May 25

Splitting Wood

May 25, 2011

Personal Growth

For the past several days I've been cutting, gathering, loading, and splitting wood—activities I have always enjoyed. A great deal of work is required to transform a fallen tree into smaller pieces that can be used in the fireplace, and as I split these logs, it occurred to me how much this effort resembles the work we must do to improve the raw materials of our lives.

One log I worked with was about 170 years old at the time it was knocked over by a tornado. It was more than ten feet in circumference, 30 inches long, and weighed nearly 1600 pounds. In the old days I used to manhandle these enormous pieces down to the woodshed, where I positioned them—actually manually lifting the smaller pieces—for future use. But I am no longer a young man, so now I have to split the logs into pieces small enough that I can lift them onto the stacks where they will dry.

Freshly cut wood is called green, while wood that has dried for a year or more is called cured. Green wood is much more difficult to split than cured, but I had to split these logs while they were green, because otherwise I simply could not have lifted them onto the stacks for drying.

The wood fibers in a log—especially the oak with which I was working—are woven tightly together and are quite resistant to separation. Oak is prized for this strength and is therefore used for doors, tables, and more. When I hit the end of the log with an eight-pound maul as hard as I could swing it, the maul just bounced off the surface of the wood, with little discernible effect on the wood. If I continued to hit the log hard enough, I could eventually create a tiny surface crack.

One of the reasons that splitting a large log is exhausting is that half-measures usually yield no results whatever. If I'm tired and hit the log ten times with half my strength, the effect is not the same as hitting the log five times with a full effort. Half-measures don't yield half a result. They yield nothing at all. So splitting big pieces requires all the energy you have with each blow. Similarly, changing our souls to become more productive and happy requires a full effort. Half-measures usually produce no results whatever.

Even with maximal effort, however, a maul is usually insufficient to split a large piece of oak. At best, one creates a tiny surface crack, maybe a quarter inch in depth—insignificant considering the thirty inches of tightly bonded wood fibers below it. Into these tiny cracks I put a splitting wedge, which is a tapered piece of iron resembling a thin piece of pie. The purpose of the wedge is to translate the vertical force of the driving sledge hammer into a horizontal force that pushes the two pieces of the wood apart, thereby splitting the log.

In these large pieces, however, even a hard blow failed to drive the wedge further into the wood. Instead, the wedge bounced violently out of the crack, sometimes at considerable speed and in unpredictable directions—which can be quite dangerous for anyone watching the process. Continued hitting of the wood with the maul and with wedges and sledges can become utterly exhausting, but if you want results, you cannot quit. If you stop, you're left with a log far too big to move, to lift, or to burn.

In life, we have to refine who we are. If we tire and quit, we become useless to ourselves and others. If we give it half an effort, we get no results. Moreover, in the same way that a big log doesn't pick on me and make splitting difficult, life's difficulties are not personally directed at me. They simply ARE, and if I don't put a full effort into becoming a better person, my growth and happiness will come to an end.

I discovered that making the initial penetration of the wedge into the green wood was sometimes quite impossible with one wedge. But if I placed two wedges close to each other—in a line following a tiny surface crack—each blow of the sledge on one wedge created just enough of a crack that penetration of the adjacent wedge became easier. If I hit the wedges alternately, I could open a crack far larger and far more easily than if I used just one wedge. In a similar way, it is often true that we can't solve a problem or address a flaw by ourselves. We need help from another person to help us open up the crack and split the log. And it's more fun to have a companion in this rewarding work.

Sometimes when I was splitting I encountered a place where a branch had grown from the trunk of the tree, resulting in a complex and very strong interweaving of the wood fibers. This is called a knot, and today I buried all seven of my wedges in a log with such a knot, unable to split the log. I chopped with the maul and an ax. I tried to separate the pieces with a large pry bar. Finally, the log split apart, but it had been quite an effort.

In life we also come across these knots, created by events or distorted perspectives that scar our souls and defy healing. But quitting is not an option, whether we're splitting wood or working on the flaws and problems that destroy our productivity and happiness.

After days of back-breaking labor, I finally succeeded in splitting all those logs and in filling the wood shed designed to hold them. Similarly, if we want our lives to be useful and happy, we must be willing to devote ourselves without reservation to addressing our flaws, attacking the problems, and using whatever tools are available to get the job done. If we quit, our lives become a miserable waste. If we persist, we create a level of power and happiness that we can scarcely imagine.

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