"The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow.” So says the psalmist, a deep fellow, not always a cheerful one. Here in Psalm 90, for example, he may overstate, in particular by equating labor and sorrow. Surely not all labor need bring sorrow, especially when it is, so to speak, self-inflicted. Or so I have been able to persuade myself over the past three or four years.
It was about then that my chainsaw and I parted company. There was no divorce. She died on me, as they used to say, and I have not sought remarriage. I’m a confirmed chainsaw widower.
Being without a chainsaw would be difficult and demoralizing, I expected, and so it has been. Over the years, I had gained fun, healthful exercise, honest work, and much satisfaction from the three machines that I have owned successively. I have also saved probably around $100,000 on our household heating accounts. I relied on my chainsaws, and they served me very well.
It was suggested to me, however, that working in the woods with a chainsaw as I did, always quite alone, subject to rather more fatigue than in youth and having rather less strength – having, as well, certain other infirmities – was maybe not the most intelligent conduct for a man who has just reached his biblically allotted threescore years and ten. (Not, at any rate, if the same man wishes to see threescore years and, say, fifteen.)
Therefore, when my last saw gave up the ghost, I didn’t replace it. Rather, I decided to do without. But how? Well, by far the most I’d used a chainsaw had been when cutting firewood: felling trees, trimming their branches, bucking them into sections. Now, without a chainsaw, would I accomplish those things by using axes and crosscut saws powered by muscle – my muscle – as in the days of the psalmist? Hardly. Rather, I would reimagine the job as a whole. I would leave the felling, trimming, and bucking to others. I would step into the great river of firewood procurement at a point farther downstream than I had been used to.
Doing that proved to be easy. A friend up the road has a family logging business. He also deals in firewood as the back-end byproduct of his timber operation: the logs go to the mill; the slash goes to cordwood customers, including me.
I’m unlike most of my supplier’s clients, however, in that I don’t order ready-to-burn wood: cut, split, seasoned. Rather, I buy fresh-cut wood right off the stump, sawn into sections of stove length but otherwise unimproved. Call them green chunks. Two dump trucks full of them is about what we burn in a winter. That’s after I have split, stacked, and moved them – a considerable effort.
Most of that effort, measured in time and sweat, is in splitting the chunks. For that, I use a heavy splitting axe or maul, and a sledgehammer and steel wedges. I don’t have a power splitter, though I have used them. For me, the work of humping the biggest chunks up onto the rail of the splitter is as punishing as swinging the maul.
As punishing, but not as much fun. I enjoy splitting firewood. I enjoy handling all that fresh maple, oak, ash, and beech: its colors, its weight, its feel, its smell. And, after all, the job – though long – is by no means endless. Without pushing too hard, I can split and stack our winter’s wood in six weeks or so.
Splitting wood has other, less tangible benefits. It’s slow, repetitive work and therefore lends itself to thought – to idle, pleasurable contemplation. Not all work related to firewood does that. Stumbling around in the woods with a screaming chainsaw, for instance, is not conducive to woolgathering. (Or if it is, then it’s not conducive to survival.) Running a saw at 10,000 rpm, you need to focus. Running a maul at 5 rpm, you can relax; you can invite your soul. Take care, though: you may find your soul packing some pretty long thoughts as, past a certain age, our souls tend to do.
Such has been my own experience of chainsaw widowerhood, at least. For example, this past summer, working away at my splitting, I was struck by the fact that I am now older than many of the trees whose wood I am moving, splitting, and stacking. At first, that idea filled me with rue and regret. Only yesterday, I was a kid; now, apparently, I am more aged than the very trees of the forest. On further reflection, though, I found myself reassured. I found myself elated, even. After all, with superior age comes superior wisdom, doesn’t it? Of course it does. It must therefore be that I have prevailed. I’m smarter than two dump trucks full of green chunks. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ve merely been spending too much time dreaming at the woodpile. What would the psalmist say? Would he embrace his age? Or did he, perhaps, hang onto his chainsaw?
Castle Freeman, Jr., is the author of many novels, short stories, essays, and other nonfiction mainly concerned with life in northern New England. He lives in Newfane, Vermont.