Renting the Splitter

We rented a hydraulic splitter last week for processing firewood. It was the first time I’d ever used one.

The task at hand was a nearly two-century-old, field-grown sugar maple that had toppled into a pasture during a thunderstorm last summer. Four tanks of chainsaw gas last autumn had reduced it to stove-length bolts, but three of us working with mauls and wedges last month couldn’t manage to split even a single bolt of the stuff; some of the bolts were three feet in diameter. After fifteen minutes of flailing, the consensus was to seek mechanical assistance.

I couldn’t believe how effective the hydraulic splitter was. Anything we threw at it, it split. We built a ramp out of smaller splits and rolled the monster bolts up onto the carriage. Presto, split. Even gnarled forks and twisted burls gave way before the advancing wedge. After about an hour, we had a cord of the nastiest-looking, torn-apart firewood I’d ever seen. There was no way we could have done that by hand.

One of my friends remarked that it was time for us to buy one of the things so that we could use it whenever we wanted to. My thought was somewhat different: if I never use one again, it will be too soon.

Why? For openers, I was shot. Lifting or even rolling the bolts up onto the carriage was punishing work, the kind of work that the physical therapy docs never seem to have in mind when they advise you to lift with your legs, keep your back straight, and hold the weight close to your body. They’ve got to be kidding. I spent so much time keeping track of my hands – making sure they weren’t about to be pinched between wood and steel, or wood and wood – that I didn’t think of my back until afterward. (Though I thought about it a lot then.)

Beyond that, I’d spent an hour trapped inside ear muffs, my head only a few feet from the belching exhaust port of a two-stroke engine, breathing in the fumes whenever I gasped for breath too close to the plume. Conversation with my compatriots had been impossible, with communication reduced to comical gestures and inscrutable facial expressions.

And capping it off, of course, was that we burned through a mess of fossil fuel, even though one of my chief goals in burning firewood is to reduce my use of fossil fuel.

We typically burn six cords of firewood per winter. I usually split all of it by hand. The keys for me are that I rarely split for more than 30 minutes at a pop, and I readily toss the crooked forks back into the woods for the fungi to split. I’m happiest whacking at forest-grown rounds that need only one swing of the maul to make them furnace ready, all the while yammering away with friends about politics, gossip, and future plans.

The hydraulic splitter strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the role of technology in our society. It’s a tool of brilliant utility that allows us to accomplish the impossible in no time at all. While doing so, it undermines our ideals, diminishes our quality of life, and throws a cloud over the future.

I’d love to tell you that I’m never going to rent a hydraulic splitter again. I sincerely hope I won’t. But if another old monster maple falls into the pasture, I’m not sure what the better option is.


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