My father stood there before me, in front of the A-frame in Alpine, where he greeted me again for the first time in eight years. My first thought was how he had visibly aged; but then I realized, so had I. As we embraced, the years apart were felt by a constriction in my chest and in my throat; my father too was visibly moved.
“Tho' much is taken, much abides...”
It was the year of the Winter Olympics. The Eternal Flame; there is something primordial about its attraction. It commands our attention and holds us in fascination, whether ignited by the Sun on Olympus, in the presence of eleven vestal virgins or simply in our fireplace by our own hand, the divine origins of a good fire are understood immediately. We mortals have Prometheus to thank for stealing it from Zeus. After years in urban centres, without a fireplace, my father’s wood stove held me transfixed, fir and birch in various points of flame-engulfed repose, each block constructing its own distinctive dialectic with the fire that would have warmed the cockles of Socrates’ heart.
“And tho' we are not now that which in old days moved earth and heaven...”
Thus did I embark on my own Arthurian quest for the source of this wonder, and joined my 78 year-old father to the woods to fell a tree for firewood for the first time in probably 25 years. There was something compulsive about this activity of father & son stepping into the woods, the dew still wet on the ground and in the branches. A great debate had sprung up as to the number of times one handles a single block of wood - from felling to the fireplace - which provided never-ending amusement and existential contemplation. Fell, cut, split, haul, load, unload, split again, pile and re-pile, feed fire. Repeat.
“That which we are we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts...”
The Eternal Sweat, which accompanies this process, is a never-ending fountain of wonderment. As we tramped through the brush, my father shared stories of when he was a boy with his own father, doing exactly the same thing. A very tall birch tree reared up as he took his sights, had us stand back, and tackled it with his chain-saw. It fell in a crash of splintering wood and branches and monstrous noise. Dad limbed it and then cut the tree into rounds, the buzzing chain saw blade requiring sharpening as we fed ourselves in a lull from activity. The peace of the woods around us, birds, the silence of the forest. Hot with sweat we loaded a chord of wood into the truck, only to off-load it at home. Swinging a splitter axe against the rounds, my neophyte technique quickly revealed itself as I broke one of the handles before getting the hang of it. Hours later I was still splitting wood and a vast pile had amassed in a chaotic jumble. My father joined in, as he still got much pleasure out of this, smiling as he repeatedly swung his axe with expert precision.
“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will...”
Just as I thought it would be impossible to wring any further pleasure out of this simple act of split and pile, dad showed me how to stack the nicely halved, regular blocks in crossed, lattice fashion at the ends as support to enable the wood stacked in between; an architectural wonder unfolded! An aesthetic pleasure awaits those who’s eye is drawn to a favourite hued or coloured piece holding a key corner end in place; a thing of sheer beauty.
“To strive, to seek, to find...”
Intellectually, prior to the actual event, I had calculated that one would handle a single block of wood nine times before it found its sacrificial pyre, but in fact, having physically unraveled this mystery, I realized that it is TWELVE or more times when one considers moving great stacks - chords - of wood from one spot to another as one season’s wood is consumed by the Gods of Fire. So much did I handle a single piece that I came to recognize them individually as I set them alight - a year or more later - after seasoning in their darkened cave, like a fine wine aged with care.
“But not to yield.”
The impromptu lust for wood-gathering adventure seemingly sated by a day of tearing and ripping, splitting and chopping, one is gripped by the desire to prolong this heightened sense of awareness with an evening of pagan celebration with those who have shared the path. Copious amounts of wine, ale and hearty cooking were taken around the wood-burning fireplace, to gaze upon endlessly, and savour, the lingering delights of the flame. Thus, to the simple, honest acts of labour as raising a hammer in construction of a cabin, or of scything a field, we added splitting wood as a vehicle of transcendence, and the bond between father and son.