Getting Good at Chopping Wood

I spent much of the past week sawing and splitting wood.  I visited the pile of tree trunks and limbs, earlier culled from the forest, in whatever free time I could muster, first hand-sawing the logs to appropriate fireplace length and then splitting them by hand until the woodpile stood some four feet high and ten feet wide.  I’m proud of the output.  So often, work that I do of an administrative or development sort is hard to measure on a daily or weekly basis.  But for this past week I had something very tangible, indeed, to show for my efforts.

Unfortunately, “effort” is absolutely the right word to use.  Many years have passed since I last wielded an axe and I’m afraid that whatever woodcutting techniques or prowess I may have once had were long gone as I began.  So I started the week with little more than a desire to produce fireplace logs. I did not recall the proper selection and use of handsaws. I had no one to remind me about the physics of swinging an axe.  I was completely unfamiliar with the different densities and other properties of the varieties of wood encountered.  I had no previous experience with jigs and fixtures to aid in holding and positioning the logs.  Despite my great enthusiasm, I began the week grossly uneducated about the task at hand and too inexperienced to realistically expect much of a positive result.  After a couple of very sweaty but low-yield days, I realized that strength and determination would have little to do with my success with the woodpile.  I had to learn.

As it turns out, I found a short article that talked about, of all things, the use of timber saws!  I absorbed everything it had to say, and it fueled an appetite for more.  I searched the Internet for topics like hand saws and wood splitting, body mechanics, tools to complement a wood axe, how to stabilize logs for splitting, and more.  I watched and listened to videos featuring experts with decades of experiences.  I soaked it up and found myself practicing such techniques almost immediately.  And within a few days, my output had improved to the point where my problem became wood storage instead of production.  As basic as the process of wood cutting and splitting may be, there is some sort of primal satisfaction in really learning about and then manually building a woodpile, in efficiently cutting a beautiful length of birch log without the din of a chainsaw, and in splitting a stout section of hardwood with a single blow from the axe. You can read electric chainsaw reviews until you are blue in the face, go out there with your beast machinery and do a lot of work but you will not get the primal satisfaction that manual wood chopping will release in you.

Having thus rekindled my enjoyment of this ancient rite, I thought about the process involved in getting good at almost anything.  It requires opportunity, learning, practice and the desire to excel.  Without all four elements, success is unlikely or at least greatly restricted.  While there are undoubtedly prodigies and savants who are gifted with abilities that are inexplicable, most of us reach a stage of competence and then success through assimilation of knowledge, however it might be acquired.  There are other ways for me to feed a fireplace: I can pay someone to deliver firewood to my home, I can use a chainsaw and an automated wood splitter, I can hire people to cut timber-living or dead- on my property as necessary, or I could even elect to use boxed logs purchased in a grocery store.  But to supply my needs by myself, I need to know how it can best be done.  Whether in person or from a book or online, the teaching and the learning is the key.

The formula is really no different anywhere in the world.  The rural peasants in Nicaragua understand a great deal about the crops they raise, the techniques that are particular to their lands and geography.  They often possess that deeply-held dedication to persevere in the face of long odds.  But if they are to succeed with consistency, they require all of the same elements for achievement that I needed for chopping wood: opportunity, learning, practice and the desire to excel.  What about understanding the markets?  How about comparing experiences with producers in other communities?  Might there be value in understanding the entire value chain in their endeavors?  Education at whatever level encountered drives the human spirit and imagination, it fuels the hunger to create everything from woodpiles to crops to healthy communities.  It is the ignition for quality of life that is universal in its attraction.

We have the capacity to both teach and to learn, if we will.   When we do, we develop dimensions to our lives and our world that we might never have previously dreamed.  Not unlike starting with a few logs and ending up with a season’s worth of wood for staying warm….

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