Ken Stewart wrote this essay six years ago. His eyesight has deteriorated since then, but when we visited on a fall day, he was still wielding his axe. PHOTOS BY PRESTON EHRLER
To Ken Stewart, buying cords feels like cheating somehow
By Ken Stewart
I heard them quite a few times before I figured out who they were. It was always the same time of day, the same relative to the sun’s course across the sky, not the same clock time. I heard them during each of their daily flights above my woods because I too was following a life rhythm attuned to the sun’s cycle.
It was a skein of geese on an identical flight path close overhead. They were heading back to their overnight roosting ground somewhere east of me, after each day’s feasting in a vast wetland area over the next ridge west of my little patch of woodland. They needed to get home before dark. I needed to wait
until almost dark for optimal performance of my legally blind eyes doing yard activities.
Often it was log splitting I was doing when the chorus of squawks and honks kissed the treetops. My activity might reach past twilight for I could finish up my chores in the friendly illumination from the light fixture mounted on the side of my house above the deck. But I could not start well at all in the glare of full daylight. I found that starting my outdoor life just before sunset provided the best visual contrast. I stood the log to be split on its end atop a chopping block of sorts. Usually I had recruited for that passive function, a particularly gnarly log which would be slit itself only with mammoth effort due to its large diameter and abundant knots. It stood on the ground and the target log on top of it.
Years back when I was harvesting fuel for a huge open fireplace in another house, my subjects were much longer, up to two feet or more. Those logs often required the application of sledge hammer and steel wedges. My current home has a firebox with a more modest appetite. It’s an airtight woodstove which is so diminutive, no log longer than fifteen inches, yes, exactly fifteen inches maximum, can be crammed inside. The splitting therefore can most times be accomplished by swift blows from a log maul. My maul is a steel head mounted on a long handle. I would liken it to a very chubby axe. The head alone weighs about seven pounds I reckon, and if the log is sufficiently cured, and my aim is true, one swing will sever it, and send two pieces flying in opposite directions. Usually the directions are to the sides, although more than once I have painfully bounced one off a shin. I wear heavy high-top shoes to reduce the exposed areas of myself to such arboreal missiles. I learned the hard way too, that by stacking other large logs high, just to each side of the chopping block, I minimize the scatter of my harvest. On one side, I would otherwise be hunting by feel for a split piece in tall grass. On the other side I am protecting glass sliding doors beyond the deck from catastrophic impact.
Experience has also taught me a number of ways to make maximum use of my limited view of the target log. A light hued plank propped up just beyond the chopping block provides a silhouette of the darker, standing target log. A particularly bleached-out wood chip scavenged from the debris all around me on the ground, is helpful too. Perched atop the target log, it aids my aim. I have found that the harder I swing the maul, the worse my accuracy. So, if I am attacking a log of small girth or one that is quite well aged, I concentrate on direction rather than velocity. Positioning my feet in exactly the right spot before each swing of the maul is a must too. I reach out with the maul to the chopping block. Then I paw the ground with my shoes something like an eager hitter in the batter’s box in a major league ball park. The indentations become tactile clues for subsequent swings.
Alas, even with all these measures taken, my swing may be a bit off the mark. Not to worry. The result will be one tiny strip of kindling and one piece virtually the size it was before. Or, the maul may come to rest embedded in the flat top of the chopping block beside the target log. Sometimes prying it out is an effort but never impossible. Side to side aim is only one of the ways my swing can go awry. I can come down too far or too close. Too close is inconsequential. The maul head simply digs into the soft, stone-free soil between me and the block. Too far is more serious. When the upper part of the handle hits the target instead of the maul head, my hands feel a stinging vibration. Too many of these handle bangs over time can break it. A good quality maul comes with a loose fitting steel collar on the neck of the handle just below the head. Evidently maul manufacturers realize it is not only the low vision woodsman who overshoots the log once in a while.
I recall my reaction some winters ago when I had to skirt around a massive pile of firewood in a neighbor’s driveway while stopping by his house for a visit. He had purchased it, and by the truckload. That seemed like cheating somehow. Actually, fetching the logs from the woodlands all around my home is as much a pleasure as splitting them. My own acre-and-a-half is adjacent to a vast tract of undeveloped land and there are always more dead trees nearby than my woodstove can consume. Sometimes the first step is to fell one that is dead but not down yet. Usually though there are enough already down to satisfy my needs.
It does vary by species, but dead trees can rot quickly in the damp shade of the forest floor. The ideal find is a hardwood like ash or hickory, resting on its own stump or another log, thus not in full contact with the ground.
Old bed sheets are a useful item during my foraging. Torn into strips, they become trail markers for me. I wrap the trunk of an upright tree every five or ten yards along my route between my house and the downed tree I am about to cut up. I use electric chain saws so I must string the power line all the way. It takes several 100-foot long extension cords to get the power all the way. Each junction of lines is also marked with a sheet strips so I can find the joint when it comes time to coil up the wires again.
A thin strip of sheet laid along the tree trunk, pre-measured to be just the length of the desired log length, greatly aids my positioning of the chain saw at the right spot. Sometimes, particularly if I am a considerable distance into the woods, I’ll only cut the tree into longer sections. The hauling back to the house of one long log, can be less labor-intensive than moving the same wood already cut into short pieces. I have a two-wheeled garden cart I roll as close to the subject tree as I can maneuver it. The rocky terrain and/or thickets may force me to leave the cart short of the cutting site though. In that event, shreds of bedsheet can be draped over the edge of the cart to make it conspicuous for a later reunion with an armful of logs. At other times, the white tape permanently adorning the cart’s handles is a sufficient flag for detection. It is tape from the same roll of four-inch wide white glittering adhesive backed material I purchased from a highway supply vendor, and which is applied to the step in front of my tool shed for the same reason, easier location.
Logs which come out of the woods too long for splitting, get chain sawed near the chopping block where the electricity has only a short trip from the outlet on the side of the house. Or, some may just be stacked for later cutting, after they have cured more. The drier the wood, the easier it splits and the better it burns too. It may seem counter-intuitive, but stacked logs dry out more rapidly if exposed to weather than under the rain protection of a tarpaulin, or stored in a shed. The ideal setup is a cover high overhead to offer some protection from rain while allowing air circulation and the penetration of the sun’s direct rays. Chinks appearing on the ends of a log are sure signs of a log’s dryness. Those thin lines created as the wood
shrinks internally, are sometimes difficult to detect by touch. Squinting at them close up in favorable lighting is my primary evaluation strategy.
Finding the occasional dead tree which is still standing is not easy. In summer it is likely to be huddled among many other trees that are still alive and thick with concealing foliage. Most all the trees in an old-growth forest have nary a low branch, so the telltale bare limbs of the dead one are far above me, beyond my viewing range. Winter searches are equally difficult because all the trees are equally barren of leaves. The feel and appearance of the bark at the tree’s base are usually good clues to its demise unless quite recent.
Downing the dead tree is approached with great care as I am dealing with thousands of pounds of timber about to come crashing to earth. Gravity will bring it down according to reliable laws of physics fortunately. Waiting for the comfortable rays of twilight, I can identify which way it leans from its center line. First cutting a wedge out of the trunk on the side toward which I want it to fall, further insures its trajectory to terra firma. Once again, a sheet strip helps me. I wrap one around the trunk just below where I want to apply the saw.
Every woodsman knows the frustration of the felled tree which gets hung up in a neighbor’s limbs on its way down. More laws of physics suggest which edge of the leaning trunk must be severed so that it will fold toward the vertical rather than pinch the chain saw being pressed upward from its underside. I confess though that one of the reasons I have more than one chain saw, is to have a second one handy to free up the first one from a pinching!
There is noticeable variation among tree species in regard to their split-ability as well as their burn-ability. Softwoods like most evergreens ignite easily but burn “cool” and do not last. Hardwoods like hickory, ash, oak and elm, make excellent firewood. The most prevalent variety on my property is maple. While it makes considerably better firewood, than the conifers, it is not my favorite. That distinction goes to the mighty hickory. Reaching up as high as eighty or eighty-five feet toward the sky, it splits very cleanly and coals magnificently in the stove, burning long and hot, and leaving a sustaining bed of embers. Each autumn the forest floor is punctuated by hickory nuts scattered about. I vividly recall the insight into nature’s ways I received one September morning when I was at my chopping block as the sun was rising, still hidden behind the dense foliage on the east side of my yard. I heard the bang of a small hard object hitting the ground a few paces from me. Then a second thud. Then another. Soon there was a staccato of dropping hard things. I moved to the spot to investigate, hoping none would bounce off my cranium. All around there were hickory nuts. I looked upward and the sun was just brightening the upper limbs of the trees at the west edge of the clearing. The sudden warming must have been the trigger releasing the nuts from the trees’ high branches.
The last leg of the transportation system from woods to woodstove is made much easier with one of the most practical birthday presents I ever received. It is an eighteen-inch by thirty-six-inch heavy canvas rectangle with sturdy plastic handles on the short sides, called a log carrier. Abe Lincoln observed that splitting wood warms you twice, from the exercise outside and from the fire inside later. My inside-warming emanates from the Vermont Stove Factory product which sits in the middle of the two-story high central living room-kitchen space I designed into my home. The black stovepipe soars straight up, radiating heat all the way to the roof. And, a soapstone on its flat top surface is ideal for the saute of dinner treats like the Swiss chard collected from the greenhouse attached to the south side of
The greenhouse prolongs the growing season but its more important function is to prevent the deer from enjoying my garden vegetables before I can. Ah the deer. Some more of nature’s children who move at twilight... like the geese... like me.