"Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water." Ancient Chinese Proverb
I love to chop wood. There is something spiritual about it. Chopping wood is real and useful, demanding yet simple. There is sweat involved, always a good thing. It is clean, honest sweat. Even when it is cold outside and you start out bundled up, after a while the layers come off and the perspiration cools you the way it is meant to.
After some recent surgery, as a way of deciding when I am finally healed enough to resume “normal” activities, I asked the surgeon, “When can I chop wood?” His response indicates how authentic and purposeful wood chopping is.
“You can chop wood as soon as you feel up to it. If it becomes painful, then stop.” A simple almost Zenlike response. I can simply gauge the path to renewed health by my ability to swing an ax. I like it.
When you are chopping wood, you are outside – usually in a forest. There are very few human influences. It is a solitary occupation for the most part. When one is chopping wood there are no cell phones involved, no computers, facebook, email, TV, radio, no electronics whatsoever. There is only the natural world and one of man’s first tools. An ax (or axe if you prefer). A wedge fastened to a stick. There is something so primitive about it, something so primal. There are very few pastimes so close to the earth, so basic.
I love the smell of chopping wood. Each species of tree has a different smell. We have lots of old oaks on our property so that is our main wood. But I am not above splitting pine for our firepit. My neighbor gave us an old dogwood tree that is covered in sapsucker holes. Sweetgum is very plentiful but it is hard to split as the grain is gnarly and swirly and unpredictable. But if the logs are short enough, and it is dry enough, it’ll split alright. And it burns just fine. It just takes a little more effort. When I start out chopping, I smell the first pieces, raw and fresh. It is like nothing else.
There is little else so satisfying. You begin with large round logs and end up with something that is tremendously useful. It is your muscles working in harmony with your tool and God’s gift from the ground that yields a stack of cut wood. It is such an obvious enterprise. The harder you work, the more energy you put into it, the faster and more effective the process. There are few more gratifying sights than a pile of freshly split wood.
When I was a kid we always had a fireplace. A real one with a grate and a screen and fire stirring tools. Most places I have lived as an adult I was fortunate enough to have a fireplace. As long as I remember we had bonfires on the shores of Lake Michigan with hastily collected driftwood. Campfire songs and laughter. I courted my first girlfriend by beachfires and snuggle at night with Heidi by a fire.
The warmth provided by a wood fire is sublime. Heat from a register from the floor is, of course, necessary in most places. But heat from a fire is pure. You get close, you get warm. Too warm? Back away. And the light cast into the room, or the forest or the beach is something special and alive and different from moment to moment.
We have a fire pit down at the bottom of our hill. Around that special place we have had parties, shared wooden music and songs, cautioned little ones and roasted marshmallows. We listened to night sounds of animals and sat in companionable silence. All the while we gazed into fire as people have done for all time from the heart of Africa, to the plains of America, from icy Norway to the southern tip of Argentina. Fire is universal.
Chopping and splitting wood is one of the oldest activities of humans. And not much has changed. Muscle, simple machine, tree, motivation. As long as humans have been around - and been truly human – there have been evenings gazing into fires. The simple act of squatting down and losing focus, frontside warm, backside cool, listening to the wood sighing and popping and cracking, smelling smoke, avoiding swirling sparks – is an act performed essentially unchanged from the beginning of time. There is something comforting in knowing that this same pastime has been enjoyed by billions before me and will be appreciated until the very end of time.
The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness. ~Henry David Thoreau