Frost Valley was named for a reason and a requirement for the private estate where I found myself being a handy man was two well-stocked woodpiles, one for the main house and one for the caretaker’s place. The caretaker, Stan, had been on the estate long enough to keep an eye out for promising firewood trees.
Once the early rush to keep grass mown and weeds out of the garden began to settle down, the earth in the forests had firmed up enough to get the 4X4 GMC Scout into the woods with a trailer. So we found ourselves tossing a chain saw and pry bars onto the trailer and setting out into the woods on barely noticeable ruts being overlapped with the branches of hardwood forest.
I figured we’d be searching for dying trees or gnarly old snags that would beautify the forest if removed, but Stan quickly set me straight. Perhaps such harvesting would beautify the forest, he agreed, but his job was to cut and split wood. And splitting gnarly snags and dying, unpredictable wood was a pain in the keester. Nope. He had his eye on the healthiest, straightest, most handsome trees in the forest—two or three he’d been eyeing for several years.
And handsome they were. Perhaps Elms? No matter. They stood straight and strong, with no branches for a long way up the trunk. I ended up appreciating that last detail.
It seemed a shame to me, chopping down such beautiful trees, but down they came.
In a surprisingly short time the first load was cut into foot-long sections, just right for the estate’s stoves, and loaded on the trailer. We hauled them to the shed area of the estate’s main compound, dumped them on the ground, and went back for more.
It would have taken less time if the final load had come out as easily as the rest of them. As Stan parked the Scout in the best place to pick up the last load he expressed concern for what looked like a soft spot in front of the Scout. But after testing the spot with his toe he figured it would be “OK.” Once the wood was loaded and the tools were in the back of the Scout it took only twenty feet for the weight of the load to turn “OK” to “creamy mud.”
Getting out to lock the front hubs of the Scout left us squishing in our socks. The granny gear and the four wheel drive just meant four wheels were digging in rather than two.
We cut our losses and walked back to the compound to get the tractor.
Next came the splitting—whether the logs we had just harvested or the dried harvest from the year before I don’t remember.
I do remember being taught how to split wood. First, to take the time to simply look at the cut end of each piece. Find the places it wants to be split. They are easy to find once you look for them—little cracks, usually around the edge, where the wood is already splitting. Then get the heavy maul high overhead and put most your effort into getting the sharp edge as close as you can to the little crack you’ve chosen. Yea, there is some effort put into the power to drive the maul through, but mostly gravity and the heavy steel will provide the oomph. Getting it where it will do the most good is what pops that wood open and sends two pieces clattering across the ground.
There is, of course, one other secret to splitting wood, and it is the secret that will keep you from having to twist and pull your maul out of a piece of wood that didn’t split. While reading the wood check the sides of the log for knots, the places where branches once were. You can split wood with the knot coming out the left or right side of your split, but no matter where the little cracks are running, if you try to drive your maul through a knot you will be putting more work into extracting the steel than it takes to split a dozen logs that pop right apart.
Trust me, I soon came to appreciate Stan’s insistence on trees that were straight and true and who’s branches (meaning strong knots) began way up the tree.
I was not a very strong guy, but I am six foot four, so by the time that maul smacked into those hardwood logs there was plenty of travel in that steel. I got to where I could split wood with the best of them and was surprised at how quickly those trees were turned into cords of split wood.
I can’t say as I’d want to make a living at it, but to this day I enjoy splitting wood. There is something very satisfying when the halves go flying several feet in two directions, as if the wood is glad to be liberated from itself.