If you have much to do with firewood, and if you have retained your amateur standing, you will eventually become acquainted with a certain principle – a bitter, rue-laden principle that might be called the Paradox of Ease. Remember, however: we’re assuming you’re not a professional in the firewood line. For the professional wood cutter, the familiar array of skidders, loaders, dozers, tractors, splitters, winches, and the like allow him to take the prodigious job of turning trees into fuel head-on. His machinery overpowers the wood and makes it do his bidding. The amateur, by contrast, the civilian woodcutter, must too often go to work armed with no more than a cranky chainsaw and a vehicle that was intended for something else. He can’t rely on hardware and force. He must think strategically. He must seek advantage. It’s in that quest that he encounters the Paradox of Ease.
Here’s my tale…
Some years ago now a big limb came down off an old tree in our backyard. The tree was a butternut, a species that was being decimated by the butternut canker, a malady that has killed off virtually the entire population of one of our region’s best loved and most useful trees. When I heard the unmistakable crrraaakkk – THUD of catastrophic arboreal failure, I was saddened, of course, but I was also pleased. I reckoned I had just taken delivery of a shipment of free heat.
Not that I was under any illusion about the quality of my (near-literal) windfall. Heat value was never among the many virtues of butternut. Therefore, the bad news was, I had lousy firewood. The good news was, I had lots of it. That was enough for me. After all, I reasoned, the best firewood comes from the tree that grows closest to the fire.
Close to the fire our poor old butternut certainly was. All that would be required of me, I saw, would be to buck up the main branch and its many limbs, toss them into the wheelbarrow, trundle them out of the yard, around the house, and right up to the woodshed, a matter of maybe 50 paces. No chain, no truck, no stumbling around in the woods need figure. I’d simply dump the sections, split the bigger ones, and pop it all onto the woodpile. As the fallen branch was mainly dead, I wouldn’t even have to let it dry out. The stuff was stove-ready. Cordwood doesn’t come much easier than that, does it?
I fired up the saw and set to work. Freed the length of the main branch, about 10 feet long by 10-20 inches in diameter. Cut it into chunks. Then I started on the smaller limbs. That took a bit of time, because the limbs and small slash, as it was cut up, had to be disposed of in an orderly way. Working in the woods, I’d simply pile the slash to one side and be done. Here, near the house, I had to move everything from the yard and pile it neatly out of the way.
To reduce the need for dragging, carrying, and piling, I found I was keeping smaller and smaller limbs for firewood than I might have. Normally, I’d save sticks of, say, six inches in diameter for the stove. Now I was keeping four-, even three-inchers.
The work went slowly, but in time the yard was clear. The least limbs, even the twigs, fragments of shed bark, and other miscellaneous spoil had been raked up and disposed of. The yard was restored. Almost. One task, I observed, remained. The chainsaw’s dust and chips lay in unsightly yellow drifts here and there on the grass, as though a poultry farmer had scattered chicken feed over a billiards table. It looked like hell. I went to the house, found a broom, and returned to the yard, where I commenced sweeping up the offending sawdust.
It was a fine, high, deep-blue autumn morning with a bit of an edge on the breeze. The small flock of barnstorming crows that frequently shows up on our hillside at this time of day was loud among the surrounding treetops. They soared, stalled, tumbled, dived, barrel-rolled, and frolicked in the gusts of wind, having the time of their lives and setting up a loud clamor of caws, squawks, croaks, blats, and screams. As I swept the sawdust on the lawn, it struck me that the crows were noisier than usual this morning. Then I understood. They weren’t merely calling, they were laughing. They were laughing at me. What in the world did this fool think he was about, sweeping the earth?
I laid down my broom. Wait a minute, I thought. This job was supposed to be a piece of cake – painless, brainless firewood at last – and it was looking very much like the opposite. The very advantages of all this easy wood were exactly the factors that made harvesting it laborious, time-consuming, and conducive to something like obsession, as evidenced by my sawdust-sweeping. Maybe the best firewood is what’s closest to the fire, but not if you have to gift-wrap every stick.
Hence the Paradox of Ease, a perverse, ironic joke, a joke on us. Ease? There’s no such thing as ease, or, if there is, we don’t really want it. What we want is effort, and effort is what we’ll have. If the world is easy, we’ll make it hard.
Castle Freeman, Jr.’s last appearance in Northern Woodlands was in last autumn’s issue. He lives in southeastern Vermont.