Leaning on the handle of the maul, I eyeball the woodpile sitting in front of me. We are both morosely sandwiched somewhere between fall’s rowdy exuberance and spring’s gentle murmurings, and I’m deliberating the wood’s recent reappearance in my life. It had been hidden beneath a sizable pile of gray snow until a bout of warmer temperatures and rain exposed the upper half.
My winter-remaining-versus-wood-already-split calculations left a gap that would only be closed by an abnormal early spring or the addition of more wood under the deck. Not choosing to gamble on the former, I grabbed my maul and headed out back. Nobody likes a cold house in March.
It is a quintessential late New England winter afternoon. Sullen clouds sit above the trees, outlining the dark, leafless tree limbs below them. I stand at the bottom of a gravel driveway, now half-mud and half-ice, bound at the end by the dirty pile of snow with the last remaining row of unsplit wood poking out. It feels cold, but a half-hearted cold. The biting, challenging cold of January is nowhere to be seen. A sweatshirt is sufficient outerwear, though I decided against the kilt, primarily because of the depth of the snow I would have to clamber through to get to my wood.
Winter’s getting old, I think.
I heft the maul. So am I.
I grabbed my least favorite eight-pound maul. It’s just a touch too heavy to wield for the longer splitting session I had in mind for the afternoon and lacks the finesse of my six-pound maul. But the handle of the six-pounder has gotten a bit too dry this winter, and the head wobbles to the extent that I’m sure I’ll leave it buried deep in the maw of some slightly split piece of stringy wood, leaving me to flail about with wooden handle and frustration.
I wish I’d remembered to let the six-pounder soak in a bath of neat’s-foot oil overnight, but I hadn’t. That would have firmed the loose head right up. The eight-pounder, though, is equipped with a fiberglass handle that must be attached to the head with some sort of NASA space glue, because nothing I have ever done to it has even so much as loosened things. And I’ve managed to behead virtually every handled tool in existence, from a double-bit ax to a pick-mattock.
As it turned out, the bigger maul was the right call. At this point, I’m splitting wood a little past it’s prime. Not yet punky, but dried past the point where grain has much governance over the split. Frozen as it is, when hit by a blast from Big Boy the Maul, the wood explodes into two or even three parts, making me feel like a cross between Paul Bunyan and the Terminator. Pieces fly several feet before landing, and I secretly hope someone is watching my display of lumber prowess.
Nobody is, though, except for the puppy, who comes out to visit and request a piece of split wood to chew on, and the birds hiding in the bushes, having their presupper conversations at an exuberant volume. It is that chatter as much as anything else that tells me that, although spring may not yet be here, winter’s strength is waning and his power fading. A month ago, the birds were largely silent, conserving every ounce of energy for the enormous task of keeping warm and staying alive. I’m not anxious to see old winter go like most New Englanders. For those of us outside the cities, winter brings his own pleasures along with his trials. Few memories are as strong for me as drinking my morning coffee next to a flaming woodstove, feeling its heat ripple past me to the rest of the house. Those silent moments are a treasure.
Without warning, the birds’ chatter silences as a cold north wind kicks up. Winter’s assertion that maybe he’s not as old as I think he is. Well, neither am I, for that matter. I ignore the sudden temperature drop, splitting a few more logs to reach my goal of bringing the woodpile even with the top of the snow. That’ll teach winter who’s the boss.
After splitting, I ferry a dozen or so wheelbarrows of split wood and stack it under the porch, where I hope it will dry out enough to be useful for me by the time I need it. I lean the wheelbarrow against the wood and go back to retrieve the maul. Picking it up, I feel the muscles in my back. They aren’t sore, and they probably won’t be, but they’ve been used enough to feel wanted and loved.
I look one last time to the low clouds of a stale winter sky. They still aren’t talking.
I turn to go inside. It’s been a good afternoon with Old Man Winter.