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Lange: Splitting Wood

09/27/11 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST) As the days get shorter, commentator Willem Lange is contemplating what it takes for the woodpile to get higher.

(LANGE)  I used to caution my carpenters, whenever we had a job requiring demolition, that it should not be not a demonstration of machismo, but of brains.  "Go at it as if you were seventy years old," I advised.  Now that I've a while ago passed that milestone, I find it easier than ever to take my own advice - especially in splitting wood.  No more heaving hardwood bolts from place to place; no more monster maul; no more running with the wheelbarrow; just a slow, purposeful procession from one task to another.  I'm accompanied by the tools that over decades have become a part of me: an ancient chain saw that still amazes me, a platform peavey to keep the saw chain out of the dirt, a light axe for trimming branches, and a Swedish splitting maul I wish I'd discovered years earlier.  And a bottle of ibuprofen.

There's a lot to recommend wood-splitting by the elderly.  Loosed from the fantasy of superhumanity, we can ruminate while we work.  I'm much more careful with tools than I once was.  When a block of soft maple presents a dime-sized target of heartwood, I aim dead at it; no knots can run through it, and it'll split clean with a single blow.  I sometimes recite Robert Frost's "Two Tramps in Mud Time."  Frost split blocks of oak, he says.  He changed it from an earlier manuscript in which he split beech.  Doesn't matter; either one is a joy to work with, but oak is heavier to handle.  I keep the splits well back from my chopping block, lest I stumble over one and go crashing down.  I throw the best-looking ones onto a separate pile.  They go into the wood rack on the back porch, so visitors can admire them; the regulars go into the cellar next to the furnace.

What a difference from the days when I used a hydraulic splitter - bent for hours over the roaring engine, running chunks through as fast as possible, closed off from everything by ear plugs.  Now, even though I'm still looking down, I see a lot more.

An earwig runs across the floor of the wheelbarrow.  I've read that adult earwigs dutifully tend their children, so I wait for it to get clear before loading wood.  A length of popple about to get sawn into sixteen-inch chunks shows a small hole in the bark where a large black wasp appears to have a nest.  I set it aside.  Old age seems to have increased my regard for the little creatures beneath my feet.  I help a daddy longlegs out of the line of fire.  A chunk of dried mud moves slightly, right where I'm about to toss a piece of fancy-grade maple for the porch - a small toad.  I carry him to a safe spot.  In splitting wood, as in other professions, it's important to do no harm.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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