Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist
by Daniel B. Botkin
Copyright © 2003 Daniel B. Botkin
Originally published by Tarcher Books, a division of Penguin-Putnam Publishers, NewYork.
Excerpt From Chapter 15: The Ecology of Splitting Wood
During the time that I lived in New Hampshire, I learned a lot of what I know about forests and trees from splitting wood, cutting down trees, cutting the trees into logs short enough to fit into a wood stove or fireplace, and throwing the split logs into a woodpile, then putting the wood into the fire. When you split a New Hampshire red oak, there is a funny smell, a little acrid, a little rotten, almost like a baby’s puke. Split sugar maple just smells nice – fresh, maybe a little sweet. White pine smells of pitch. So does hemlock and spruce. Usually, the pitch gets on your hands.
American White ash – a nice tree in general – is the easiest to split. Its grain is straight – that’s why it makes such good baseball bats and handles for many tools. The grain is so straight and the wood so tightly strung together that an ash log sometimes literally jumps apart when you strike it with an ax. It makes a nice “pong” and the split pieces fly in all directions. You don’t want to stand too close to somebody splitting white ash.
The hardest tree to split is American Elm – or used to be, since that tree has been on its way out for many decades because of what has been called the Dutch elm disease, an introduced fungus disease from Asia, that arrived via a shipload of logs from Europe, so the story goes. Elm is hard to split because the grain twists up the tree. You can’t make nice boards from elm. The wood grows in a kind of corkscrewing pattern from the bottom of the tree to the top. The wood clings to itself. When I was living in Acworth, New Hampshire, a beautiful elm in the backyard succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease, and I took it upon myself to cut it up and split it so that at least in its death the tree did not go to waste. My rented house was heated only with fire wood which I either cut myself or paid somebody to cut. At the time, before I got a Ph. D. in biology and became a professional biologist, I was an unemployed writer with a wife and small daughter, and paying wasn’t possible. Cutting wood into chunks – short logs about two feet long, a good length for firewood – was rather easy, even with elm, and especially with a power saw. But the logs were big. Too big to fit into a fireplace or woodstove, and it was necessary to split the logs.
The way you split a chunk that is difficult is to use a combination of axes and wedges and sledge hammers. First you try to drive a wedge into one end of the chunk. If the chunk is ash, as I said, the wedge will go right in and the wood will jump apart. But if it is elm, the wedge goes deeper and deeper. The corkscrewing grain expands a little, but like a green alligator, bites down on the wedge and grabs it. The harder you hit the wedge with the blunt end of an ax, the harder the wood bites back and holds on. Eventually, the wedge gets stuck and you can’t get it out. So you get another wedge and drive it into one of the little cracks that the wood did allow to open, just a bit, because of the first wedge. If you’re lucky, the first wedge will fall out and the second will get stuck, but the net result is that the chunk is a little more split apart. But just as often, the elm bites back on both wedges. Many’s the time I have had four wedges stuck in the same chunk. Usually, when that happens it’s time for lunch, and so I walk away, allowing the elm wood to squeeze back and tighten itself even more on the four wedges.
Taking a break helps, because then one can analyze the situation and try to figure out how to outsmart the elm wood. It’s a matter of driving a wedge in at just the right angle, or getting lucky with a hard blow with the ax. The problem about going directly to an ax is that the elm can also bite back on it and hold it, so that you have four wedges and an ax stuck in a two foot length of elm. When this happens, there are several choices. One that I like is to put the whole thing in a big fireplace and burn it. The wedges and ax head come free and all you have to do is get a new handle for your ax. You get the definite feeling you have beaten the elm, and at a small cost. But you need to have a large fireplace for this solution.
Another solution is to get a sedge hammer and keep hitting at the wedges and the ax until something gives. Often the something is just a wedge, which tumbles out and falls to the ground, leaving three wedges and the ax still stuck in the chunk. The wood then closes up where the wedge had been.
Another solution is to slowly remove each wedge and the ax, by any means possible, put the chunk aside, and come back in two years. By that time, the natural processes of decay – from fungus and bacteria, helped a little by small animals without backbones – worms of one kind or another – I was never very good at identifying them – and insects, softens the wood. It becomes punky. It’s not much good as fuel, and although the ax and the wedges go right in, they tend to go in as if the chunk were a tar baby. Nothing much happens. The wood doesn’t split, it just gives. You can pull the wedges out, but you don’t get a nice chunk, and if you do get a chunk at all, it burns poorly, giving off little heat and lasting only a short time. Doing this, you learn a little about the ecosystem of forests and the importance of the process of decomposition, and become acquainted with some brightly colored fungi that you might never notice otherwise.
Eventually, I got most of the elm tree split and it made pretty good firewood. Not as good as sugar maple, but better than pines. It takes a lot of imagination or a big vocabulary to split an elm tree. Otherwise, you quickly run out of four-letter words and other ways to describe the elm. The two foot chunk, that little piece of nature, is by this time a hated enemy who seems capable of many devious devices to foil a simple human task. I guess I don’t recommend splitting elm wood to the faint hearted and the non-verbal.
Trying to split elm helped me understand why it made such a beautiful tree. People aren’t familiar with American elms much anymore, but they used to line many a street and many a college quadrangle. They created a beautiful arching shape of huge limbs. The wood had to be very strong to hold up the big limbs at such elegant angles. It was that corkscrewing growth pattern that made it possible, I decided.
I have long wanted to organize a wood-splitting contest with my own rules. There are a number of people whom I would like to involve in this contest, people generally known as charming and gracious, but as scientists have stolen my ideas and used them without giving me credit; screwed me out of research grants so they could get the money instead, or who have scribbled reviews of articles I have sent to professional journals, writing on half a piece of paper from a yellow pad a series of invectives about me and why nobody should publish my paper with no discussion about the scientific content or quality of the paper.
The contest would be to see who was better at splitting wood. My opponent would have to be rather unfamiliar with working with logs – after a few years of splitting and throwing wood chunks, you get to identify trees from their bark. In fact, there was a time that I was better at identifying trees from their bark than their flowers. I would select two wood chunks of the same diameter, casually giving my opponent elm and myself ash. I would go first and with a simple pong blast the chunk into neat firewood. Then my opponent, not knowing the ecology of splitting wood, would try the same thing with elm. Depending on his fortitude, we could let him go on until nightfall, and have lunch breaks and other entertainment while he buried one wedge after another in the elm.
Sugar maple is far and away the best firewood in New England, and it splits rather easily too, because its grain, though very dense, is generally straight. You can make a fire of two or three well dried sugar maple chunks, banking them carefully, and go to bed, and you only have to get up once in the middle of the night to keep the fire going and the pipes from freezing if firewood is the only way your house is heated. By comparison, white pine, like most conifer softwoods, is full of quickly burning pitch and is a lighter wood that burns rapidly. You would get little sleep trying to keep a house warm with only white pine.
Trees that grow fast tend to burn fast. These are trees that you find in young forests. They grow well in the bright light of the open area, but that fast growth gives them little structural strength and little staying power as fuel. Sugar maple and red oaks, found in older forests, grow much more slowly. Their beautiful fine grain is one result, and so is the dense wood that burns well but slowly.
For insects, oaks are the Baskin-Robbins and Ben and Jerrys of trees. Insects love oaks. Fungi do to. Oaks have hundreds of insect parasites. They make galls on the leaves. They burrow into the bark and eat at the wood. They eat the leaves in many different ways. Leaf miners are among the most curious. They are tiny insects that live and eat inside leaves, feeding on the tasty green part, leaving the unnutritious outer parts of the leaf, so the result is a translucent skeleton of the leaf – formed but not functional. You notice the great attention insects and fungi pay to oaks while you split an oak chunk and throw it on the pile. Also, if I were taking a break from a particularly nasty elm, I would examine a piece of split oak and admire the handiwork of the many insects at play inside.
Oaks fight back. They produce what are called “secondary compounds,” in this case, pesticides that are not primary to the metabolism of the tree, but kill or deter the insects and fungi. I have always assumed that the smell of a just-split oak is in part from some of these compounds and in part the smell of fungal decay. In any case, I became familiar with the micro-ecological system of insect, fungi and oaks, watching nature in action at a small scale. This was part of my education in the ecology of trees and forests.
Of course learning the ecology of splitting wood is a vanishing skill, because somebody invented a hydraulic wood splitter that can put the power of a Cat - D8 bulldozer against elm, and because few people depend totally on wood to heat their houses. My father-in-Law, Heman Chase, with whom I spent many a day splitting wood, invented a mechanical wood splitter. It was a cone-shaped screw device that bore its way into the wood in an ever widening spiral. It worked, and he patented it, but you had to have a tractor to run it, and it was big and clumsy. It lost out to the hydraulic thing. I guess after 30 or 40 years, Heman got kind of tired of splitting wood, ecology or no ecology.
Heman heated his house solely with firewood for thirty years. He had converted a coal-burning furnace to burn wood. Otherwise, the heating system was a standard modern one of the time – central heating with hot water in radiators. He had a fireplace in the living room, for comfort and enjoyment as much as warmth, and a small wood stove in his office down in the basement. Ever the country surveyor and a lover of numbers, he kept tract of what he used and told me that on average he burned ten cords of wood a year. That’s ten piles of wood each 4 x 8 x 8 feet – a lot of wood. By comparison, Missouri River Steamboats burned ten or twenty cords a day, and usually either blew up or sunk after one or two voyages.
On his more than 200 acres of land, Heman kept sixty as a woodlot. Much of his firewood came from that lot, but he also removed neighbor’s trees that had blown over in storms, or died and fell over their driveways, and he took occasional trees from other parts of his lands. I found it another ecology lesson to wander around the wood lot. This was sustainable forest in practice before the term became popular. It was a woods, all right, but to the practiced eye quite different from the other woods he owned. He harvested most species in the woodlot except poplar (trembling aspen, Populus tremuloides to speak scientifically). “It’s a trash tree,” he said, “Good for nothing.” It was one of the earliest of early successional trees, and grew very fast. As a result its wood was soft and burned quickly, not worth the effort to cut when there were oak and sugar maple. It was interesting to see, on visits I made later to Europe, that much of the flat land plantations in Italy and France were European or American poplar, so deforested was that landscape and so desperate were the people for any kind of wood. Poplar makes decent shipping boxes, but not much else, at least from a New England perspective.
Heman never had to plant trees in his woodlot. One of the blessings of New England’s forests is how richly reproductive they are. Seeds and seedlings come in rapidly, spread by wind and animals, and the process of forest succession happens naturally and rapidly. This was enjoyable to see, nature busily at work regenerating her forests. Not every area where timber is cut is so fortunate.
The woodlot was also more open and had generally shorter, younger trees. If you were not familiar with the ecology of splitting wood, you probably would not have noticed – it was a rather subtle difference, and the surrounding woods varied a lot anyway. But after several years of logging and splitting wood, I found the sustainable woodlot intriguingly different. It persisted, it was just different. It did have the feel of a weed lot – densely growing, closely packed, young trees, heavily poplar, with occasional much better firewood trees coming in here and there. I was a pleasant enough area that I considered building a small summer cottage in it. I made a clearing for the cottage, but never got it built. I think elm trees took too much time so I could never get to that cottage.
Splitting wood for the fire, one’s mind wanders to such speculations. Why is sugar maple wood dense and white pine less so? It has to do with their ecological roles, their niches, and how they fit into the process of the recovery of a forest, called forest succession. That’s the kind of knowledge of ecology that comes home as the blisters and callouses build during the process of splitting wood. It is the reason there is so much to the ecology of this activity. I recommend it to all who love nature and want to defend the environment. The difficulty is how to plan a future that has enough forests and not too many people, so that whoever would like to could share in this educational activity, and as a sideline, expand his vocabulary.