There are two household chores I always find psychologically rewarding - doing laundry and chopping firewood. The laundry bit probably stems from my pride in mastering the household's wash when my mother had just come home from the hospital with my new baby sister -and I was 11. When I stayed comfortable in spite of freezing temperatures during a major ice storm and three-day power outage, thanks to a little woodstove in my Portland kitchen, I came to value chopping firewood as a survival skill.

Late in the afternoon one day last week, I was again splitting some firewood. I encountered one large piece with a huge knot on one side. I tried to hit the piece with the ax in such a way that I could split it around one side of the knot. The ax dug in and with an additional whack or two against the chopping block, I expected the ax to slide on through, splitting the chunk of wood into two, more manageable pieces. Instead, the wood gripped the ax, which could neither progress through the wood, nor withdraw. It was stuck in a potential deathgrip.

I tried hitting the edge of the wood against the chopping block, with a motion that usually reverses the path of the ax, but that didn't work. I went in the shop and got a short-handled, five-pound sledge hammer and tried to knock the ax out of the wood by hitting the back of the ax bit. To no avail. The steel to steel contact had a nice ring, but there was no movement.

I went in the house and told my husband I'd gotten the ax stuck in the wood. He chuckled and repeated his variation on one of Murphy's Laws: "It's always easier to get in than to get out." Together, we used a maul and the sledgehammer to release the ax.

The next afternoon, I was at it again, this time attacking a short piece of six by six, left over from one of our building dismantling projects. The old fir was deceptively smooth and straight. Some pieces had split apart with barely a tap of the ax.

This one was recalcitrant. Hitting it in the middle did nothing. It stood there, almost impervious to the ax. I knocked off two corners, thinking that would somehow weaken the piece. Again to no avail. The ax went in, got stuck just like the day before. Again, just like the day before, I got the maul and the sledgehammer.

Putting the maul in the deep crack both created by and holding the ax, I expected to hammer the maul through. No. Now I had both the maul and the ax stuck in the wood. A silly situation, which any person with a lot of upper body strength, which I don't have, would never encounter.

By balancing the wood on the chopping block and holding the maul handle with my left hand, I was able to strike the maul repeatedly with the sledge and eventually the ax slipped loose.

With more effort, the maul, sledge and I overpowered the wood and it broke open. Inside was a knot, whose only evidence on the outside was a whorl the size of a dime. Lulled by the overall bland exterior, I hadn't noticed it.

I thought about how many life situations are like this. One would expect that the ax always conquers the wood. One would expect that the hardness of steel will always prevail over the softness of wood, especially alder. Sometimes the soft element, like London under the Blitz, can only hang on, hang on. Sometimes the arrogance of steel assumes its sheer hardness, its imperviousness to wounding, especially from softer elements - sometimes the hardness of steel assumes it has no challengers. The wood, innocuous in its softness, misleading in its passivity, leads steel to an encounter with a vise-like grip.

When chopping wood, you have to watch the grain. If the grain has a quirk, you must take that into account - you must work around it. Otherwise you find yourself deep in the Russian countryside, seemingly making progress against no resistance, when the first flakes begin to fall - and then all you want to accomplish is withdrawal, your own survival. The softness has led you into a trap and you may spend eternity there.

Napoleon tried it. So did Hitler. Their steel couldn't withstand the soft impact of snow. Can ours withstand the soft impact, the gentle polishing, the insinuating grace of sand?

Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco where she has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.

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