A wood chopper turns shopper

One Sunday last year, as I sat reading the paper in the meager light of a late-fall afternoon, my next-door neighbor arrived with an armful of freshly split maple logs. He had just taken down a tree, littering his front lawn with more wood than he needed. My own woodpile, sorely depleted after five years of occasional and purely decorative fires, required replenishing. So, at his invitation, I threw down the paper, drew on boots, hat, gloves, and left the warmth of our living room to slog through the season's first snow in pursuit of a vanishing luxury.

I knew as well as anybody schooled in the economics of energy conservation that an open- hearth fire is not only highly polluting but so inefficient that it results in a net loss of heat. That fact notwithstanding, I had always loved building and nursing a great blaze on a cold Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. A poetic warmth that cannot be calculated in BTUs more than compensated for the heat lost up the chimney.

But when the price of a cord of wood rose to $90, then $120, and finally to $150, our fireplace grew cold, its pleasures seeming both a costly indulgence and socially irresponsible. With my neighbor's maple a most affordable "free for the taking," however, I decided we could afford a little atmospheric indulgence.

In extending the offer, my neighbor had neglected to mention that most of the tree required splitting. Fearful of dampening my enthusiasm, he waited until I stepped outside before breaking the news. The wood that greeted me - great pie-shaped slices of maple lying half-buried in the snow - measured as much as two feet across and weighed several hundred pounds apiece. Doubting not only my ability to budge those enormous pies but also the wisdom of doing so, I quickly calculated the personal expenditure of time and energy required to receive my "free" wood and wondered if it was worth the price.

Years ago I had spent a winter cleaving an oak, filling the woods with the dull reverberations of my ax. I was fresh out of college, pursuing a dream of self-reliance in rural surroundings. In the ensuing 25 years I hadn't lifted anything heavier than a fountain pen. Between my neighbor's bad back and my upper-body neglect, we were no match for those great slices of tree. Nor was I capable of wielding his heavy maul with competence. Even in my prime I had tended to deliver an ax within a 12-inch radius of its mark, producing almost as much kindling as firewood. With a wedge in hand, such inaccuracy might prove crippling.

Alone, I would have quietly retired from the logging business, retreating to the warmth of my living room. But unwilling to disappoint my neighbor, I cajoled a few of the smaller pies into a wheelbarrow with his help and dumped them on my driveway. Standing to one side, I watched him demonstrate the fine art of using a maul, effortlessly tapping the wedge into place, then driving the steel neatly through the green wood with two or three mighty whacks. It looked easy enough, but 15 minutes later I hadn't even succeeded in planting the wedge. An involuntary reflex of self-preservation caused the fingers of my left hand to release it prematurely each time the maul descended.

My neighbor, taking pity upon me, grabbed his maul and quickly produced a small mound of firewood while I nursed cramped fingers and reminisced about the ax I'd wielded two decades ago. "I'll loan you one, if you prefer," he offered, unwittingly calling my bluff. Unwilling to shatter a fond memory, I stuck with the tools at hand, preferring to be an inept student of the maul rather than an incompetent veteran of the ax.

Sufficiently recovered, I finally succeeded in splitting off a single, anemic-looking sliver that I added to his, building a modest woodpile beside the driveway. The romance of it so captured my imagination that instead of continuing with the logs at hand, I wheeled several more down to my driveway, hoping to gather enough for a truly authentic-looking cord. Confident that he had secured more than a token outlet for the maple strewn about his lawn, my neighbor left me to continue the work in the solitude that any self-respecting woodsman craves.

Later, I glimpsed him through his kitchen window, mug in hand, watching me trudge through the snow, my shirt collar open, my face steaming from the heat generated by my hot pursuit of self-sufficiency.

WHEN I finally settled in to split all that wood, I hammered ineffectually for half an hour before my shoulders, arms, and back demanded an explanation. As I leaned against the car wondering how I could induce my neighbor to give me another "lesson," my eyes strayed beyond the house to a garden hose heaped upon the picnic table. For weeks I had meant to put it away.

Grateful for any diversion, I made fresh tracks through the snow, remembering as I carried it to the garage that I had also neglected to shut off the outside water. Those chores accomplished, I returned to the driveway, only to be beckoned by the porch furniture. The seat cushions and the wicker rocker belonged in the basement. By the time I finished those and several other small chores, the all-too-brief daylight was beginning to fade.

I rolled all the unsplit wood onto the lawn and carried my neighbor's tools back to his garage, realizing as I surveyed the paltry results of my labors why oil and gas had become the fuels of first choice. I loved the atmosphere of an open fire, but providing the raw materials left precious little time to enjoy it. Suddenly, $150 for a cord of wood, split and neatly stacked, seemed not a bargain but a steal.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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