26 Northern Woodlands / Autumn 2016
he days of our years are threescore years and ten,
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow.” So says the
psalmist, a deep fellow, not always a cheerful one. Here
in Psalm 90, for example, he may overstate, in particular by equating
labor and sorrow. Surely not all labor need bring sorrow, especially when
it is, so to speak, self-inflicted. Or so I have been able to persuade myself
over the past three or four years.
It was about then that my chainsaw and I parted company. There was
no divorce. She died on me, as they used to say, and I have not sought
remarriage. I’m a confirmed chainsaw widower.
Being without a chainsaw would be difficult and demoralizing, I
expected, and so it has been. Over the years, I had gained fun, healthful
exercise, honest work, and much satisfaction from the three machines
that I have owned successively. I have also saved probably around
$100,000 on our household heating accounts. I relied on my chainsaws,
and they served me very well.
It was suggested to me, however, that working in the woods with a
chainsaw as I did, always quite alone, subject to rather more fatigue than
in youth and having rather less strength – having, as well, certain other
infirmities – was maybe not the most intelligent conduct for a man who
has just reached his biblically allotted threescore years and ten. (Not,
at any rate, if the same man wishes to see threescore years and, say,
Therefore, when my last saw gave up the ghost, I didn’t replace it.
Rather, I decided to do without. But how? Well, by far the most I’d used
a chainsaw had been when cutting firewood: felling trees, trimming their
branches, bucking them into sections. Now, without a chainsaw, would
I accomplish those things by using axes and crosscut saws powered by
muscle – my muscle – as in the days of the psalmist? Hardly. Rather, I
would reimagine the job as a whole. I would leave the felling, trimming,
and bucking to others. I would step into the great river of firewood
procurement at a point farther downstream than I had been used to.
Doing that proved to be easy. A friend up the road has a family logging business. He also deals in firewood as the back-end byproduct of
his timber operation: the logs go to the mill; the slash goes to cordwood
customers, including me.
I’m unlike most of my supplier’s clients, however, in that I don’t order
ready-to-burn wood: cut, split, seasoned. Rather, I buy fresh-cut wood
right off the stump, sawn into sections of stove length but otherwise
unimproved. Call them green chunks. Two dump trucks full of them is
about what we burn in a winter. That’s after I have split, stacked, and
moved them – a considerable effort.
Most of that effort, measured in time and sweat, is in splitting the
chunks. For that, I use a heavy splitting axe or maul, and a sledgehammer
and steel wedges. I don’t have a power splitter, though I have used them.
For me, the work of humping the biggest chunks up onto the rail of the
splitter is as punishing as swinging the maul.
As punishing, but not as much fun. I enjoy splitting firewood. I enjoy
handling all that fresh maple, oak, ash, and beech: its colors, its weight,
its feel, its smell. And, after all, the job – though long – is by no means
endless. Without pushing too hard, I can split and stack our winter’s wood
in six weeks or so.
Splitting wood has other, less tangible benefits. It’s slow, repetitive work
and therefore lends itself to thought – to idle, pleasurable contemplation.
Not all work related to firewood does that. Stumbling around in the
woods with a screaming chainsaw, for instance, is not conducive to
woolgathering. (Or if it is, then it’s not conducive to survival.) Running
a saw at 10,000 rpm, you need to focus. Running a maul at 5 rpm, you
can relax; you can invite your soul. Take care, though: you may find your
soul packing some pretty long thoughts as, past a certain age, our souls
tend to do.
Such has been my own experience of chainsaw widowerhood, at
least. For example, this past summer, working away at my splitting, I was
struck by the fact that I am now older than many of the trees whose wood
I am moving, splitting, and stacking. At first, that idea filled me with rue
and regret. Only yesterday, I was a kid; now, apparently, I am more aged
than the very trees of the forest. On further reflection, though, I found
myself reassured. I found myself elated, even. After all, with superior age
comes superior wisdom, doesn’t it? Of course it does. It must therefore
be that I have prevailed. I’m smarter than two dump trucks full of green
chunks. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve merely been spending too much
time dreaming at the woodpile. What would the psalmist say? Would he
embrace his age? Or did he, perhaps, hang onto his chainsaw?
Castle Freeman, Jr., is the author of many novels, short stories, essays, and
other nonfiction mainly concerned with life in northern New England. He lives in
Green Chunks, Long Thoughts
by Castle Freeman, Jr.