By Arthur Black
I come to sing the praises of a simple, even brutish habit of mine.
As a pastime it is physically exhausting, mind-numbingly repetitive, potentially limb-threatening and eco-ethically tainted if not downright impure.
It is chopping wood.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says: chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.
I once repeated that to an old Finlander I knew in Thunder Bay. He smiled and shook his head.
“Seven times” he said. “It heats you seven times.”
Once, he said, when you trekked out into the bush to find a likely tree; twice when you chopped it down. Three times when you trimmed the branches and bucked it up into rounds. Four times when you hauled it back to the house. Five times when you unloaded it in your yard. Six times when you split and stacked it. Seven times when you lugged an armful into the house, put it in the stove and lit the fire.
“Seven times” old Charlie Pelto nodded and winked at me. “Good deal.”
There are some simple truths you learn while chopping wood. Soft wood splits less cleanly than hard. Dull axes are dangerous. Don’t try to chop through a knot. Wear eye protection. Dry wood splits better than green.
Where I live there is a beautiful deciduous tree called the arbutus (madrona to Yanks).
When it’s dry it burns like a dream — hot and bright, with almost no ash residue. You don’t want to try and burn it when it’s green but that’s when you want to split it.
Green arbutus is a woodchopper’s wet dream. It flies apart at the bite of an axe — when it’s green. Swinging your axe at a piece of arbutus that’s dried out is like trying to chop a cement block crossed with a rubber traffic pylon.
Eco-purists look askance at the practice of burning wood for warmth — and by extension, at the act of chopping wood to do it.
They have a point. Wood smoke undeniably pollutes the air and falling ash besmirches the landscape.
So sue me. I am in love with the smell of wood smoke and I can think of few more cheery, life-affirming sights than a curlicue of grey smoke undulating up from a house chimney against a backdrop of Canadian winter sky.
I haven’t even mentioned that ultimate woodchopper’s payoff — the rosy, drowsy-making glow of a roaring, well-laid fire. That’s a pleasure you’ll have difficulty extracting from your electric baseboard heater — or your solar panel, come to that.
A good fire is close to good sex. A fellow by the name of Charles Dudley Warner once said “To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything in the world.”
Mister Warner was right — but first you have to get the wood into the fireplace.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a cord of green arbutus in my front yard that’s crying for attention. As the Inuit say: “Yesterday is ashes, tomorrow is wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly.”
But only after you chop the wood.
– Arthur Black lives on Saltspring Island. His column appears Tuesday in the Parksville Qualicum Beach News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.