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Where the axe may fall

By Dr Pat Harrold - 08th Jan 2023

chop wood

Chopping wood comes with a bittersweet feeling, but it is one I am ultimately grateful for

I chop wood in the winter, and I am surprisingly good at it.

Some skills never desert you, I suppose, and I learned to do this when nobody worried about letting a child loose with her father’s axe, as long as he did not lose it.

There is great satisfaction to be had when you select your log, settle it on the block with the bit that is likely to split closest to you, draw the axe back over your shoulder, swing and hear the soft clop as the wood falls asunder. Sometimes the log does not oblige and a battle of craft and muscle begins as you whack away at weak spots, lifting the axe and the log on the end of it up, and bashing it down until it gives up, or you do. I imagine some get the same satisfaction out of hitting a bucket of balls down the driving range, but while their pile gets smaller, my pile of wood gets larger, and it burns better than golf balls.

I have a Stihl axe. I have a shed full of their equipment, from the lawnmower to the chainsaw. Stihl means quality, and those tools can be relied upon to see me out. They will be then passed on to my descendants, who were hoping for golf clubs.

Most men of my age love gadgets. This is especially true of doctors, who have more hi-tech toys than James Bond, at home and at work. That is why they take to golf, boats, bicycles, robotic surgery devices, and electric guitars.

They crave anything with a manual and a magazine devoted to it. I am not like that. I prefer simplicity and you don’t get much simpler than an axe.

So I love a cold, dry morning chopping wood, even if I am killing a thing I love.

Sometimes, when the log has been split, I lift the wood, the clean white surface exposed, and inhale deeply. The fresh pine scent is almost overwhelming and apparently very good for you. I feel a bit guilty about the last of its lifeforce.

They are Leyland cypresses, and I remember them being planted – scrawny, twiggy youngsters four feet high. I was only three feet high at the time and the trees were the same age as me.

Those trees grew up into a huge, dark, splintering tangle. They were not great for wildlife, as nothing grew beneath them, and they had become unmanageable. They lie about the garden now, mounds and banks of logs – great tons of carbon imperceptibly decaying. They provide homes for birds, insects, and hedgehogs, and I have planted honeysuckle and clematis over some. But, I also burn others, and this is on my conscience.

It could be worse. They have been cut by hand, even my chainsaw is electric. They are burned in a stove – half a bucket heats half the house for an evening. There are no transport costs, as they are burned yards away from where they grew. And they have been replaced by trees that are much better for wildlife, providing flowers, and nesting spots. The idea of a personal carbon footprint was invented by fossil fuel companies to divert us from looking at their wholesale environmental crimes. Now they have turned their propaganda to charming little greenwashing ads. However, if we don’t change then they won’t change. It is like voting. You do what you can for the greater good and hope everyone else does the same. Anyway, I don’t want chemicals or pollution in my garden, which to me is a sacred space, no matter what the wider world is at.

When the Leylandii I have chosen for logging run out, I have pollarded aspen, hazel, and willow coming along. You let the trunk put out shoots and when they are a nice size, you lop them off for firewood. They can live for hundreds of years like that. That is what time with trees does to you; you think in terms of decades and centuries. Which is all very well, but if I can swing an axe in seven or 14 years is debatable. After a morning of chopping I can feel twinges in the wrists and back that were not there a few years back. Those knotty Leylandii have had their day and I will have mine at some stage.

I chop wood as it has been done for thousands of years. Settle the log. Swing. Do it again. The wood is around me, and I am grateful.

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