For many years I lived with my family in a house we built, far out in the country at the end of a dead-end gravel road, surrounded by the Appalachian forest. We scratched out a garden on that red clay ridge top, tapped maple trees to make syrup in the late winter, and raised chickens who mostly found ways to escape their enclosure and ended up roosting in the trees.
To live in the country, and to try and do for yourself, is to be a user of tools. You could be a lover or a hater of them, could use them well or poorly; that all depends. Log Chain, Mattock, Shovel, Hoe, Pitchfork, Post Hole Digger, Maul…My maul, an eight-pounder with a red fiberglass handle, was one of my favorite and most well-used tools.
The gathering of firewood to heat the house was an important task, one of many that marked the passage of the seasons. It was a simple ritual, but one rich with meaning and memories passed on from my father. How to select a weak or dying tree if not enough wood was available from trees blown down by storms or felled to make space for gardens. How to keep the saw sharp and not get it pinched or stuck in the wood. The high whine of the chainsaw, the bucking up into stove length rounds. The stacking in the woodshed to dry.
Finally, when cold weather came, it was time to get out the maul, a creature somewhere between an axe and a sledgehammer, whose purpose is to split the firewood rounds into smaller pieces, easier to fit in the stove, and easier to catch fire. All tools have purpose, but some are simpler than others. The maul is just a pair of inclined planes riding on an arm length handle.
A good woodsplitter knows which woods will be easy to split: tulip, maple, red oak, and which may present a tougher grain, not so yielding: hickory, elm…For the latter, it is sometimes necessary to involve a further set of inclined planes in the form of metal splitting wedges, to be driven by the blunt end of the maul down into the flesh of the wood until it yields and splits apart.
Most pleasing of all is the rhythmic ballet of a good splitting session. Begin with feet together and the maul handle grasped in both hands. Next, a step backwards with one foot and letting the head of the maul swing backward, then on and up, inscribing an arc. A moment of pause at the top of the arc, hands shifted to the end of the handle, and then the downward stroke begins; let gravity do the work, and only guide the maul where you want it to go.
If the wood is yielding and straight grained, and the blow of the maul is true, the log will split at the first strike, with a satisfying tearing sound.
Repeat and repeat and repeat, until your heart rate is up, body warm against the winter chill, and the wooden cylinders have all been reduced to angles and geometry, ready to be loaded into the stove, combusted and consumed, and turned into ashes.
After a huge old oak was taken down at our family farm two counties over, we worked at it as a family in various configurations over a period of months; Grandpa, us children, and a grandkid or two to boot, even an aunt and uncle…Sometimes only a brother or two, and sometimes Grandpa, all on his lonesome.
Sometimes we worked with chainsaws, sometimes with the loud and smelly diesel tractor-powered log splitter that can force through even the biggest, gnarliest pieces, pieces almost too heavy for two people working together to move…splitting them no matter how loudly they shriek and moan in complaint.
But sometimes it’s just one person, with a maul, a sledge, and a couple splitting wedges.
We are nearing the end of the unsplit wood, the only ones left…too big and gnarly to even move to the machine, or perhaps just left to serve therapeutic purposes! Want to feel instant gratification? Split a piece of white oak perhaps twelve inches in diameter with no burls or branches, just straight grained trunk or limb, and enjoy the sight and sound as the maul hits true at its center and it pops and yields, falling in two symmetrical halves.
Want to vent your frustration or hone your patience, or take on the wood equivalent of a brain teaser? Use these few hand tools to go after a large section of ancient oak with multiple branching, crazy whorls, and changes of grain going every which way but up. Laugh as the wedge you have carefully seated with a few blows suddenly bucks and jumps completely out of the log, seemingly in defiance of the laws of gravity. Marvel at the strength and tenacity of that crazed grain that resists to the last strands which you finally have to just chop through.
I left my maul with renters at our old house in the woods when we moved away to the city. We came back after they had moved out to find that they had broken the handle off…beheaded the maul. Too many careless swings, not enough attention to technique, stance, and distance had splintered the handle. My friend Jon, a wood and metal worker, ended up with the head, as we don’t have a wood stove in the city, and, so, less need for a maul.
I have found, though, that there is an abundance of wood in the city, since there are so many trees, some always dying or being taken down for some reason or other, and few people seem to want the wood. So, I take some… “For campfires,” I say…but now have no way to split it. I had borrowed Jon’s maul, which is not a bad one, but after all is not mine, and must be shortly given back.
A couple weeks ago, though, Jon rehandled my maul. And not just some handle bought from Lowes. A handsome hickory handle bought at an antique store, which must indeed have its own story. It is smooth and rich and brown and fragrant with linseed oil, a tool now restored to usefulness. What a pleasure it is to hold in my hands, to feel its weight and balance. How often these days are such broken tools restored and not just cast aside and forgotten? I am grateful for that. Grateful for this maul which is metal and wood joined together for the purpose of splitting wood asunder.
James Cochran is a proudly Appalachian writer, transplanted from the soil of Southeastern Ohio to the hilly streets of Charleston, West Virginia. He embraces the practice of mindfulness through writing, and writing through mindfulness, and enjoys listening to the neighbor’s wind chimes.