Lumber limbo

THE gentle art of axing firewood has also passed into the limbo of lost causes, and now even at my artful woodpile the purr of the mechanical log-splitter intrudes. I blame my surrender obliquely on advancing years, but another good excuse is the blight that has struck our coastal ash trees to give me standing firewood that must be processed. I already had my nine cords from up-country under way, and suddenly found myself surrounded with leafless and lifeless ash. I felt investment in a splitter was justified, even though they are vastly overpriced.

When I say ''art,'' I mean it. Brute strength can and will reduce the toughest hornbeam knot with an ax, but knowing where to strike saves on muscle and sweat, and also on ax handles. As the concert pianoforte player sits on his stool serene and confident, so does the accomplished specialist in home-fitted arboreal energy stand at his chopping block. I have always liked to split wood, as some people play tennis and golf, and have frequently pointed out that the players of tennis and golf get exercise but no woodpiles. There is bucolic beauty in each well-arranged cord of wood, and deep satisfaction to its perpetrator. But nine cords-plus puts me above a strict amateur, so I went to see about buying a splitter.

I took several cuts of sturdy upland rock (sugar) maple with me, meaning to have the salesman prove his advertising. These were far from straight-grained; I chose them with care. They were the culls that I usually leave until last, and tackle not with the ax but with steel wedges and the heavy maul. Sometimes I give up on them and burn them whole in my shop potbelly.

When I arrived at the first place, the boy gave me his sales spiel and patted the little darling on the hydraulic. Then I showed him my chunks of rock maple in the pickup truck and he shook his head. He said I-dunno. ''Let's find out,'' I said.

''This has an electronic start,'' he said, purposing I suppose to disengage my attention. ''No points.'' Then he pulled the struggle string the same way you do with an engine that has points and no electronics. ''Makes seven tons of pressure,'' he said. He laid one of my chunks on wrong-end-to.

Always split a tree from the top. It is the rule. Set the chunk on the block as it grew in nature. Once in a great while there will appear the odd stick that cleaves better from the butt end, but it is seldom, and the splitter's judgment will decide. This boy was about to put his machine to a severe test when he didn't need to - he didn't know about wood and he tackled my rock maple from the butt. I guess he had never held an ax in his hand; he had never been apprenticed to a chopping block. But he knew all about electronics. I expected his engine to fudge out, and when the piston brought my chunk to the splitting wedge, it almost did. It coughed and sighed, and he reversed the lever just in time to save the purr.

I smiled a knowing smile, one that is sometimes considered a sneer, and I reached over to yank the chunk from the wedge to turn it end for end. ''Try it again,'' I said.

The chunk popped and split readily; the engine purred on. ''Always split from the top,'' I said, and I wrote a check.

Ash, unlike elm, splits easily. When our elm trees were on their way out I worked up several for firewood, and one spring we used elm in the arch under the sugar evaporator. It made a hot fire and was perhaps worth the effort, but I found elm a challenge at the chopping block. The ax has no effect on the heartwood, and a chunk must be split from the bark inward, a slab at a time. Then, when the heartwood is left, it cleaves easily enough and you wonder why. But ash, except for knots, usually splits with one stroke of the ax, and is also good firewood.

I shall apply my basic knowledge of ax-splitting to hydraulic-splitting, though the ax is more personal. It takes two to run a splitter. Also, while I can keep on axing, the machine stops frequently for gasoline.

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