Who was it that first dreamt of accomplishing hard, physical work with magic? What part of their body spoke loudly in the universal language of pain? There must have been rocks to move, earth to relocate, or wood to make smaller. The tools were iron and stone, the fuel was muscle and bone. But somewhere that first person drifted away toward a fantasy that would lift humans into the house of gods, and that fantasy was no more complex than a tiny lever married to a hydraulic hose. Wiggle that lever with the slightest effort from your opposable thumb, and you become the deity of your dreams.
Oh how I can relate to that sore shouldered soul from across the ages, wondering how to keep driving forward with a body that wants to park. It turns out they still make rotator cuffs like they used to. Tendons still tear. Muscle and bone still have the final say in the human body, closing up shop when they’re ready to quit. Our mind is quite certain we own that shop, and we want it to stay open another few hours, another few years.
I loved splitting wood as a teenager. There was something so immediately gratifying with iron hitting wood, to a teenager looking for context and meaning in an oil-embargoed world. I never dreamt of a woodsplitter; there was no pain, only devotion to the omnipotence of youth. I guess the most sanctified object in my life was a splitting maul.
Independence, thrift, and physical fitness all wrapped up in that hickory handle with an iron head. So the cords kept piling up over the years, from little cabins in the woods to finally this hardscrabble farm surrounded by forest.
There is less dogma in my maul these days. Splitting wood, not atoms, isn’t going to save the world. I split wood because it is here. I am a frugal New Englander with an addiction for cast-iron warmth on a cold winter day. I split wood to spend time with my son, both of us swinging mauls and quietly conversing on a summer evening. There is a hint of competition in the air, his young body now stronger than mine. And I split wood because I can’t quite imagine life without homemade wood-fired pizza from our 1920s Queen Atlantic cookstove.
Years ago as an apprentice carpenter, I realized I gravitated to hand tools. I loved their craftsmanship and simplicity, and their singular mission to precisely perform one task. That is not to say I do not own power tools. I do, many of them. But I always felt it was wise to learn a task with a hand tool first, to know how to do something slowly and well, before adding the risk and magic of speed.
These days I am surrounded by that magic. The miracle of hydraulics will smooth your dirt road, land a jet plane, or stop your car on a dime. It will also offer you 27 tons of force in your own backyard to split even the most gnarled, tenacious piece of wood that used to make us cry.
I have yet to invite that 27 tons of magic into my backyard, at least on a permanent basis. We have had several get togethers, though, thanks to a friend, just to see how we like each other. Clearly it was not love at first sight. The hydraulic beast is loud and talks too much, fouling the evening air. My mind says no, but my shoulder channels a bit of ancient advice and poses the rhetorical question, “How long do you want this shop to stay open?”