A city girl’s epiphany splitting wood

The meditative quality of log splitting can lead to many brilliant ideas – ideas that must be shared. Or so it seems.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A pile of firewood gets a dusting of snow in Newton, New Hampshire.

I was a city girl. I loved sidewalks and the way the plumes of weird-smelling steam from subway grates fogged up my glasses. I talked a lot about the museums I never went to and bought books from The Strand I still haven’t read.

But I moved to the country. Sadly, urban survival skills were not transferable. Money and sassiness only went so far. What I needed was help.

We burned wood to heat the house. There was a gas-powered log splitter near the outdoor wood stove. Along with the tractor, the splitter was not something I familiarized myself with during my marriage. After my husband left, I made my acquaintance with both. It went as well as you might expect.

But winter comes early up here, and winter demands wood. So I traded our Ford 150 quad cab with heated seats for annual picker loads of wood. A picker load is what those 18-wheelers stacked with enormous tree trunks are hauling. 

Each August, the truck backed up the drive doing that beep-beep-beep thing for 100 yards. Our tradition was to stop what we were doing and run to the porch, where my boys and I danced to the beat of the beeping until the dogs started barking and jumping on us.

I’d ask the driver to unload as close as possible to the outdoor stove. He’d nail it, craning a pile of 40-foot felled ash, maple, or oak like one of those claw games at the supermarket you can never win.

The next step was to chain-saw the trunks into 18-inch logs. For this, I needed Mr. Fletcher, our grumpy cannon-ball-shaped neighbor, and his two grown sons. Sadly, I lost my chain saw privileges instantly when the Fletchers saw what I was wielding. This city girl bought an electric chain saw because, you know, the environment.

Mr. Fletcher’s elder son nearly choked when he heard my chain saw spring to life: “Hey, Amy! You gonna make smoothies with that thing?”

So I was relegated to a 31-inch-long ax, which I learned to call a “go devil.” It’s not the right name for it, but everyone here calls it that. I split smaller pieces for the indoor wood stove. 

The men marked the cuts with orange spray paint and gassed up their saws. I waved protective goggles at them. No takers. Now comes the moment when a log becomes firewood: An unwieldy, “I didn’t realize anything could be this heavy” piece of wood is clean-and-jerked onto the splitter.

The Fletchers were much better suited to pick up heavy things, and they made it look effortless. 

So how hard could it be? Very hard. Impossible, really. But I was stubborn and dead set on doing my part.

The Fletcher rule was, don’t stop splitting until the gas runs out. No breaks, very little talking. Talking led to distraction, and distraction to accidents. So I concentrated on the four distinct sounds of log-splitting days: the chain saws, the splitter’s four-stroke engine, the back-and-forth of the wedge and push plate applying 28 tons of pressure on the logs, and the squeal of green wood being split.

I forgot the promise to be quiet a lot. The meditative quality of log splitting can lead to many brilliant ideas that must be shared, especially with the people you will pay to do them.

“So, I have an idea!” I yelled above the noises. “I’m thinking of getting pigs!”

Mr. Fletcher looked at me, annoyed, and turned off the engine.

Seeing that their dad was taking a break, his boys stopped their chain saws, sat on stumps, and waited. Amy had an idea. This should be good.

“Is this an Amy story?” Mr. Fletcher said.

“I guess. What’s an Amy story?”

“Well, all your stories start at the thruway exit. Then they go around the reservoir about three times, drop over the hill, and the story only makes sense when you get to the point, coming down the driveway,” he said, wiping his hands on his filthy jeans.

“That is so mean,” I shot back. “I’m a good storyteller. And I think you need the backstory so you can be as invested in the idea as I am.”

“We don’t have to invest in the idea,” said his younger son, laughing. “You just have to tell us what to do!”

“Oh. My. Word.” I said, “So that’s it, isn’t it? Girls tell stories this way, meandering, checking for understanding and buy-in. Boys just get to the point. I mean, one way’s not better than the other, just different. No wonder my ex-husband looked so bored when I was talking.”

“You finished?” asked Mr. Fletcher.

“Yes.” I said, “Start it up. We’re burning daylight.”

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