Born to chop

'sure, kid," the man said, giving me a funny look. "Chop as much as you want." I leaned my bike up against a tree, walked over to a woodpile the size of a small house, and picked up the ax. Thunk! the log split cleanly in two. Two more blows and there were four pieces of firewood lying on the ground. I placed another log on the chopping block and fired away.

"OK, then," the man said. "I'll leave you to it." And he walked back toward his house. Half an hour later, I was soaked in sweat and happy as the proverbial clam. I'd almost forgotten how miserable I'd been just an hour before, sitting in the college library, trying to stay awake over a book. Mill, or was it Hume? Something excruciatingly boring in the philosophy department.

It had been three months since I'd had an ax In my hands. It was like being released from jail. My body was alive again. My mind was empty. My face was flushed, and my breach came straight up from my toes. What the owner of the woodpile didn't realize was that I would have paid him for the privilege of splitting his wood.

My passion for cutting wood goes back to summers in Maine. Wet days were wood-working days. Clearing the woods of dead trees, dragging the brush, burning the branches on the spark-flying beach. Cutting, splitting, stacking - the smell of balsam sap on your hands. When I was away at boarding school, three of us built a log cabin one fall, using nothing but double-bitted axes. We learned how to pop the branches off the trunks cleanly, racing each other down the sides; how to work together on the ropes, sliding the trees over the forest floor. Facing each other, we'd notch the logs to make them fit, careful of each other's heads.

Twenty-five years later, I was teaching English at a college on Long Island. Cycling along a woodsy road one day, I noticed how many dead trees were lying around. Someone ought to clean these up, I thought; and, almost simultaneously, "Why not me?" To my surprise, several landowners were delighted with the idea. And so I found myself chopping wood again, this time for me.

For several years I spent winter afternoons, with a like-minded friend, cutting, dragging, and carrying off what we would later turn into firewood. I bought an airtight stove and began heating the house with wood.

Some years after that we moved to Maine. "Wood!" I thought. "Plenty of wood!" After I ran out of the dead wood on my own property, I found, to my delight, that one of my neighbors would be happy to have me clear off a piece of his land. "Sure," he said. "You can have the wood. Take it all. What I want is the view."

I had a chain saw by then and a trailer, and I spent many afternoons cutting and carrying. But I wasn't getting much for my labor. The trees fell on top of each other, the terrain was rocky, and working alone I could carry out only one log at a time - balanced on my shoulder. And most of the trees, I discovered, were poplar - trash wood. The lot did contain three gigantic dead elms; but that wood was so hard, I spent half my time sharpening the saw blade. And it was impossible to split without a sledge-hammer and many wedges.

WHEN I finally finished (or thought I'd finished; there was some dispute about that), I had learned my lesson. From then on I bought my firewood - in four-foot logs of maple, oak, and birch - and had it dumped next to the woodshed for me to cut up and split at my leisure. Not that there was much of that. Each winter I went through about six cords.

I still enjoy cutting wood, but now it's mostly for the fireplace. If a boy turned up and offered to split it for me, I'd probably say, "Sure, kid. Chop as much as you want." But I'd give him a funny look and might even think about calling the sheriff. However, the incident would never occur. People around here are too practical and too busy to be looking for strenuous forms of exercise to engage in for no good reason. They've got their own wood to cut. Especially the boys. Summers, I have trouble finding someone to cut the lawn.

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