I didn't take a walk in the woods today. Instead I split three or four days' worth of firewood against the cold. With enough wood split and stacked, I won't care what spits out of a leaden sky, because as long as I have sufficient coffee and cigarettes I won't have to venture far from the house.
My ailing hydraulic splitter's in pieces, out in the garage, so I'm working 22 inch lengths of log down to stove-sized sticks with a maul, and a steel wedge when required. In the event you haven't seen or used a wood maul, imagine an axe and a sledge hammer cross-pollinated: one side of its head is roughly honed blade; the other is broad hammer for driving a wedge into wood too twisted or green for the blade alone to split.
Mauls come in varying weights, and I prefer the power and force of a nine pound head. It's a crude looking tool, but calls for a certain level of skill: when my son offered the assistance of himself and a friend toward gathering this winter's wood, their help was gratefully accepted. I spent three days laughing at youngsters exhausting themselves rather than allowing the maul's weight to do most of their work.
And before it was over I put new handles on both my mauls because those boys "missed" a lot.
Swing one of those things for a while and your mind turns toward all manner of odd notions. It's got to turn someplace; otherwise your whole world is dead weight lifted over your head and swung down onto the wood, over and over. Without distraction you only know tension in your lower back, aggravated by bending over to load split pieces into the wheelbarrow for transport to the back porch. I promise: use a maul for a few minutes and you'll find something to think about.
Today I thought how hard my grandfather worked on this place, cutting wood with a two man crosscut and sizing it with a buck saw instead of a gas powered chainsaw, and split wood all year round, for cooking and heating. He used an old time pot bellied stove for the latter, a huge beautiful but inefficient iron beast which consumed wood voraciously, heating one room to the point of misery, leaving others inhospitably chill.
When these acres passed to me from my father, scattered through the woods I found dozens of stumps only four or five inches high. They'd been big trees, some more than three feet in diameter. Pop explained they were oak and locust my Grandpa cut, then trimmed into twelve foot long railroad ties eight or ten inches square. He sheared them low as he and a helper could place their saw so as not to waste even an inch of potential tie.
The C&O gave him seventy five cents apiece for them.
Picture yourself with a log three feet around, maybe thirty five feet long, after a horse, mule or ox dragged it off the hill. Your life contains a minimum of luxury, you grow most of what you eat and barter with neighbors for a few items you don't personally cultivate or raise. Still, you need some things from a store.
A store that only accepts cash money.
To get it you must bring forth from this massive log as many twelve foot by eight inch by ten inch beams as possible.
Without power tools...
And in the months before taking down that tree you've cultivated a lush garden on a hillside so steep only a suicidal fool tries plowing with anything but a horse or mule. Flat land is for tobacco, your only money crop, even more labor-intensive than rows of corn, beans and cabbage. Along with the garden you raised a couple of hogs and three or four head of beef, maybe kept a milk cow as well.
My grandfather could do, and did do such things all his life.
In a world where internet "chat" passes for conversation, where two paragraph e-mails are as close as many of us get to writing letters, at a time so many are fearful rather than fond of neighbors and where all the above is taken as a matter of course, I am sometimes amazed to consider I once knew a man so far removed from our millennial world as my grandfather. Born in 1877, he was very much a nineteenth century man, but lived long enough I heard his stories, sat at his table, had the high privilege from time to time of sleeping under his roof...
That's mostly what I thought of while splitting wood on a crisp autumn morning.
Oh, other notions flitted through my mind as well.
Got mad at walnuts littering the ground, whenever I stepped on one and nearly slipped. I went outside before dark and picked most of them up. A neighbor - - the one who files my chain saw when it dulls - - says his wife has the patience to open the shells. I'll carry them to her with a secret hope sometime Janet will shyly bring to my house a plate of walnut fudge.
I thought about maybe sharpening the maul before I use it again, thinking the wood might split a bit easier if that edge was renewed.
I pondered the way my dogs watch me split wood: curiously studying an endeavor that probably seems foolish to them, when we could be roaming the ridge. By and by they got bored and rolled over for a nap, unaware of how I envy their disdain for all but the most bitter cold.
Thought about how much I enjoy the regular visits of Cousin Fred to my house. We sip a little whiskey, listen to old music and laugh at family stories we've both known since Chryslers had tail fins.
But mostly I thought about my grandfather.
And wondered what all our grandparents would think about us and our priorities and our awareness of what's going on around us.