The six-and-a-half pound maul making its way around my head travels through the October sunshine: dull gray, blunt, serious as an elk in rut. It windmills beneath the yellow larch needles and outstretched arms of evergreens, their fall odors incensing an already heady mix of dried grass, wood smoke, and sun-warmed bark. A wedge of backwoods kinetic energy and violence, its target—my target—is the 16-inch tall, 12-inch across round of Ponderosa pine, cut and bucked this morning by yours truly, which, along with the rest of the standing-dead beetle-killed tree, I bucked into rounds and (with only a smattering of sweating and swearing) wheelbarrowed 100 yards to be dumped here, just outside my woodshed. Back and forth, arms stretched long as a chimpanzee’s, I pushed the loads up hill. Now, the whine of the chainsaw a distant memory, I swing and split, swing and split, the rounds separating into halves like magnets of similar poles repelling each other, jumping apart as if dynamited.
For 19 of the last 20 years, I’ve undertaken something that resembles the above, its combination of utility and spiritual renewal not to be overlooked. Such labor, rumored to build character, may in fact have it backwards, while the cords of wood cut, long turned to ash and smoke, have indeed left their impressions—some tangible, others not: a ding on my right shin from a flying piece of wood inexpertly split; the memory of a row of black walnut stacked against a West Virginia sky; the box of worn leather work gloves I keep in my shed, their fingers stiff and curled as bird claws, duct-taped to an alarming degree; a history of blisters healed, calloused reabsorbed, beer drunk and Aspirin popped; evenings of long, slow burn.
The cutting, splitting and stacking of firewood is without doubt the quintessential fall chore, and if one job could stand in for all the romance and backache imagined in a rural life, this trifecta would be it. As my maul comes down, my stomach muscle clench, my held breath holds, I know there is little that separates me from hundreds of thousands of other weekend warriors escaped to the woods, working out in new Carhartts and with old Husqvarnas their inner Paul Bunyan.
As the afternoon wears on, I continue to work at a steady pace. With practiced skill, I place each round on the stump I use as a chopping block and rotate the piece until it balances. I swing the maul, aiming for the slight check in the top of the round. With each swing, there is a fine ache in my back and a broad sense of doing something right. If I remember correctly, Rick Bass in his book Winter, tells of having to put away 38 cords of firewood when he first moved to The Yaak. As much as I enjoy cutting and splitting wood, that much I couldn’t imagine. As my pile of rounds decreases, the pile of halved, quartered and slivered pieces grows, and periodically I stop to transfer the split wood to the shed, fitting the knotty and ill-split pieces in with a certain artistic pride. When I’m done, I sit on the stump among the wood chips and stare at the newly filled shed. Because it’s what I do, I take out a pen and write in my journal:
I’ve been to the Louvre. Stared up at the ceiling of the 16th Chapel. Stood on the tops of I don’t know how many mountains, gazing down on river valleys and the backs of eagles, or across rows of peaks disappearing to the horizon. My wife is beautiful, and I could look at her all day. There are Ferraris, wine bottles, the shape of an egg, or a wave. There are deer. In fact, there are any number of beautiful things in the world—some handmade, others, well, not. But this is Montana, October, and my woodshed is full; I can’t think of a prettier sight.