’re going to do something to piss me off, now is the time—because I can take my frustration out on the wood pile.

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Landon Otis

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