The ice storms last winter left behind considerable dendro-damage. Large pine limbs covered the front yard, and two fence-post diameter cedar trees had cracked under the weight of early December ice and snow.
A few days after the ice melted, I was headed to the shed for gas can and chainsaw. As luck would have it, the can was empty and saw blade dull. Dropping the gas can into my truck bed, I climbed into the cab, and that’s when the hatchet caught my eye.
The hatchet has been riding inert in my truck – kind of like I ride in my truck — since this past summer. I’m not even sure where it came from, but the ancient shape set wheels to spinning. I had an idea that would save a little gas money.
The pine tree limbs were chopped into manageable pieces and one cedar tree completely limbed before taking a break. I was tired. A chainsaw will wear you out, but it’s nothing compared to the hatchet at full throttle. It’s a good tired, though. Muscles and tendons that don’t normally don’t see much action were stretched and abused. Forty-four degrees outside and I had broken a good sweat. My lungs were aching. Great cardio workout, but I was going to burn out quickly at this pace.
Pace… Something about that word gave me pause as it flashed through my brain. Maybe I needed to rethink pace.
Prehistoric technology is rarely compatible with twentieth century work creeds. The “time is money” mantra just doesn’t translate very well to ancient tools. The hatchet, like the longbow and the garden hoe, calls for a more deliberate pace. Nothing wrong with working hard, but whacking away until you’re exhausted and lathered up like a racehorse is not the most efficient way to use a hatchet.
So I slowed the pace.
Rhythm soon developed. A staccato “thak, thak, thak” brought to conclusion with a light metallic “shring” as tree limb separated from trunk. Fresh cedar fragrance sprang from the doomed tree with each stroke. Romanticizing a task that is in fact hard manual labor says a lot about my level of privilege. If the hatchet was my only option every time I’d probably hate it. But if I had to pick one word to describe the work that day it would be agreeable. Yep, it was a product of my position, my freedom to choose, but on that cool winter day the combination of work, smell and sound was very agreeable with my disposition. I even chopped the cedar trunks down to lengths easily carried to the kindling pile. Everything about the experience was satisfying and — here’s that word again — agreeable.
It was only one afternoon doing marginally important work — hardly a baseline for philosophical change about collecting firewood and cleaning the yard. This change is, however, something I want to explore for lots of reasons. I’m not saying the chainsaw won’t see action this winter, but an old crosscut saw with a busted handle found its way to me this weekend. I’ve ordered a file to sharpen the blade, and I’ve got my eye on a double bit axe, too.
Will the “time is money” doctrine interfere with this new interest? Maybe. It seems that I’m looking for ways to slow my pace in a world obsessed with speeding it up. Can I find compromise between these conflicting attitudes? My definition of time well spent will be the deciding factor. Is an afternoon in blessed winter silence, turning my body and soul back to the old ways with their abstract value worth more than time saved by a growling chainsaw and gasoline fumes? And what am I saving time for? Sitting in front of the television? More work for the sake of work? These are the questions I’m asking as my firewood pile dwindles, and a cold north wind filters through the Ozarks bringing winter to the River Valley.