He needs two things. A wedge to start and an axe to finish. With those two things he can warm the family all winter. That is not why he does it though. The woodcutter does it for himself. He does it for the ability to escape, if only for a moment, the world around him. He is able to get so lost in the task at hand that nothing else exists.
Early morning is the best time to start. The air still has a crisp edge and dew rests heavily on blades of grass beneath him. It is quiet then. Most folk are awake but have yet to start their day.The woodcutter begins his day with a lazy swing. The sleeves of his worn flannel shirt are shoved up just far enough to keep from snagging on his gloves. With a slight heft he slowly rolls the axe behind him and up over his shoulder. His motions are slow; gentle and designed to softly wake his cold muscles.
The axe hovers over his head for a moment before falling heavily. It sinks into the log round propped up in front of him with a satisfying shunk! It didn’t cut deep. But then again, it was never meant to. A firm tap on the handle with the palm of his gloved hand frees the axe head leaving a small nick in the round. That small nick is all the woodcutter needs to seat the wedge.
He places the blade of the wedge in the groove and holds it with one hand. A few firm taps with the flat backside of the axe, his other hand choked up on the handle, does the trick. The woodcutter straightens.
The round in front of him waits patiently with the wedge seated right in the middle. The woodcutter takes a deep breath and exhales in a soft fog that dissipates into the grey sky above. Flexing his fingers around the worn axe handle, the woodcutter swings again.
This time he puts force behind his swing. He allows the weight of the axe to pull his body up, nearly onto toes. Then, when the axe is at the apex of its swing he hauls his body back to earth and brings the axe crashing down with it. The backside of the axehead connects with a solidity that the woodcutter feels vibrate through his hands and the wedge sinks further into the round.
There is a slight pause. And then, two small cracks split out from the wedge in opposite directions. A soft, crackling announces the split. The rough bark surrounding the round breaks as well. It falls away from the round in two large pieces showing the light fir beneath.
The woodsman pauses only a second before repeating the process.
This time the wedge drives straight through to the ground, the axe following in its wake. The now two pieces of the round rock back and forth. One falls backwards and rolls belly up in defeat. The other half wobbles but stands in defiance.
The woodcutter pauses only to kick the wedge away. A practiced flick of the wrists rotates the handle in his palm so that the axe’s splitting edge is ready to strike. Two quick swings bring the round to heel, transforming it into pieces of rich firewood to be stacked later. For now they are tossed one-handed from the workspace to a patch of bark-scattered dirt to his side. The woodcutter props the already defeated half of the round back up and repeats the process.
What was one piece is now six. The woodcutter leans the axe handle momentarily against a tree and rolls the next round into place. The dance begins again.
The woodcutter does this, round after round after round. At some point he sheds the tattered flannel shirt and continues in a t-shirt. Later the leather work gloves are soaked through with sweat. Beside him the pile where he tosses the firewood pieces grows to be waist-high. He pauses only to sip from the canteen he brought or to roughly wipe the sweat out of his eyes with the back of a gloved hand.
Finally he splits the last round. There are no more to roll into place. He sets the axe head on the ground and allows the handle to tip forward, exhausted. The woodcutter stands there feeling the slightest breeze cooly slide across his sweat covered chest as he breaths deeply. The fresh smell of pine mingles with the heavy musk of work. Suddenly another, sweeter scent appears on the breeze and a hand softly touches his back.
He turns to see his wife, who smiles and tells him he should eat something before he too tips over. The wood can wait to be stacked she says. She smiles again and the woodcutter finds himself being led back to the house, his mind as clear as the grass where the rounds had once waited for him.
I don’t know if you will have enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. I don’t know why, but there was something distinctly satisfying about it. Perhaps it’s because I split wood to clear my mind in the same way and I have been feeling the need to do so again. Writing about it helped, but I know at some point I’ll have to put on my gloves, grab my maul and swing it out soon.
P.S. For all the other woodcutters out there, I know you split wood with a maul. Axes are for chopping, but “maul” just isn’t as poetic.