Coast Chronicles: Chop wood, carry water

<I>CATE GABLE photo</I><BR>Is the real work chopping wood, or writing about chopping wood?

We got a cord of wood the other day. The next morning I put on a couple extra layers and went out to the woodshed. (We didn't know what to call it before the wood arrived; function = meaning.)

I grabbed one of the splits, balanced it upright on the low chopping block, picked up the axe, and gave it a swing. Aiming - meaning giving the axe head clear intentions about where I want it to land - seems sort of metaphysical. If I concentrate too hard, I overshoot and wank the handle.

If I get into soft focus, usually I hit it right on. This lesson is amazing to me - as well as the body knowledge that kicks in.

Forty years ago, I actually did live for four months in our family's cabin beside the Naches River on the Chinook Pass highway. I split wood every day and brought it inside in big cardboard boxes that got stashed in the corner by the fireplace. Building the daily fire was sacred.

Kindling Chopping the wood into medium-sized pieces was just routine. The real art is in making kindling. First you choose just the right split. It has to be a good-sized chunk with even grain; no knots is perfect but hard to find.

You shoot for cutting off a piece that gives you a middle ground to work with; a squarish shape. Then, you begin the fine work. If the axe blade lands right, there is that satisfying "sprong" when a nice neat sliver of kindling flakes off from your cut, jumping as if it had always intended to split itself right there.


There goes another one. And pretty soon, you have a pile of dry-as-a-bone, beautifully sculpted, man-sized toothpicks - it's sort of magical.

This chopping, decades ago, was all from wood gathered during our summer scavenging up on the logging roads, when we'd get a permit and salvage the "small" logs and snags that weren't worth a logger's trouble. It was exciting to lace up the boots, pack the chain saws, the gas and oil and head up into the hills.

Woodcutter Getting the hang of a chainsaw is a whole different venture from swinging an axe. You balance the weight of it, try to let that lethal blade do your work for you and watch that log like a hawk. Sure, with an axe, you can still do a whack job on your boot [steel-toes start making sense] or, in rare cases, a shin; but with a chainsaw bigger accidents happen faster.

One day out cutting wood (I wasn't on this trip), my father made a cut and the log shifted and ended up snapping and cracking the leg of his best friend, Howard Clark. The 45-minute ride to the hospital in town turned into 20 minutes in dad's skilled hands.

That man-to-man friendship took on a different tone - they were more bonded. Dad felt guilty for years about the accident, but what can you do? Things happen in the woods.

Things happen on the land when you're doing physical work. (Or on the sea. Nobody knows better than our fishermen who've given up the ultimate gift in their struggle with Mother Nature - she's a force to be reckoned with.)

Kali and the winter garden I've also been out in the hedgerow playing Kali with the blackberry bushes. I cannot say they have met their match. In fact, I am woefully lacking.

Tangled up in the thorns, trying to sort out rugosa roses from wild blackberries, I felt like Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch. My hat was snagged off. My sweatshirt was caught up and pulled backwards. I stuck myself in the eye. Thorns came through my thick leather gloves.

It was war.

And when I got inside and pulled off my layers of clothing to jump in the shower, I was speckled with scratches, scrapes and slivers all up one side and down the other. (Clearly, the other guy won.)

However, this is the time to prepare the garden, time to pull out those dead and dying weeds, left-over squash vines and disappointing tomato plants and clear the ground to settle it down for a long winter's nap with a little bedding of manure. That nasty grass that creeps in everywhere is easy to pull now. So get it all cleared out from around your perennial alpine strawberries, fennel and raspberries.

If you've got bulbs, it's not too late (I hope) to put those in the ground with a little fertilizer. Baby those fancy fluted tulips - put them in their own container - but the little iris are tougher. They can go right in the ground between the poppies.

Chop wood, carry water

There is a Zen saying, "Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water."

Well, then, what is the difference? Evidently, it's not the what but the how. (Perhaps I should meditate before tackling the blackberries.)

Though I've always thought of chop wood, carry water as "the real work" maybe there's another perspective.

When asked once by an interviewer, "Do you write more in the fall or the spring?" Gary Snyder answered, "Well the way I live right now I guess I write more in the winter. Because in the spring I go out in the desert for awhile, and I give a few readings and then when I get back it's time to turn the ground over and start spring planting, and then right after that's done it's time to start the building that has to be done, and then when that's done it's time to start cutting firewood, and then when the firewood's done it's time to start picking apples and drying them, as that takes a couple of weeks to get as many apples as possible and dry them, and then at the end of the apple season I begin to harvest the garden, and a lot of canning and drying is done maybe, and then that season passes to chestnuts and picking up the wild grapes, and then I've got to put the firewood in, and as soon as I get the firewood in, hunting season starts ..." (The Real Work, New Directions).

Real work So is the work of a poet real work?

W.S. Merwin tried to answer is his recent musings on becoming the 17th U.S. poet laureate in a PBS Newshour interview with Jeff Brown, "As soon as I could move a stub of pencil and put words on paper, I wanted to be a poet. I was fascinated by the hymns that we sang in church ... the spacious firmament on high ... I thought, that's pretty interesting."

"I like the idea that sometimes one hears poetry as though one were overhearing it, you know? And sometimes my favorite passages of poetry seem like that. They're just around in the air somewhere. And they seem so simple, the way Mozart seemed so simple, you know? He certainly is not, but - neither is Shakespeare, but, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' I mean, it takes your breath away. You stop and think, my God, how beautiful that line is."

"If people respond to a poem of mine at all, I would like them to feel finally that they might have written it." He recited his poem, "Rain Light."

"All day the stars watch from long ago. My mother said I am going now. When you are alone, you will be all right. Whether or not you know, you will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain. All the flowers are forms of water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud, touches the patchwork spread on the hill, the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born. See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning."

Maybe it's choppy water and carry wood? No matter.

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