The other day I was out in the backyard, doing my Paul Bunyan routine as I swung my ax over my shoulder and came down hard and clean against the wood I'd hauled from the Penobscot River. The wood was dry and well-seasoned; if I was right on the mark, I could cleave it with a single swift chop.
It was hovering just above zero outside - a bracing morning in central Maine. I chopped apace and my woodpile grew. It wasn't long before a passerby called out from the road: "Get a chain saw!"
It was a good-natured jab, and my critic waved as he hurried on. On such a frigid morning, with hoarfrost illuminating the roof shingles, I was flattered that he chose to stop at all, for interrupting one's stride even for a moment allows the cold to seep in. It's always best to keep moving.
Of course, there are moments when I realize that a chain saw would be a boon to my efficiency, and would let me get out of the cold that much sooner. But I chop wood with an ax for a variety of reasons.
One is the slow, waxing burn I kindle in my muscles as I work away. After a few minutes of wielding the ax I am pushing the cold back, like a wave, overcoming it with my own burgeoning warmth. I like being able to do this, to say, in effect, yes, it is cold outside, but what of it?
Then there is the pure artistry of it. A well-swung ax is poetry in motion. I love the heft of the tool, the silence with which it moves down through the air, and the final "chock!" as a piece of timber is hewn, the two halves flying off in opposite directions, affording me whiffs of the resinous heartwood.
But the most compelling reason for my choice of tools is the feel of the ax handle. I found my ax in a corner of the wood shed behind my 100-year-old house. Its handle is polished hickory, rendered smooth by the hands of those who went before me, standing where I stand, hefting and chopping, generation upon generation.
An ax handle, or helve, is a thing of beauty, having long ago reached design perfection. The best way to describe it is to picture the letter S. Now stretch it out and take most of the curve out of the upper and lower loops. What you're left with is exactly the right shape, a sort of lever with the human arm as its fulcrum.
It is this shape that allows for the right grip, the right velocity, the right angle, the right everything. Wielding an ax would be very different if the handle were straight; it would be akin to swinging a log. But an ax handle's mildly sinusoidal aspect lends one the feeling of springing a trap.
Can one really wax poetic about an ax handle? Of course. It's already been done, by Robert Frost, in "The Axe-Helve," in which his main character despairs over having purchased an ax showing poor workmanship:
'Made on machine,' he said, ploughing the grain
With a thick thumbnail to show how it ran
Across the handle's long-drawn serpentine,
Like the two strokes across a dollar sign.
'You give her one good crack, she's snap raght off.'
And the poet Gary Snyder wrote a piece titled "Axe Handles," in which he sees himself as an ax, a model for his son, whose spirit he describes as an ax handle still taking form:
I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
My ax has enabled me to learn to love the winter - absolutely essential if one intends to come to peace with living in such a cold place as Maine. I admit that there have been moments when I've gone outside in a blizzard as a result of my not having cut enough wood. As the gales burn my face, I chop. As the snow sneaks in under my collar, I chop. At such moments I come close to regretting the ax and envying the chain saw. But in everything gained there is something lost.
At this writing I am still holding the hickory tight, steady as she goes.