The six-and-a-half pound maul that I’m swinging around my head travels through autumn sunshine: dull gray, blunt, serious as an elk in rut. It windmills beneath the yellow larch needles and evergreens, their pungent fall odors incensing an already heady mix of dried grass, wood smoke and sun-warmed bark.
A wedge of kinetic energy and violence, its target—my target—is the 16-inch-tall, 12-inch-wide round of ponderosa pine, cut this morning, which, along with the rest of the standing-dead beetle-killed tree, I bucked into rounds. With considerable grunting, sweating and swearing, the wood was wheel-barrowed 100 yards and dumped here, just outside my woodshed. Back and forth, arms stretched long as a chimpanzee’s, I pushed the loads uphill. Now, with the obnoxious whine of the chainsaw a distant memory, I swing and split, swing and split, the rounds separating into halves like magnets of similar poles repelling each other, jumping apart as if dynamited.
As the pile of rounds decreases, the pile of halved, quartered and slivered pieces grows. Periodically, I stop to transfer the split wood to the shed, fitting the knotty and ill-split pieces in with a certain artistic pride. The shed, I must confess, is pathetic and hardly worthy of the name, but at least it’s functional. It keeps dry the nearly full cord of wood I will burn over the course of the next winter in my diminutive, hand-built, 8-by-12-foot cabin.
One of the benefits of living in such a small structure with no electricity and no running water—I rarely visit it these days, but used to live here year-round—is how little wood it takes to keep warm. Yet that small amount of wood turns out to be a drawback: Splitting one cord turns out to be not nearly enough fun for me.
Into the silence of the day a gray squirrel lets out a Gatling-gun bark from above me, a series of rapid-fire chirps. A Stellar’s jay, in its classic punk-rock hairdo, cocks its head at me and blinks, much like a human might. I didn’t grow up chopping wood. It wasn’t until I was 17 that my parents built and then moved into a house with a wood-burning stove. That fall, as our pickup backed up the driveway and unloaded its first cord of wood—a mixture of maple and birch, I’m sure, and already split—I was hooked. With nothing but Sunday afternoon ahead of me, it was good to be outside, good to be wearing a wool coat and good to be working with my dad, passing each other going back and forth with an armload of split logs, or loading each other up to the chin, the other’s arms outstretched like a forklift’s tines. I liked, too, the feel and look of my deerskin leather gloves, bought at the local hardware store, as well as the weariness that entered my muscles and the sense of pride that saturated everything else.
This afternoon, many miles and many years from where those memories were made, I work at a steady pace. I place each round on the stump I use as a chopping block and rotate the piece until it balances. I swing the maul, aiming for the slight check in the top of the round. With each swing, I feel a fine ache in my back and the broad sense of doing something right.
Rick Bass, in his book Winter, tells of having to put away 38 cords of firewood when he first moved to the Yaak. That I couldn’t imagine. When I’m done with my job, I sit on the same stump among the wood chips and stare at the newly filled shed. Then, because it’s what I do, I take out a pen and write in my journal:
"I’ve been to the Louvre. Stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Stood on the tops of I don’t know how many mountains, gazing down on river valleys and the backs of eagles, or across rows of peaks disappearing to the horizon. My wife is beautiful, and I could look at her all day. There are Ferraris, wine bottles, the shape of an egg, or a wave. There are deer. In fact, there is any number of beautiful things in the world, some handmade, others, well, not. But this is Montana, November, and my woodshed is full. I can’t think of a prettier sight."
This essay first appeared in High Country News.