Making Firewood
Annoying chore or golden opportunity?

by Galen Lehman, vice-President,

Last weekend my son and I made firewood. He's 10. Making firewood is not high on his list of cool things to do.

Having had 10 years of experience in motivating him, however, I had the upper hand. "I really need your help with this," I told him. Feeling mature and responsible like at least a 12-year-old, he pulled on a pair of shoes and joined me behind the shed.

But, getting him out there was only half the job. My next job was to get him to actually help me stack and split the cordwood I had already cut from the deadfalls in our fencerow. He eagerly pitched in on his first armload, but then took on a sudden and abiding interest in the neighbor's workhorses. After his second armload, he had an urgent need to throw darts at the cobweb-covered dartboard hanging on the shed wall.

My plan was for him to stack wood while I split it with our heavy-duty maul. I could get him to carry wood as long as I was carrying it. But when I picked up the maul and split the first round piece with a single whack, he stopped and stared in amazement.

"Wow, Dad," he said, "You're pretty strong!"

I figure he's almost a teenager. It could be a decade or two before I'm able to impress him like that again. So, I split a few more. Secretly, I know that it's really not my own strength, but a combination of the maul's extra heavy head and the fact that the wood has already been dead a year. Even with the best tools and shoulders of steel, almost no one can split green wood with a single swing. But, I'm not going to tell him that.

After I split about four or five pieces, I felt rising irritation with him. Why doesn't he start stacking it, I'm wondering. I wanted to get done before lunch.

"Hey Dad, can I try that?" he broke into my thoughts.

Now there's a way to get done fast, I think sarcastically. But, before I could turn him down I thought about how my Dad used to work with me. I'm sure at age 10 I was no more motivated than my own son is now. But, I don't ever remember Dad nagging at me to pick up the pace. Instead, I remember that Dad treated me like an equal, patiently waiting while I caught up with him.

So, I handed my son the maul and picked out a piece that looked like it would split easily (small, no knots, a little shorter than the rest). I set it on the ground with the small (bottom) end up because I know that wood comes apart easier when you split it the way it grows, from the bottom up.

He gritted his teeth and strained to lift the maul over his head. As I watched with mild amusement, his arms began to shake like an Olympic weight lifter doing the clean-and-jerk. With a mighty effort, he managed to hold it above his head in striking position. Then, in a clumsy half arc, he brought the head of the maul down on the piece of wood. He hit it dead-on, but without enough velocity to do any good. The maul bounced ineffectively to the side.

Good aim, I thought, despite myself. The maul I used growing up had a wood handle, not the reinforced steel handle of our heavy duty model. Ruefully, I remembered the two handles I broke before I perfected my aim.

So I set the piece of wood up again for him and let him have another go at it. While he worked, I started stacking again. After he took five or six swings, the piece of wood had started to look pretty hammered up but still showed no signs getting ready to split apart.

Having run out of wood that was small enough to stack, I took the maul from my son and split a half dozen more pieces into halves and thirds. I carefully avoided splitting the piece he was working on.

Then, with a little swagger that was a silent challenge, I handed him the maul again and started stacking wood. This cycle went on for over an hour. I would split enough for two or three armfuls, then give him the maul. He would take six or eight whacks at that same piece of wood while I stacked the rest. Then, we would trade places.

Before long both ends of the log he was working on were beaten and frayed like the end of a cut rope. The ground around the piece had deep cut marks from the point of the maul after it bounced off from several of his glancing blows.

As I put my last piece of wood on the stack, I heard the distinctive cracking a log makes as it starts to come apart. I turned around in surprise with that last piece still in my hand. He set up his log one more time and took a second swing. His aim was dead-on. The maul flew down through the log, sending the smaller split flying five feet to his left.

My son and I celebrated happily like the winning football team at the Rose Bowl. At that very moment, my wife rang the dinner bell and we headed in for lunch. That one piece he had worked on so hard didn't get stacked until after lunch. We didn't rake up the bark and wood chips until after lunch, either. So, I'd have to say we missed my goal of getting the job done before lunch.

But we did accomplish something much more important. We learned a little about each other and about stick-to-it-iveness. We shared in a heartfelt victory party. And, most important, we made a memory, a bond, one of many that I hope will help cement our relationship in the turbulent teenage years that are ahead.

Later that afternoon as we cut more wood, I thought about how so much of what passes for entertainment in today's world is solitary, lonely activity. Video games are an obvious example. Even if you play them with someone else you're not relating to each other while you play. You're attention is on the screen in front of you.

That applies to many forms of entertainment: When you watch TV, go see a movie, even attend a sporting event your main attention is on the event in front of you, not on each other.

After my experience cutting wood, I realized that the best way to relate to my family is to make something with them. And, to do it without expectations of performance. Building a relationship means saying from the beginning, "We're going to have fun doing this and that is our only goal."

Making wood is my secret joy. I like the smell of cut wood. I like that muscle-sore feeling of tiredness that always follows hard physical activity. I like the feeling of accomplishment that a strong, straight stack of wood gives. So, making firewood worked to build a father-son bond for my son and I the same way it helped connect my Dad and I.

But what works for you could be something completely different. If you like to cook, maybe you'd like to make bread or cheese or homemade noodles together. If you like to build things, maybe you can put up a log or timberframed picnic shelter.

One of our customers has two scythes, one with a long blade and one with a short blade. He likes to mow with his daughter, who he says has the makings of an expert scyther.

Or maybe you'd rather just relax over an old-fashioned game of checkers. If you want to really make it special, turn off all the electric lights in the house and play by the warm glow of an oil lamp.

Whatever you enjoy, slow down, put aside distractions, and do it together!

Countryside Magazine W11564 Hwy 64 Withee, WI 54498

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