On Chopping Wood

I can see why President Bush likes it. Although, technically speaking, he’s into “clearing brush”. And he uses power tools, which disqualifies him. Chopping wood is one of those primal activities that directly meets a basic need, and consequently provides a primal kind of satisfaction. These days we usually meet our basic needs at one or two removes. Few of us grow or kill our own food anymore, for example, even fewer make our own clothes, and fewer still build our own houses. But almost anyone can chop wood, thereby providing fuel to keep yourself and your family warm. It’s an ancient chore, provided you use and ax and not a chain saw, and is very conducive to contemplating the bare necessities of life.

The first thing you need, of course, is an ax. I had only an old one, the wooden shaft worn smooth with age and the head flecked with rust. This ax clearly hadn’t been cleaving any timber recently. I ran my thumb along the edge and it felt about as sharp as a butter knife. This just wouldn’t cut it, I thought. I don’t chop wood every day, so initially thought I should have the ax sharpened first. But a friend, with more experience than I, took a few whacks to show me that it would do just fine. With a few fell swoops, the logs split open with a crack. Often the best preparation for a task is just doing it. Use sharpens a dull ax. So I launched into the logs with gusto, letting the chips fall where they may.After a while, chopping wood becomes a meditation. You’re still paying attention to what you’re doing (you’d better be anyway), but your mind also wanders into a placid place where all kinds of thoughts bob up, bounce around on the surface for a bit and then vanish. It’s satisfying on both a physical and psychological level. I enjoyed inflicting violence on those logs, hoisting the ax above my head and bringing it down with as much force as I could muster. And it was very rewarding to hear the logs burst open with a sound like a gunshot. My enjoyment was enhanced by knowing it was all for a good cause (i.e. building a fire that night). I also enjoyed following where my mind roamed. It’s sort of like walking a dog: you keep the dog on the leash, restricting its movements, until you get to the park, where you let him loose to run wherever he wants to. It was a pleasure to let my mind off the leash while chopping, and to follow it at a leisurely place. I thought of the aphorisms of Jesus, the ones found in the gnostic gospels rather than the New Testament, and one aphorism in particular that has always haunted me:

I am the light that is over all things. I am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.

When I was finished, I was sweaty, tired and satisfied. Then I started neatly piling the logs up in a stack. You’re not finished anything until you’ve cleaned up the mess you’ve made. Seeing the logs all stacked up against the wall gave me the same kind of satisfaction as contemplating a well-stocked wine cellar: the bottles look very attractive in their tidy rows, but you know you’re going to have even more fun drinking them. We now had more than enough logs to keep us warm for a good long while. It’s probably the only time I was really happy to see all my hard work go up in smoke.