Learning to Split Wood

by Mimi Hedl

Winter and cold weather! Nothing feels better than to sit on the sofa and become hypnotized by the blazing fire. I could sit there all day but sooner rather than later the wood supply talks to me, my reverie stops and the morning chores begin. I size up the wood supply in the house. Ice and lots of snow can make the short trek to the woodshed seem like a gargantuan chore. Without dry, cured wood fires become an impossibility. No meals could get cooked or pipes kept from freezing, the inside garden would protest and canned goods would threaten to freeze. And so would I. Therefore, part of my morning chores involves splitting heating wood into cook-sized wood, carrying it inside to the wood box, and bringing in enough heating wood for the day and night. Once this critical mission gets accomplished, I can think about gardening duties.

Splitting wood has become second nature to me. It’s like washing dishes or doing laundry, a simple routine using tried and true techniques to achieve good results. It wasn’t always that way. And when friends ask me to teach them how to split, because it looks so easy, I’m reminded of my apprenticeship years ago and understand their frustration.

Early in Strawdog years, Hilary would fly back to Boulder for the Christmas school break. She felt eager to be indulged by the glittering lights of the city, her cousin Zoë, aunt and uncle Barbara and Bud, and her dad. Ron became her gladiator, risking life and limb to deliver her to the airport in St. Louis and seeing her onto her flight.

Driving ‘Ol Red in snowy December required the constitution of a trained fighter. The ‘62 International did well as a farm truck, but what a sight it made on the interstate and how horrified Hilary must’ve felt to be seen in such a truck. As it happened, this time they left Strawdog in a snow storm leaving me behind to keep the home fires burning and worrying about them on their journey, 120 miles from home.

The fire did not burn brightly on that day. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get a blazing fire going. I realized I needed smaller wood and eyed the ax. Oh boy, why didn’t I pay more attention when Ron split wood. As the snow came down softly, gently, I picked up the ax, lined up a piece of wood, and tried to make little ones out of the chunk. The scars on the poor ax handle testified to my inexperience.

I figured that splitting wood resembled throwing a ball or catching one. It involved good eye/hand coordination. You had to eye the spot you wanted the ax to strike, keep staring at that point and then let the ax fall right there. What I didn’t know was how to hold the ax, how to let your hand glide up and down the handle, how to let the ax do the work and not your arm. All these skills had to mobilize at the exact moment of contact.

The cold didn’t bother me until I quit the exercise, then I’d go shivering into the house and stand by the fire, my hands, my feet freezing, nothing to show for my efforts. Then back outside. When I finally heard the satisfying cleaving of the chunk, I felt elated. I didn’t quite know what I’d done, but something had come together to pull the log apart. I managed to make enough small pieces to activate the fire and my enthusiasm for splitting. An equal or greater number of testimonies remain on the ax handle. I continued to practice most every day, on at least one or two chunks of wood, and after 40 years, I feel competent.

Funny how we remember those trials and tribulations. I can see the piece of earth where I began to learn how to split, now where the summer kitchen stands. I can see the bareness of the land. I can feel the fear and trepidation I had on so many levels in those early years. But I also remember the feeling of a small victory, like all pioneers must have when they accomplish one small task to keep them afloat a little while long.

And I can remember the phone call from Ron, outside of Belle, as darkness began to fall, that he’d delivered Hilary to the airport, but Ol’ Red broke down and he’d leave the truck along the side of the road, and as soon as he could hitch a ride home, he’d be here.

A few months ago my friend, Josh, brought me a gift, this stump from an ash tree on his land devastated by ash borers. Sad to see so many beautiful ash trees dying, but grateful to have such a powerful ally in the splitting process. To be able to set a chunk on this stump makes splitting such a pleasant task. I have this taller oak stump another neighbor brought me that I use for splitting small pieces into smaller pieces for the cook stove, using a hatchet instead of an ax.

I told Josh I’d like to go to a county fair somewhere that has a wood splitting contest. As a septuagenarian I would not look like a promising opponent. I’d slump a little bit and everyone would dismiss me. When I’d go to split a big chunk, everyone would look at each other in astonishment as I cleaved the wood like a professional. I’d stand tall and proud and wait for the next challenger. (Doesn’t everyone have a fun fantasy or two?)

Both of these stumps remind me of the partially rotted stump I used as girl, in a field by Lou Ann’s house in Superior, Wisconsin. There was an indentation from the rot, like a bowl, in the stump and I used it to pound berries I’d pick off a shrub close by, probably a honeysuckle. It was a place I could go when I wanted to be alone and get away from the large gang of kids Barbara and I played with. Now I have a mortar and pestle and still enjoy pounding herbs and spices into wonderful pastes and potions. How could I have known as a young girl that the stump in Superior prepared me for my future.

And in frigid Superior, I watched Dad go down into the scary basement, the steps covered with dust bunnies and spiders, to feed coal into the furnace. The house never got warm, but back in the ‘50s we didn’t expect to run around in shorts in the dead of winter. We put on more clothes, let our mittens dry near the radiators, and went out skating or sledding once we’d warmed up.

Now I get up in the middle of the night and feed my furnace. I think of Dad going down to shovel the coal and what a responsibility that was and I think of Ron. We’d set the alarm clock for every few hours on the coldest below zero nights and take turns going downstairs to feed the fire. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear the alarm when it was my turn and Ron would get up and feed the fire in my place, never saying a word. This became a habit of mine and when I confessed to Ron, he said he didn’t mind, he had to get up anyway, and it wasn’t a big deal, and then he laughed, because of course he knew I was faking it. Believe me, it is a big deal, to be roused out of your sleep and what a sweet memory to remember how he pampered me.

The witch hazel blooms and this bouquet scents the house, like oranges I say. Soon the Yellow of Parma onion seed will arrive from Seed Saver’s and I’ll sow the seed in an onion box I made from scrap gathered in the Museum. The native forb seed has been cast onto the fields, the red buckeye and dogwood seeds selectively planted around the homestead with my friend Agnes as helper. She was delighted when I had her smell a sassafras twig, “My grandmother’s perfume! 4711!” she exclaimed and was immediately put in touch with her long departed grandmother from Dresden. You should’ve seen the smile on her face as she traveled back in time.

The head gardener found the first snowdrop blooming. We both fell to our knees and admired the welcome flower, soon to be followed by many more. The days lengthen, our spirits lift ever so slightly and we realize the wonderful progression never stops, just keeps on movin’, movin’ into the future. With a well-supplied stock of wood and kindling, a sharp ax and eye, we will too.

Witch Hazel

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