By John Cuddeback | How then might I think about splitting wood by hand? The main thought that kept coming to mind is simply how much I enjoy it. There is a unique satisfaction in a well-placed strike that sunders a round of wood. Hand-splitting is a full-body experience, engaging countless muscles and all five senses except taste (actually, sometimes even taste). The rhythmic smack is followed by a pungent scent determined by species and age of the wood. A few rounds slowly grow into a pile of triangular pieces that stands as a solid monument to the work you have just done. You cannot help but look upon that pile, and then look back again, having a feeling of personal accomplishment. “That pile will keep my family warm for … days.” Refreshed, exercised, and satisfied, you turn to whatever else the day holds in store. And this is to say nothing of the conversations had, and bonds formed, with fellow splitters.
So I ask myself: Should I really give this up? Am I being silly by continuing to do that which a machine, or purchased wood, could easily replace? I think I have at last come to my final answer: no. This is not silly; it is good. Work, especially manual labor (manual of course originally means by hand), has an importance in itself. Our society seems to have accepted with little or no consideration the premise that manual labor should be avoided if possible. I suggest that manual labor, as a particularly human form of work, has a special and enduring value in human life. This is especially evidenced in its power to unite the one working with other persons, places, and things.
When Hesiod wrote, “The gods have decreed work for men!” he does not refer to a cruel twist of fate. Certain kinds of work are in fact a blessing, a way not only of producing goods, but of enacting fundamental connections. Given the importance and value of splitting wood in my household, I have realized that to replace those many hours with an hour or two of running a machine, or with purchased wood, would be a net loss, a sign that something has gone wrong. The machine is certainly not evil. And I can picture a scenario—for instance injury or sickness—in which I would turn to it. Nor am I arguing that splitting wood by hand is for all households. But I do assert that to replace a profoundly human form of work simply because one could come out monetarily ahead, or even save time, is not in itself good. To do so might well be an instance of putting things above persons.
My son Nicholas is now in his early teens. He can swing a pretty mean axe, piling up the wood with steady progress. I remember well when multiple strikes of his little axe were as so many raindrops on a window. As years passed by we kept setting up a chopping station for him at a safe distance from mine. Little talk, much swinging, even if not much splitting. Then the tell-tale sound—a sort of hollow echo—of a strike that has hit home. This followed by the ripping sound of a strike that has broken through. I will never forget his looking over to see if I had heard that magical sound. Of course I had. I would not take that away from him. I would not take it away from us.