9 January, 2017
The weather forecasters called it an Arctic Dome, but those of us who lived in northwestern Wyoming that winter pronounced it colder than a well digger’s behind. For seven days the mercury in our thermometer never ventured above zero, even at high noon. Snow squeaked beneath our boots. Ice draped windows so thickly one had to rub a viewing portal to the great white way beyond.
All of this was very bad news for me, the family woodchopper. Our primary source of heat was a freestanding wood stove whose shallow breath warmed the living room. A cast-iron cook-stove in the kitchen chased ice from the corners of that room. Both ran on wood scavenged from the county dump where my little brother and I spent each Saturday loading our old Dodge truck with the detritus of other neighbor’s lives. We scampered over frozen grounds like sparrows, snatching up wrecked floorboards, grizzled fence posts, and a variety of warped and weathered sideboards from fallen outbuildings. Each evening I labored to transform the wood into firebox-sized morsels for our hungry stoves.
Thoreau wrote of his fuel gathering, “Every man looks at his wood pile with a kind of affection.” I viewed mine with dread. For the uninitiated, it’s important to know the difference between wood splitting and wood breaking. Splitting wood is for those fortunate enough to possess the means to slice up logs or boards into woodbox-sized lengths, usually accomplished with a large, tractor-driven buzz saw or a chain saw. This cuts across the wood’s grain, stealing its structural integrity. One need only drive an axe-head or a wedge down into the pale meat of the wood to split it.
Breaking wood is entirely another matter. Instead of going with the grain one must bludgeon the wood along its latitude where there is no predilection to cleave. The cells interlock as a bulkhead, an impeccable feat of natural engineering to keep trees upright against whims of wind. To my woodchopper’s chagrin, many of the timbers seemed designed also to resist my own terrible storm of blows. A length of oak could seemingly transform the ruthless steel of the axe head to rubber.
Night fell before I finished lugging buckets of grain and water to pigs, chickens, cattle, horses, and sheep. I scattered fresh straw for the animals to insulate themselves against the long sub-zero night ahead. I then went inside for a last moment of creature comfort, turning my backside to the wood-stove. Squeals and shouts from somewhere deep in the house told of my younger brothers and sisters at play. Mom’s empathetic hand found my shoulder. “It’s supposed to blizzard all night and maybe all day tomorrow. The stoves will really gobble the wood.”
I nodded glumly. The tall windows of the kitchen were black as carbonized wood. Points of white flashed by like miniature meteors to signal that the advance guard of the big storm had arrived.
Alone on the edge of our hill, I was nearly blinded by snow driven from the north. I needed shelter for my task so I commandeered a tin meter house we had hauled in earlier that summer from an abandoned oil field. Six feet to a side, the shed nonetheless afforded me protection from stinging darts of snow. I hung a flashlight from the ceiling with a corkscrew of baling wire and went to work in the jittery cone of light. The first board was a ten-footer from an old granary. The board stuck out through the open door and snow sifted in to flour me like a pan-fried trout.
The little room echoed with the whunk, whunk of the falling axe-head as slowly, very slowly, boards succumbed. One piece of hardwood played hard to get so I attacked it with special fervor. It broke with a sound of a donkey bray. I pinned the remaining length with my boot and brought the axe down hard. The axe-head caromed off the board and smashed sideways into my inner ankle. I screamed every foul epithet in my lexicon while I rubbed the contusion growing under my skin like a summer strawberry.
On and on I chopped under the pale light, my ragged breaths were spumes of frost filling the claustrophobic hut. Ever so slowly the pile grew to fill my wood basket and I trudged through the icy veil toward the house, which appeared as a faint yellow blur–a lonely star fallen to ground.
Mom received me into the cozy kitchen, instructed me to warm up by the woodstove. She pried up a stove lid over the firebox and stuck in several pieces of my newly chopped wood. She took them right out of the box I barely had set down. The wood lay in the bed of orange coals for seconds and then its pale flesh caught fire. Every moment I stood there was witness to five minutes of my labor gone up the chimney in smoke.
“Okay–bring us more wood!” Mom enthused.
I was a madman of axe-wielding intensity. Steam gushed from my coat sleeves and collar. My disappointment spoke for me and it was not a good advocate. “How come you’re using it up so fast?”
Mom smiled. “Hear the wind whistling down the chimney? It’s sucking up heat like milk through a straw.” An awful truth presented itself. The fires were gobbling up the wood fast as I chopped it. The night was deepening and the storm was getting worse. The trek back out to the hut was interminable. Wind slammed me and pelted my face with pellets hard as thrown rice. The pile of boards was now a skein of snowy lumps. Anger heated me from stomach to ears. I yelled into the white night. “This is nineteen sixty-SEVEN!” I also wanted to shout that this is the age of Apollo astronauts circling the planet in spaceships. Not to mention the age of people in town summoning warmth to their rooms with a mere twitch of a thermostat.
The next box took longer to fill because of the search to excavate boards from the snowy heap at the edge of the hill. I arrived in the kitchen weary and chilled to the bone. “Better get a hustle on, honey. We’re almost down to the last stick.” I dropped the box. “It’s not fair! Everybody else in here is nice and warm and I’m out freezing my a–” Mom’s eyes widened and I throttled the expletive mid-tongue.
“It’s your job, son.”
“Yeah but Jim doesn’t have to do anything.”
“He has his chores, but he’s younger. He doesn’t have your strength”
I recoiled at having my own qualities turned against me. I sunk into self-pity cold as the drift just outside the back door.
“Why don’t we have natural gas heat like normal people?” I pouted.
“You know why, son.”
Yes, I knew. We were poor. Poor enough to qualify for government commodities. There was no one to blame. My stepfather, Bill, worked hard at the grain elevator for low wages. He swept grain spilled from big trucks (more sparrow work) as they made the sharp turn into the elevator. He brought home the sweepings to help feed our livestock.
“I’m tired. I can’t keep up.”
“You have to. You know Bill’s back is out.”
There was nowhere to turn except toward the door to the blizzard. I grabbed the empty wood-box and trudged back to my prison shed. Snow was so deep I was forced to liberate the flashlight from its wire harness to search for likely boards. I dug like a dog and finally found one. I lugged it to the shack, re-hung the flashlight, and began to chop. It was another ‘rubber board.’ I gave it a vicious whack only to be rewarded by a flash of pain in my left instep. I threw down the axe and hobbled backwards. My heel caught on the door threshold and I pitched out backwards into a pillow of snow. I lay stunned, arms outstretched like a child making a snow angel. Pellets of snow wedged under my eyelashes and flew up my nostrils. I limped back into the shed and grabbed the board, enraged sufficiently to imagine snapping it with my bare hands. I swung it wildly, heard it smash into the flashlight. The stricken light fell to the frozen floor and went out.
I stood in utter darkness. Blinked. Experienced for the first time in my life utter despair. I pictured the fires in the house burning low, winking out ember by ember until the fireboxes were graves of cold ash. The house would grow colder, still colder. Then, one by one, my brothers and sisters, my Grandmother, Mom, and Bill, would begin to grow drowsy with the onset of disaster.
I could manage only one cogent thought. Escape! Flee the scene. Throw my fate to the prowling winds and predacious snows. Suddenly, a ray of light illuminated my dark reverie. A beautiful voice floated in on a tide of snowflakes.
“You about played out?”
Here she was, clad in her insulated jacket and pants with a wool scarf tied over her gray hair. She handed me her flashlight and I secured it in the overhead harness. In its glow my four-foot-ten inch Grandmother looked like a denim angel of mercy–which of course she was.
We quickly worked out a scheme. I retrieved my flashlight to excavate boards from the snowy hillside pile. These were brought to the little tin hut where Grandma made quick work of them. Once, after I propped a cedar post inside the door, I stood and watched Grandma work. Though she was nearly sixty years old and so small she was forced to chose clothes from the junior’s section of mail order catalogs, my Grandmother proved to me that night neither size nor gender have much to do with success in the Herculean art of breaking wood.
I observed this master at her craft and noticed that before she attacked the board with muscle and steel she studied it. She rotated it in her gloved hands, examined one end and then the other. She told me what she looked for in each board–the pattern of the grain. She said this was to understand the way the tree had lived its life and responded to challenges and opportunities from nature. A more open grain suggested access through a well-aimed axe blow to split even a “rubber” board along its length. Hard wood thus could be reduced in girth to be more easily broken into stove-sized lengths. Other boards revealed knots, birthplaces of branches that could prevent a clean, longitudinal split. Grandma would sink the axe-head in the end of one such piece, and then propel the other end into a solid object. This whiplash effect used the helpful physics of momentum to force the axe-head in deeper. A few taps were generally enough to cleave the wood.
And so it went. Grandma rendered ‘rubber’ boards so handily I worked up a sweat ferrying them in from the snowy pile. We worked for an hour, our rhythm broken only by my dashes to the house to unload boxes heaped with freshly broken wood. When Grandma finally straightened up from dispatching her last board she announced we had enough stacked along the wall of the shed to keep the fires happy all night. I stood close by my Grandmother, surveying the tidy stack of wood. It was a miracle.
“You must be ten times stronger than me, Grandma.”
She chuckled. “No, but I‘ve had a few years to learn the hard way and then the other ways to do this.”
Before she returned home to her ranch in Montana a few weeks later, Grandma showed me how to use the head on my shoulders as well as the one at the end of my axe. There were little things like clutching the shank of the axe at varying points to gain appropriate leverage, or sizing up each board to locate vectors of vulnerability such as dry rot or natural fractures. There were lessons about feathering knotty wood to make kindling sticks, rather than expending energy to render such pieces for mature fire duty. Finally, Grandma taught me about the importance of working hard on fair weather days to chop a goodly pile of wood as a reserve against the inevitable blizzard.
Years passed before I realized Grandma had taught me something else that frigid night. She had helped me to gauge my own hidden textures and to learn the nature of my own grain.
There were moments during lonely afternoons of wood breaking when I encountered wood so resistant to my engineered blows I retired it for a day when it might be used as a pillar of support in an outbuilding. Such inner strength, I reasoned, deserved more honorable duty. It reminded me in turn of my Grandmother because she had become a pillar of my life education. I was fortunate indeed to have her demonstrate skill and wisdom in action because it taught me that one might endure in the face of most any challenge–rubber boards or blizzards or storms of self-doubt. That revelation, like a surprise Chinook wind, warms me yet, even on the coldest of nights.