Cord by cord
When I go out to the woodpile, Diesel the mastiff thinks we will play his game. He has an old boat fender, with a short pennant attached, that he likes to chase, chew, and tug, with me flopping around at the other end. As soon as we are outside, he hunts that fender down and brings it to me. He thinks the game is on. When I start the log splitter's eight-horse gas engine, Diesel regards me balefully, sighs deeply, and subsides onto the ground nearby, his great head resting on the deflated fender. He does not appreciate firewood or its rewards. Diesel's satisfactions are many, but cutting, splitting, and stacking cordwood are not among them.
In each of the 15 years that we have owned this house, we have cut down or trimmed trees. It was all woods when we arrived. Today, it is lawn and field with scattered oak, white and red, plus one great swamp maple, and here and there a locust. Many of the trees we've removed have left through our wood stove.
There are two piles of logs that must be split. The logs are nearly two years old, the remains of some oak and locust we cut to make some space around the house and up the hill toward the road. Felling trees around the house exposes the roof to air and sunlight, which seems to contribute to the longevity of the shingles. It also diminishes the leaf load in the gutters. I loathe leaves, which are pesky things that do not earn their keep the way trees made into cordwood do.
One of the woodpiles has gotten mixed up with the compost pile, which, by the way, suffers from a disproportionate abundance of leaves. Anyhow, that's the woodpile I'm working on first this fall, but before I go much further, it's time to turn the compost. The pile has spread so that some of the logs I have to split are buried beneath the partially decomposed leaves, hay, plant material and who knows what else. Excavating the logs is messy, but they and the migrating pile have assumed space between a couple of trees where I plan to stack the split wood pile. Christian will help, although, at 15, there are many competing and more alluring claims on his time. I hope he'll like the work, as I do, or maybe he'll just admire the neat stack he helped create.
I've already split most of the easy stuff in this first pile. These were the logs eight to ten inches in diameter, which are stove-ready when split in half. But among the logs half buried in compost are some giants, just 18 inches or so long but maybe 12 to 18 inches in diameter. The splitter puts up a fuss over some of them, especially the white oak and the locust. I know it helps that they are dry, but some of these bruisers are dense as boulders. Last week the o-ring gasket seal at the top of the hydraulic oil filter on the splitter blew out, drenching me as it did and halting work for a day or two. Christian and I will have to split these big boys the old fashioned way with a maul and wedges, then quarter them with the splitter. It's something I've done before, but not efficiently. Not like Gary Stead. In the early 1980s, Gary split wood for David Douglas at Rainbow Farm in West Tisbury. It was a side business for the farm. Gary felled the trees, cut them to cordwood length, split them by hand with an axe, a maul, and steel wedges. Every day, blow by sinewy blow, the stacks of split wood grew longer, into half-cords, then cords, then cord after cord. Four feet by four feet by eight feet, we measured off a cord, used a loader to fill the dump truck and delivered it to customers. Gary, tall and lean, worked effortlessly, it seemed, and split the logs at a greater rate than any power splitter. By this time each year, he had lined up 10 or 20 precisely stacked, flat topped cords, works of art and industry.
When Christian and I are done we'll have more split wood than we need. Although we remember winter's snowstorms, the cold rain, and the harbor ice, we forget the warm days in January and February that presage spring, and they are common enough so that we rarely use all the wood we've split. We haven't had a fire yet, although this week I'll get the woodstove cleaned out and ready, just in case we need it this Thanksgiving week. But after all, as heartening as it is to imagine the hot stove heating the house when the power goes out in a January, 2006 northeaster, I think the greater satisfaction may be the sight of that long stack of cordwood snaking between the trees near the house, the product of Christian's and my labor.