I’ve got a thing for firewood.
My wife knows it. When we’re driving through the country, and she sees a long row of firewood, she looks at me and says, “You’re thinking about that firewood, aren’t you?”
She knows me too well.
I’ve got a load of wood in the back yard right now, waiting to be put in the rack. I’ve got a second rack for campfire wood, currently mostly pine and weeping willow. A third rack has more campfire wood, just out of reach of the occasional spring flooding. A wooden box in the shed holds chunks of applewood bound for my smoker, branches trimmed off my wild tree out back. When I see logs floating by in the river, I eye them up for potential. I’ve towed fallen cedar from the far shore by boat, kindling for home and cottage.
I’m drawn to nicely piled blocks of wood. I look for gaps “big enough for a chipmunk to run through”, after reading the line in a W.P. Kinsella book many years ago. I remember driving through Central Newfoundland, looking at the short rows of strangely coloured wood. I started the meeting at my destination by asking about the species. To hell with the agenda. Just had to know. (It was likely black spruce.)
I love a wood fire. We have wood-burning fireplaces in our house and the cottage has a woodstove and campfire pit. I never complain about the mess and extra work. I love the warmth and the crackle of well-seasoned fuel.
But one of the main attractions of firewood for me is the art of splitting wood.
The chopping block serving it right over the plate. The heft of a good splitting maul. The timing of the swing. Hitting a block of hardwood at just the right spot on a cool morning and seeing it “pop” apart, just the way I drew the play up in the dressing room.
My tool of choice is a 6 lb. Iltis Oxhead splitting axe. It’s offense almost always beats defence. With a 31” handle and almost 2” thick at the eye, it is a worthy opponent for the toughest woods, especially when handled with grace and precision.
I’ve had the axe for over 30 years, though I’ve replaced the handle once. Apparently, I took a while to develop grace and precision. Even now I have the handle wrapped in thick tape at its most threatened spot. We can’t all bat 1.000 the whole season. Even Paul Bunyan’s best season was sub .600. But on a good day, I’m swinging for the fences, sports metaphors and ideally-sized wood pieces piling up around me.
It doesn’t take me long to get my stance just right, the distance sighted in, the swing a powerful arc. Three things that I’d never be able to put together on a golf course, but I don’t play that game because, in the words of Dave Barry, I’m “neither a bad dresser nor a Presbyterian”.
Two or three blocks into the session, a magical thing happens. The static in my brain begins to disappear. My mind clears and I reach a moment of Zen. Like a pilgrim in the wilderness, I climb the right mountain, pick the right cave, enter, and find a wise prophet who will give me the answers to my questions.
Well, some of them. Pilgrims can’t be picky, and prophets are not all they’re cracked up to be. They mostly just have good publicists. “Of sure, he’s got all the answers to some of the questions that a few of the people have, if they’re not too complicated or likely to change the course of the universe. Be sure to exit through the gift shop, please.”
I start with some questions I’ve had the longest. “Why did my family have a spider monkey when I was little?”
Really, I have no idea why. My sister, six years older and presumably six years wiser, doesn’t know either. We both remember the monkey. I remember mashing up bananas for it. Did I not think to ask, “Hey, by the way, where did this spider monkey come from?” Nope. Guess I was uncurious. Unlike some people, I grew out of that. I can remember most of the dogs and cats by name. I remember big sister having a white rabbit that loved the taste of baseboards and had a natural ability as an escape artist. He was last seen hopping up the road.
The monkey seemed to be with us for a short time. I remember being told that he went to live with relatives. Maybe they lived in a tropical forest out in the country to play with other spider monkeys. He, or she, was very tiny, so I assume merely a youth. I made the mistake of googling Spider Monkey and now know how to tell males from females. If you want to know, feel free to look it up. I found the news unhelpful, but definitely thought-provoking.
And to be clear, I don’t support people having wild animals as pets. I just have questions. So many questions.
Questions from the distant past seem to stump my so-called prophet. He just asks ME questions that I can’t answer (“What was the monkey’s name?). Pfffft. Some prophet.
Maybe he needs something more current to ponder. I try again.
“Should I write a column about firewood? Will people read it? Are they reading any of my columns? Wait, do I even have a column, or is this some elaborate prank being played by my cousin Dave, because I think my dad, not his, was the most handsome of the Dale boys.” (Though we may both be wrong. Our Uncle Harold was a rugged, good-looking cowboy.)
Again, the prophet is as useless as breasts* on a bull. (*This is a family friendly column. I can’t guarantee that for future pieces. Ask the prophet.)
‘I just need to ask the right questions’
Despite my disappointment with my unextraordinary oracle, I’m learning over time that I just need to ask the right questions. My personal prophet has limitations. There are questions that I don’t want to ask. I’m staying away from the important existential questions, especially after 16 months of pandemic-fueled anxiety. “Why am I here? Where am I going? Where do I want to be in ten years? What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”
Maybe it’s best that I don’t know. Some wise guy claimed it’s “42”, but have you ever tried applying that? I can do long division in my head, but I seldom start with the answer and make the question, “What’s 6384 divided by 152?” If my phone’s calculator can answer that question, it’s more likely about the phone’s reason for being, not mine.
Until the situation improves, the purpose for my existence currently remains unpondered.
So, in the end, what questions give me actual answers?
Well, I’m glad you asked. The prophet is in. Don’t forget to peruse the merch tables in the lobby before you leave. Signed and numbered limited-edition epiphanies are available, starting at $15.99.
I ask my prophet hard questions that I know he can answer. Work questions. I know, I know, that sounds extremely boring. You don’t know the extent of it. If you sat in my zoom meetings, you’d be begging for your own Zen moment, or at least an internet outage.
My work is specialized and complicated. I tell people that I need to balance money and politics, principles and pragmatism, the wishes of many versus the needs of a few. A portion of it is done in a room out of view, just me, a bunch of raw data, mystery math, and sometimes a little luck.
Oh, and one more thing: static. Lots of static.
Lots of static
This is why I need to seek out my personal prophet. He’s good at this. Really good. He speaks the language, has been there, done that. Hell, he’s come up with some excellent ideas that I’ve later taken credit for.
Splitting firewood takes me into his cave, where he and I can be alone to work out the answers, and even sometimes just figure out what the important questions are. In my mind, we can talk it out, static free, and look at options I haven’t explored yet.
Time is limited, though, and can’t be wasted. Eventually, the static starts to creep back in. The axe starts to occasionally glance off the side of the block, sending the wood off its perch, sometimes towards my already scarred shins. That’s all the time we have. This session is over. Same day next week?
But by then, I’m ready to get back to work, eager to try out what I’ve learned in the cave. That guy’s pretty smart after all and I can’t start taking him for granted. Eventually, the wood is all split, and I’m back on my own, thinking about a spider monkey I never really got to know, while I gaze at the flames dancing in the fireplace.
Dad to daughters. Makes his wife laugh. Chief cook and bottle tilter. Proud owner of two sheds. Prefers looking through a lens, reading off paper, music over silence, movement over meditation. If there’s a hereafter, he hopes it has a waterfront view, nice lineup of cordless tools and a well-stocked workshop.