We name tools for their function: the hammer hammers, the saw saws, and the drill drills. By custom, then, the tool that splits wood ought to be the splitter. Yet instead we have the “splitting maul.” Anyone who swings a splitting maul soon understands why. It splits wood, yes, but the action occurs in a flash of impressive violence. Most manual labor tends toward assembly, but the maul mauls. Its destructive power is amazing, focused in a millisecond to knock a century-strong timber into splinters.
I thought along these lines as I finished splitting firewood. I had started in June, and for the wood to dry properly, I should have finished then, too. Instead, other tasks intervened, and the job waited into late August. The wood came from three huge black locust trees beside the road. A windstorm damaged them, leaving cracked limbs suspended high up. I had an arborist trim and section the wood, cutting fifteen-inch logs. Without splitting, the logs retain moisture, and the fire consumes energy in evaporation, rather than throwing heat.
The black locust makes ideal firewood, producing the densest wood, and therefore the highest heat content, of nearly any tree in the world. Locust is also exceptionally resistant to rot, and historically was prized for making fence posts and wooden nails (called trunnels, or “tree nails”) for ocean-going ships. Native to the Appalachian Mountains, the trees were transplanted widely by American colonists. Long Island became the early American center of black locust production, a fact recalled by the town named Locust Valley. Locusts still grow near old farmhouses throughout New England.
Unlike an axe, which uses a narrow blade to chop across the grain, the head of the splitting maul tapers widely, plunging like a wedge to pry the grain apart. My maul weighs five pounds. When I swing it, impact occurs at about twenty miles an hour, all momentum merged gigantically to the blade’s narrow edge. I find this amazing: an ancient, simple tool that empowers a casual woodsman to shatter even the hardest wood. I lift the maul straight overhead, then power it downward onto the upturned log. True to its breed, the black locust rebuffs the first blows, and the force recoils to my shoulders. Then like batting at baseball, when the blow falls right, there is a Crack!, and an almost weightless sense of hitting through the log.
These trees are old. I count over one hundred years on the largest limbs, with a diameter nearly twenty inches. The trees themselves must be a century and a quarter. There is a beautiful passage in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, in which Leopold fells an old oak tree. As his saw cuts deeper into the oak, he follows the blade backward in time, year upon year witnessed by this noble tree, all the way to the outbreak of America’s Civil War. I meditate on this theme as the maul lands its blows. Soon, the logs cleave open like history books, rending decade from decade within this giant tree.
I work the logs from outside in, two or three splits to reach the core. Whack!, here thirty years ago I was studying grammar in high school, whack!, here five decades back I’ve sundered Kennedy from Dallas, whack!, here in 1945 America and her Allies laid low the Nazi reich, whack!, here ninety years ago Charles Lindbergh gasses his plane at Roosevelt Field, his last hour of anonymity. The tree has seen so much. And at the heart of this log is a green and pleasant age, where a Vermont farmer leans upon this black locust, as I lean now, and looks to his old clapboard house, where I look too, then he and I forsake the August sun and walk to the house, to slake our thirst.
The maul yielded one-half cord of firewood and a sore set of shoulders. I would split more, but my land lacks any real woods to harvest. I burn about five cords each winter, so the rest I will order in fall. I stack the black locust neatly in the sun, remembering a line from Thoreau: “Every man looks at his wood pile with a kind of affection.” A colonial New England home consumed about forty cords annually, and even in Thoreau’s time, wood powered nearly everything. The wood pile was a measure of survival, not mere affection.
Yet Thoreau shows that even in those hardscrabble days, splitting and stacking evoked the same elemental pleasures. There is craftsmanship in wielding the maul, in building a sturdy wood stack, an artistry that is hearty, utilitarian, and spare. There is contentment in self-reliance and solitary industry. The wood is beautiful, each split revealing textures new to the world. And there is almost poetry in joining August’s labor to January’s comfort, in harvesting the summer heat of ten decades through the winter hearth.
I clean the maul to guard against rust and hope to split a full cord next year. The sun settles low, and for a few minutes, the locust softly glows.
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