This afternoon, in the interstice between yesterday’s grand journey and tomorrow’s return to the mundane, I spent a few hours splitting the remains of our woodpile. Cleanup from the recent blizzard had covered most of it, until the warmer temperatures and rain exposed the upper half once again. I decided to take the moment to split and stack what I could yet reach, as my remaining-winter versus split-wood calculations were leaving a gap which would only be closed by a truly abnormally early spring or the addition of more wood under the deck. Not choosing to gamble on the former, I grabbed my maul and headed out back.
It was the quintessential late New England winter afternoon. Sullen clouds sat above the trees, outlining the dark, leafless tree limbs below them. I stood at the bottom of a gravel driveway, now half mud and half ice, bounded at the end by a dirty pile of snow with my last remaining row of unsplit wood poking out. It was cold, but a half-hearted cold. The biting, challenging cold of January was nowhere to be seen. A sweatshirt was sufficient outerwear, though I decided against the kilt, primarily because of the depth of the snow I would have to clamber through to get to my wood.
“Winter’s getting old,” I thought.
I hefted the maul. “So am I.”
I had grabbed my 8-pound maul. It’s not really my favorite maul. It’s just a touch too heavy to wield for the longer splitting session I had in mind for the afternoon, and lacks the finesse of my 6-pound maul. But the handle of the six-pounder has gotten a bit too dry this winter, and the head wobbles to the extent that I’m sure I’ll leave it deeply buried in the maw of some slightly-split piece of stringy wood, leaving me to flail about with wooden handle and frustration.
I wish I had remembered to let it soak in a bath of neatsfoot oil overnight, but I hadn’t. The eight-pounder, though, is equipped with a fiberglass handle which must be attached to the head with some sort of NASA space glue, because nothing I have ever done to it has ever so much as loosened it. And I’ve managed to behead virtually every handled tool in existence, from a double-bit axe to a pick mattock.
As it turned out, the bigger maul was the right call. At this point, I’m splitting wood a little past it’s prime. Not yet punky, but dried past the point where grain has much governance over the split. Frozen as it is, when hit from a blast from Big Boy The Maul, the wood explodes apart, making me feel like a cross between Paul Bunyan and the Terminator. Pieces fly for 3 feet before landing, and I secretly hope someone is watching my display of lumber prowess.
Nobody is, though, except for the puppy who comes out to visit and request a piece of freshly-split wood to chew on, and the birds hiding in the bushes, having their pre-supper conversations at an unusually exuberant volume. It is that chatter, as much as anything else, that tells me that, although spring may not yet be here, winter’s strength is waning and his power fading. A month ago, they were largely silent, conserving every ounce of energy for the enormous task of keeping warm and staying alive. I’m not that anxious to see old winter go; like most New Englanders, at least those of us outside the cities, winter brings his own pleasures along with his trials. Few memories are so strong for me as that of drinking my morning coffee next to a flaming wood stove, feeling its heat ripple past me into the rest of the house. Those silent moments are a treasure.
Without warning, the birds’ chatter silences, as a cold north wind kicks up. Winter’s assertion that he’s maybe not so old. Well, neither am I, for that matter, and I ignore the sudden temperature drop, splitting a few more logs to reach my goal, which is to bring the woodpile even with the top of the snow. Just to teach him who’s boss.
After splitting, I carry a dozen or so wheelbarrows of split wood and stack it under the porch, where I hope it will dry out enough to be useful for me by the time I need it.
I lean the wheelbarrow against the wood, and then go back out to retrieve the maul. Picking it up, I feel the muscles in my back. They aren’t sore, and they probably won’t be, but they’ve been used just enough to feel wanted and loved.
I look one last time to the low clouds of a stale winter sky. They still aren’t talking.
I turn to go inside. It’s been a good afternoon.