Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It is almost as though someone threw a switch from summer to late fall. Not that I’m complaining. It will take another ten inches or so to fill the ponds and recharge the groundwater. It is reassuring to see the rain and to know that one of the hottest, driest summers on record is drawing to a close. The long term forecast is calling for an early, cold winter. Slabs from the sawmill are piling up. I usually cut and split them into firewood, but with so much wood left over from last year’s mild winter, it hardly seems worth the trouble. I may actually sell firewood this year. I haven’t done that in a long time.
Back in those days, I used a chain saw that took as much effort to start as it saved in cutting. When the old Homelite finally did catch, it filled the air with blue smoke. Safety boots, chaps, hard hats, and hearing protection were unknown back in the early '70s. Somehow, I managed to leave the woods each day with a pickup load of wood that paid for my expenses and enough groceries to keep me going another day. Other than a few scrapes and bruises and a dislocated knee, I pretty well managed to stay intact, which is more than I can say for my old Ford pickup. It slid sideways down an icy hill and came to rest against with the driver’s side door smashed against a white oak tree. I drove it that way for years, even though I had to get in and out on the passenger side. On the bright side (always gotta look there), other drivers gave me a wide berth. Guess they figured I didn’t have much to lose, and they weren’t far from right.
A sharp chain, like safety gear was virtually unknown to me, other than when the chain was new. Sharpening was pretty much hit and miss. The saw teeth were all at different lengths and angles. With enough pressure, I was able to cut a semi-circle in the larger pieces, though after a while I learned to switch sides of the log to make an “S” curve cut. I have no idea how many hours I wasted trying to get a pinched saw out of a log. Even with the obvious solution of a wedge within easy reach, I would yank on the saw, look for a branch to use as a lever, and even chop at the offending log with an axe. On more than one occasion, I just went back to the house in disgust, but the saw was always still there, as firmly wedged the next morning.
Splitting wood has changed for me, too. In the movies, the frontiersman (or his wife) splits every piece perfectly in half with a single blow of the axe. Taking my cue from Hollywood, I sank the blade deep into the first hickory log. The axe head stuck fast in the log, and it took the better part of twenty minutes to get it loose. After several more attempts (never hitting the same spot twice) with similar results, I decided the piece of wood was the perfect size for an overnight log, and didn’t really need splitting after all. Ozark hardwood doesn’t split nearly as easily as Hollywood Styrofoam.
Next, I tried an 8-pound sledge hammer and steel wedges. I did split a few pieces, and was starting to gain some confidence, until I dealt the wedge a glancing blow (I could swear it moved on me just before I hit it), and wedge came straight back, narrowly missing my left ear. It wasn’t worth the risk. I loaded the four split logs in the truck and resolved to find another tool that didn’t threaten my body parts. About that time a device known as the “monster maul” came out. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, the monster maul resembles a Medieval war implement. It is a ten-pound triangle of steel welded to a five-pound steel handle. Fifteen pounds doesn’t sound like much, until you spend a few hours forcing it through unyielding oak. I split a lot of wood with it, back in the days when brute strength exceeded common sense.
It has been a long journey since I fired up that old Homelite. I now take pride in my ability to maintain both the saw and the chain, keeping a razor edge on the teeth, and the rakers filed to perfection. Compared to the old days, cutting is fast, almost effortless, and uses only a fraction of the fuel. I seldom pinch the saw, and if I do, a few taps on a wedge pops it right out. If I’d known then what I know now…
A couple of years ago, I swapped some lumber that I had cut on my portable sawmill for a home-made hydraulic log splitter. Now, I grumble if I have to pull the recoil starter two or three times to fire it up, and look longingly at youtube videos of firewood processors. Still, when the air is crisp and I’ve got some nice straight-grained oak to split, I shut down all the power tools, pick up a six-pound splitting maul, and enjoy the quiet work of splitting wood. In a bit, I remember why I got the hydraulic splitter, and get back to work. After all, I’m not a young man of 50 any more! As for that long journey, I’m cutting firewood in that same patch of woods in which I first buried that axe head in a piece of wood more than 30 years ago.