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Reflections from the SwampA Man Splitting Wood

A Man Splitting Wood

Reflections from the Swamp
Richard van Duyvendyk

Dear Reader

My bride grew up on a farm in rural Nova Scotia on about 300 acres of mostly bush. Her father, Fred, cut wood for pulp using horses and a wagon to bring the wood back to the house. My bride’s brothers would unload the wood and return the horses and wagon to the bush unattended. The horses also delivered the firewood logs used to heat the house.

Although wood heated the kitchen with a wood cookstove, the rest of the house remained frigid. My bride and two sisters shared a bed above the cookstove with a metal grate to allow heat to escape into the upstairs and their room.

The oil furnace only roared when the priest or an important visitor came.

When I see this scene in my memory, it flashes in grainy black-and-white-like historical footage of pioneer life. I see my childhood bride wearing a woollen cap while sleeping with her sisters.

Flash forward sixty years to our present heating realities here in the swamp. We heat the house with wood burned in a cookstove, which warms the kitchen and living room. We have an electric furnace that we only use when the priest comes over. The priest hasn’t been here in years. I often have dreams of freezing to death in some gulag in the wilds of Corkery. If I try to discreetly turn on the furnace while my bride sleeps, alarm bells ring out, lights start flashing, and the stormtroopers zipline down from a helicopter burst into the house and drag me off to the dog house. You could say that freezing to death is a time-honoured tradition in our family.

For years, as a carpenter, while driving around the countryside in my truck (Gloria), we would chance upon a fallen tree, wood left due to road expansion, or trees cut while new houses were built. I would cut the wood up and throw the wood into the back of the truck, come home, and dump the wood into a pile. It was challenging for Gloria and me to find enough wood to warm up the freezer I called home.

Hand-splitting wood is an art. It is not the type of art Van Gogh or Van Rijn perfected, but an art based on understanding trees, how they grow, how the grain swirls around branches and how one can best split the stubborn blocks of wood most efficiently. I know after years of experience how to read a tree. You have to swing the axe expertly, think through the tree to the splitting block, and feel right through the tree.

I find myself talking to each piece of wood I split. I look for checks in the wood, observe where the branch formed within the block and how it will resist the hard blow of an axe, and look for the most accessible spot to split the wood and reduce the wood to a usable size. Sometimes, I imagine the wood as an enemy that must be strategically approached, divided at the weakest point, and thrown defeated into the woodpile along with all the previous causalities of the battle. Sometimes, the wood wins, refuses to crack under pressure and is placed respectfully into a separate pile for future battles.

I think of my enemy’s soul, its desire to live as we battle on the splitting block. Its soul is like mine, born with a desire to branch out toward the light and live fully in this world. I’m sorry to have harboured such violent thoughts, to have cursed you when you resisted my blows.

Yet I know that if I can hit you with enough force in the right place, you will crack, and this battle will be over. We’ll be able to sit around the stove while you are in the firebox and talk about old times.

The man splitting the wood looks strong but is weakening with age. I turn to my younger self and ask for help. My younger self wouldn’t have the struggles I experienced and could easily split this stubborn block of oak. He is strong; when he split wood, he struck hard, hurling the bright steel through the air so hard that this gnarly oak would leap apart. The pile of resister blocks was nonexistent. He was a multi-decorated hero of the Battle of the Woodpile.

We weaken as we age. Often, everyone who could help goes or doesn’t arrive. What about the young man I was, coming back from the vortex of time to help rather than mock me? I make a concerted effort to find help.

I must lean on a son and friends stronger than I to complete the job. I feel content to know that my bride and I have enough wood to face another winter.

Now, we can relax, huddle around the cookstove with a warm hot chocolate, and freeze to death all winter in the comfort of our home.

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