f you have much to do with firewood, and if you have
retained your amateur standing, you will eventually become
acquainted with a certain principle – a bitter, rue-laden
principle that might be called the Paradox of Ease. Remember,
however: we’re assuming you’re not a professional in the
firewood line. For the professional wood cutter, the familiar
array of skidders, loaders, dozers, tractors, splitters, winches,
Here’s my tale . . .
Some years ago now a big limb came down off an old tree in
our backyard. The tree was a butternut, a species that was being
decimated by the butternut canker, a malady that has killed
off virtually the entire population of one of our region’s best
loved and most useful trees. When I heard the unmistakable
crrraaakkk – THUD of catastrophic arboreal failure, I was
saddened, of course, but I was also pleased. I reckoned I had just
taken delivery of a shipment of free heat.
Not that I was under any illusion about the quality of my
(near-literal) windfall. Heat value was never among the many
virtues of butternut. Therefore, the bad news was, I had lousy
firewood. The good news was, I had lots of it. That was enough
for me. After all, I reasoned, the best firewood comes from the
tree that grows closest to the fire.
Close to the fire our poor old butternut certainly was. All that
would be required of me, I saw, would be to buck up the main
branch and its many limbs, toss them into the wheelbarrow,
trundle them out of the yard, around the house, and right up to
the woodshed, a matter of maybe 50 paces. No chain, no truck,
no stumbling around in the woods need figure. I’d simply dump
the sections, split the bigger ones, and pop it all onto the woodpile. As the fallen branch was mainly dead, I wouldn’t even have
to let it dry out. The stuff was stove-ready. Cordwood doesn’t
come much easier than that, does it?
I fired up the saw and set to work. Freed the length of the
main branch, about 10 feet long by 10-20 inches in diameter.
Cut it into chunks. Then I started on the smaller limbs. That
took a bit of time, because the limbs and small slash, as it was
cut up, had to be disposed of in an orderly way. Working in the
easy Wood By Castle Freeman, Jr.
woods, I’d simply pile the slash to one side and be done. Here,
near the house, I had to move everything from the yard and pile
it neatly out of the way.
To reduce the need for dragging, carrying, and piling, I found
I was keeping smaller and smaller limbs for firewood than I
might have. Normally, I’d save sticks of, say, six inches in diameter
for the stove. Now I was keeping four-, even three-inchers.
The work went slowly, but in time the yard was clear. The
least limbs, even the twigs, fragments of shed bark, and other
miscellaneous spoil had been raked up and disposed of. The
yard was restored. Almost. One task, I observed, remained. The
chainsaw’s dust and chips lay in unsightly yellow drifts here and
there on the grass, as though a poultry farmer had scattered
chicken feed over a billiards table. It looked like hell. I went to
the house, found a broom, and returned to the yard, where I
commenced sweeping up the offending sawdust.
It was a fine, high, deep-blue autumn morning with a bit of an
edge on the breeze. The small flock of barnstorming crows that
frequently shows up on our hillside at this time of day was loud
among the surrounding treetops. They soared, stalled, tumbled,
They were laughing at me. What in the
world did this fool think he was about, sweeping the earth?
I laid down my broom. Wait a minute, I thought. This job
was supposed to be a piece of cake – painless, brainless firewood
at last – and it was looking very much like the opposite. The very
advantages of all this easy wood were exactly the factors that
made harvesting it laborious, time-consuming, and conducive
to something like obsession, as evidenced by my sawdust-sweeping. Maybe the best firewood is what’s closest to the fire,
but not if you have to gift-wrap every stick.
Hence the Paradox of Ease, a perverse, ironic joke, a joke on
us. Ease? There’s no such thing as ease, or, if there is, we don’t
really want it. What we want is effort, and effort is what we’ll
have. If the world is easy, we’ll make it hard.
Castle Freeman, Jr.’s last appearance in Northern Woodlands was in last autumn’s
issue. He lives in southeastern Vermont.
If the world