Ralph Gardner Jr: Family Splitting

Nov 11, 2017

You might ask yourself, as I did, where’s the silver lining to having a two-hundred year old oak tree come crashing down on your pool house? Besides, luckily, being covered by insurance?

Or a huge limb from perhaps the oldest tree on the property call it quits across your front lawn?

The silver lining is that you have enough firewood to get you through this winter and perhaps a few more.

The issue has also become more compelling since we installed a wood-burning stove last winter, doubling the amount of wood we burn.

But how do you reduce all that fiber to manageable logs that fit neatly in your fireplace or wood-burning stove?

Because I’m about as talented with a chainsaw as I am at astrophysics or landscape painting. Which is to say, not at all.

I happen to own a chainsaw and have successfully severed limbs, fortunately none of them my own. But fear of doing so makes me think twice about attacking anything larger than a fat twig.

Certainly, I’m not going to take on the trunk of a tree whose rings date back to James Madison’s presidency.

So we hired a professional arborist to cut the trees in question to logs small enough that two grown men might lift them at only modest risk to their health.

But where do you go from there?

The answer is a log splitter. That’s how I spent most of last Saturday afternoon. Joined by my wife, Deborah, daughter Lucy and Lucy’s boyfriend Malcolm.

The device was delivered in the morning. And after much pulling of its starter cord and jimmying the throttle we managed to get it going.

The way it works is that you insert a piece of wood into the device’s cradle, pull a lever, and watch as the eight-inch wedge, exerting 28 tons of commercial grade pressure, cuts the log in two.

Repeat until the piece is the size you desire.

We developed quite the nifty assembly line where Malcolm, being a robust youth, at least compared to me, lifted and placed the wood – sitting in a pile and seasoning since last May -- in the cradle while I did the hard, precision labor of working the controls.

Debbie and Lucy then piled the wood into the back of our SUV and drove it the hundred or so feet to our woodshed, where they stacked it.

Debbie has developed something of a passion for splitting wood with an ax. As a matter of fact, the book currently topping the best-seller lists in our household was given to her by Malcolm as an extremely thoughtful birthday present a few weeks ago. It’s title? “Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.”

I haven’t cracked the spine yet. But I hear it’s riveting.

I’ve managed to sidestep any ax wielding chores because I tend to stay as far away from sharp objects as possible. And also because I had shoulder surgery a couple of years ago and, having done the math, decided to leave well enough alone.

But there’s something to be said for machinery. And there was no small satisfaction admiring the log splitter as it did its thing.

The employee of the local rental place who delivered the equipment warned against inserting your hand while it was operating. I could have guessed that, even though I’m an unschooled city kid.

And it seemed a lot safer than a chainsaw. After all, there’s a movie franchise devoted to all the ghastly ways you can harm yourself, or somebody else, using that piece of cutlery. The only limit is your own imagination.

If there was any risk involved, it arrived when we moved the log splitter, which conveniently comes with wheels, from one wood pile to the next. We had to pull it across the lawn and then down a hill because our car isn’t equipped with a trailer hitch.

It might have gone careening into the woods.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Obviously, there’s a certain amount of heartbreak involved with losing heirloom trees. The oak that came down, perhaps a hundred feet tall, did so unexpectedly after a week of rain two summers ago. And when it did it revealed that it was rotten, quite literally to the core. But it would have been impossible to know that just looking at the tree.

The huge branch that fell across the lawn in front of the house belonged to an ancient maple – a tree that loomed just as large in photos we have of the house from the 1920’s.

It makes sense that there will be more such incidents in the future. And not just because our trees are reaching old age. With global warming well upon us, it seems to rain harder than it has in memory. And we can apparently also expect weather extremes of all sorts, including droughts. All of that will probably destabilize the landscape.

But there is some solace to be taken. You can turn that damage into firewood and know that your trees didn’t decay and die in vain. Their time had probably come. They lived longer than you or I ever will. And now they’re available to provide warmth on cold winter nights.

It’s a rather lovely form of recycling.

And I think we’re on something of a roll, even though we rented the log splitter for only forty-eight hours.

There’s so much other neat stuff available, according to the rental company’s flier: blowers and brooms. Brush cutters and stump grinders. Tillers, trenchers and sod cutters.

Our pioneer forebears -- at least somebody’s pioneer forebears – would have been impressed.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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