Chop Wood, Carry Water

“Magical power,
marvelous action!
Chopping wood,
carrying water....”

These lines from a 1,000-year-old Zen Buddhist poem came to me last Sunday while Virgil and I stacked wood. I handed him a chunk of wood from a wheelbarrow and he flung it onto a growing stack along the side of the garage. We emptied the wheelbarrow and pushed it back up the road to where Ursula and Jim were trading off swinging a splitting maul, and where a new pile of freshly split red oak awaited us.

We were taking advantage of T-shirt weather to cut up a big red oak that fell during a storm last spring. If we were living by old traditions on the land, we would have bucked up the tree into sections and split the wood right then, as a gift of the season between the busy times of maple sugaring and planting. By all rights, it should have been drying out all summer and fall. We’re no woodsmen, but we do have a fireplace, and the day offered an opportunity to connect with those old ways.

Neither Jim nor I grew up chopping wood. I was a suburban kid, and a girl. My father, who had grown up around axes and saws and splitting mauls, made sure that my younger brothers learned how to handle these tools, but he didn’t think to include me in the lessons, and I didn’t think to want them. I still feel uncertain and timid when I pick up a long-handled splitting maul. But Jim learned how to split wood and handle a chain saw in college, and it was his confidence and his skill that I counted on for Ursula and Virgil.

Jim showed them how to stand back, square to the chopping block, and how to let the weight of the splitting maul do much of the work. He pointed out the grain and explained that they wanted to cut in the same direction, and to hit to the side of knots rather than through them. I’d worried that Virgil wasn’t ready to handle such a dangerous tool, but watching Jim guide him, and seeing how carefully Virgil followed his advice, eased my fears. The first time Virgil successfully split a piece, he looked gleeful.

Ursula has split wood with Jim before. Her pleasure, on Sunday, came from being able to trade turns with her dad. She stood tall, lifted, swung, split, stepped to the side while Jim split a section, and moved back into place again.

Standing there, I was grateful that our children are getting the chance to learn these skills and to have this connection to the land.

That tree now fills several long rows in the garage. Fresh wood is almost half water. Firewood should contain no more than 25 percent water. Now that we’ve split the wood, it should be dry enough to use in a couple of months. This morning, though, Jim lit a fire in the fireplace, mixing in some of the freshly cut red oak. The wood sizzled and steamed as the moisture inside it escaped, but it still threw off plenty of heat. The kids got dressed for school in front of the fire. Ursula asked for a shoulder and back rub; her muscles ache from Sunday’s work.

Old-timers have another saying around here: Firewood warms you twice — once when you split it and again when you burn it. Thinking back to Sunday, I might say that it warmed us more than that: once when we split it, twice when we stacked it, a third time when we burned it, and now, a fourth time as I remember bringing it in together.

Learn more
Basic instructions on splitting wood (geared to adults).

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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