Valentine's Day Special: For a limited time, receive fifteen percent off a one- or two-year subscription or renewal with the code iheartecotone!


That wood won’t work. It was chainsawed roughly by someone who had no eye for logs and now it can’t be split. It’s piled by the side of the road in squat disks like kinged checkers, game over. I myself do not cut wood, but review this situation through the eyes of a friend whose pretty impressive woodpile I’ve seen in a photo he sent. All that wood stacked against the shed—enough for a winter, I guessed. Six cords, he refined. Later came the word limb (as a verb) in conversation. And when I said “ax” and he corrected with “maul” (not really a minor adjustment), choice emerged, the field of cutting enlarged and was no longer the simple stock act of cartoons. Hatchet arose. I imagined the restive, neatly hung options lining the shed in the photo. (“Splitting mauls come in four-pound increments: eight, twelve, sixteen—mine is sixteen; between maul and ax, the ax is more versatile: slimmer, lighter, sharper . . . A maul doesn’t have to be very sharp. It doesn’t cut, it just pries,” my friend writes, going on about functions and choices, since I asked.)

I started to notice my neighbors’ woodpiles, the good, precise stacks and the teetery ones; people use bins, frames, or canvas haulers; supply varies greatly, from modest stacks for the occasional fire to piles for serious heating; kids mess up the piles substantially, borrowing for clubhouses and skateboard jumps. Here in Baltimore, in the city, wood arrives by delivery in fall and sits at the curb until people get around to stacking on weekends.

But about those sharp quarter rounds (ah, the novice’s love of new words in the mouth): someone made them happen. If I stick with this a little longer, I might have a chance, in conversation, to use the phrase put up wood (like put up preserves) now that I know that’s what you do. And with more time still, I could memorize which wood, in my friend’s part of the country, contains the most Btus per cord, though I’m finding no helpful acronym for (starting with the highest density) Oak, Ash, Maple, Birch, Poplar, Aspen, Pine.

Recently I had a chance to try it myself. It wasn’t complicated and I pretty much managed, but awkwardly. My musculature isn’t trained for the task; nothing in my body’s habituated that way. If I had a reason to practice splitting (like, say, a fireplace) I might become good. But my arcs through air were all evection. As a beginner, I couldn’t control the ax very well—it kept wobbling out of the orbit I intended. The handle felt too long and unbalanced and I couldn’t find the space in air that opened for the blade. I suspect that when you’re on, there’s a groove the blade remembers, and a fissile core awaiting release that calls the right motion down.

Sometimes I look at people (or read certain books) and think (not unkindly, just with disappointment): oh, a first-time gesture—say, at a state fair, at one of those booths where guys try to impress their girlfriends by swinging a mock but heavy sledgehammer that, if landed hard enough on the little pad, raises a lever, mercury-in-a-thermometer-style, and hits a red bell at the top. Such gestures are clumsy, and haven’t yet found even a jerky-effective method. They’re all just sloppy force asserted. Every now and then someone comes by and it’s clear, you can see: he actually does this in the course of a day. The language is there, the movements (both the transitional and the primary) are refined or quirky: either way, a system has been worked out. (Of course the carnie running the game can nail the spot and ring the bell, over and over, though he isn’t a big guy; he just knows the sweet place, wherever it is, off-center or flat-on. He swings his rubbery sledgehammer up, lets it hang at the zenith just for a second, then the weight of the head angles into its practiced fall. You can’t help but envy the guy. The mild, egressive huh of breath, how he seems to both find and create the arc, invisible to others. His ease is seductive and even if he is reeky, stuporous, snarly, even if swindle underscores his flattery—come on, big guy, try for the lady—I fall a little for him; for the forms of effort naturalized, for the fluencies his body knows just the occasion for.)

A tool can so easily be considered wrong or broken (or rigged, if you’re in a bad mood at a fair) until one knows how to use it well (finds a grip, a stance that suits, shifts a thing into a calloused spot, performs a three-step pre-dance move, swipes a forehead free of sweat). Or it might be considered too heavy when it’s not too heavy at all (you just need the recursive angle, and to waggle into the vector that wants you, sidelong or square-on, etc., depending entirely on the way you’re keyed to gravity). You might consider the material you’re working on bad, rank, unyielding, anomic, unless you come to know its very particular features, which means you can look like a regular person, walking, say, down Fifth Avenue in New York City, but at the same time recite, if called upon to do so, very solid facts about a tool and its use. People who know such stuff, who possess a sensitivity to tools and to the way jobs like to be done, think of such things as daily, as rote, what you grow up with or learn from your father. Just work. See below, from a very long letter on wood from the friend who indulges my interest in woodpiles:

Ponderosa pine, unless it’s knotty, splits in clean, straight lines, one swing of the maul, usually. A knot is merely[1] a branch that started when the tree was young, near the center, and grew outward with the tree so that it interrupts the grain of the wood with a cross-directional grain and serves to bind the log together. Some wood has crooked grains—cottonwood, Siberian elm—and is so difficult to split I don’t bother to cut it. But if a maul doesn’t work, you can go to a wedge,[2] which is a slug of metal about a foot long (widening from bottom to top) that you drive with a sledgehammer. If you try to use a splitting maul on too-knotty/crooked/grained wood, it never penetrates the fibers far enough to split and you can hit all day and never manage it.[3] Ash is more difficult than pine, but usually straight-grained, so it may resist the first stroke[4] and maybe the second, but then suddenly breaks apart. Since oak is the hardest wood, if you get a piece where the grain runs in spirals,[5] it may take a dozen blows[6] to drive even a wedge far enough
in to separate the stump. (No wonder the oak creaks so. The fibers make these small internal noises, so much quieter than the metal-on-metal hammer blow, so much more expressive.)

If you know your stuff, as my friend does, you get to ponder the dialects of wood; you get to put things together about certain fibers being expressive—and that gets to be offhand, parenthetical. Such thoughts, held by parentheses, are embellishments, flourishes, intimacies. (Footnotes show discipleship, the urge to get to the bottom of, the urge to show the path by which one comes to inhabit an idea for herself.) Inside those parentheses, a person who knows stuff stops for a minute, reviews the familiar scene afresh. Finds all that he didn’t know he knew. Reflects. Surprises himself. Gets, as is often said about such moments of flight and discovery, poetic.[7]


[1] “Merely”: I think this means to gently show, say, me that knots have actual origins, are phenomena of growth and not just lyrical concentrations, animate owls, dragons, volcanoes shifting and motile in those gauzy moments just before sleep. It also reveals (see number 2) the utility value of knowing one’s materials.

[2] Here’s one of those things a person would learn very early on; you don’t just set up a log and—bam—split it.

[3] “This just isn’t working” must have come forth, maybe wordlessly, as when one has been laboring for a very long time, and suddenly a shift in consciousness occurs and clears the way for a new approach.

[4] Here he must have noted resistance, paused, raised, swung again . . . again . . . until ash was known—all its peculiarities and needs really known.

[5] “This thing is so freaking hard”—but wordlessly again. Or, Shit, this son of a bitch piece . . . Here, once, occurred the moment of stopping, wiping a brow and looking closely at what was causing the trouble, as I might look behind me after tripping on an uneven sidewalk to see what occasioned the stumble.

[6]Moment of choosing to stay with, to see when, to see if . . .

[7] Or, as my friend wrote at the end of his letter, “Way more than you need to know, I’m sure. But maybe not. Since you invited me to expound. I’ll expound more if this raises questions.” Which is just great, I remember thinking. He’d have been there working away, splitting and stacking, all this unsaid and just part of the work, these thoughts and leanings informing the work, silent, in play—even if I hadn’t asked.(i)

(i) The working away though no one’s asked, no one’s watching, no one’s caring: a truly fine definition of art.


Photo: Thomas Ott