Despite the warmth of the day, swinging the maul down on the hunks of black locust wood was satisfying. In every case, the pieces of log had blown apart with that satisfying sound good wood makes when it’s split.
Then came the hidden knot.
The afternoon was hot and brutally humid; I would take a break every few minutes for a long pull of my home-made energy drink, one part grape juice and two parts water. (I calculated later than in a couple of hours I had consumed more than a gallon of the stuff.) But hard work on hot days turns skin into a sieve — it poured out as sweat as soon as I drank it, or so it seemed.
But then there was the knot.
As with shooting pool, playing tennis, or practicing karate, proper use of a splitting maul is all about follow-through. If you aim for the top of a piece of wood, the maul will get there and stop. Instead, you have to aim through the wood and onto the ground beneath it. You also let the weight of the maul, its momentum, do the work — by the time it makes contact, puny human muscles no longer have much to add.
You also pay attention to the grain of the wood. It is difficult to split a piece that has had a limb growing out of it; impossible if the attempt at disassembly runs perpendicular to the knot.
But sometimes there used to be a little limb, now broken off and grown over. When that happens, there is a knot remaining, deep in the wood. Come down on this at the wrong angle and, no matter the finesse you’ve employed, the maul stops cold in a fashion that rattles you right to the soles of your shoes. It is painful in your hands and elbows and shoulders and back.
I discovered such a knot, with the effect described. This led me to holler and to dance — I do not normally dance — and to speculate that the black locust tree, the inventor of the maul, the inventor of woodstoves, and the whole tree-to-heat process were genealogically suspect.
There was more wood to be cut before it could be split, but I had already abandoned that project for the afternoon because of the horseflies. There seem to have been unusual swarms of them the last few weeks. They bite, and when they bite you cannot help but notice. It produces am involuntary response. I had concluded that this response made operation of the chainsaw a little more hazardous than I like.
(Have you ever looked at a chainsaw user’s manual? It is more frightening than the worst horror film. It describes in detail all the terrible things that can happen to anyone anywhere near one of these devices. Its message: “Congratulations on your purchase of this fine instrument of destruction. Do not use it, ever, for anything.” But I believe that this is the work of lawyers and therefore may be disregarded.)
A couple of days later, I happened to be in a local business, in hope of figuring out a way to have cellular telephone and some modest mobile Internet service for less than a monthly amount usually associated with mortgages. The store employees were helpful enough. But the mood of the place was one of tension and barely simmering anger. A small blonde female child was there, complete with at least one adult engaged in “parenting.” This meant that the child could run around unhindered, stamping her infernal little feet and their designed-to-be-annoyingly-loud plastic sandals, shrieking and making sane conversation impossible. I thought unkind thoughts.
Minutes after that, I was accosted on a public street by some fellow who wanted my signature so he could seek election to be president of the United States. To my shame, I was impolite to him — I’m usually nice to crazy people, being related to so many of them.
I have come to believe that the weather figured in to my reactions to these modest events. Under normal circumstances I am the sweetest of persons. I would have laughed off the horseflies and would have admonished myself for not being sufficiently observant of the wood I was splitting.
I would have smiled at the tiny banshee and her father, and perhaps hoped he would take her to Florida for vacation, where there are large pythons on the loose. I might have even signed the fellow’s petition, for hopeless political campaigns are the most amusing kind.
But hot weather and humidity disorder our minds, I think. They tax our patience and bring out the worst in us, at least some of us. Okay, at least me.
It will pass. Soon, the cool breezes of autumn will wipe from our memories the hot gusts of August, the biting, stinging insects and the way sweat collects and itches, the air so heavy that breathing itself is unpleasant.
And all will be sweetness and kindness and goodness once again.
Especially when I load the stove with the misshapen piece of wood containing that knot.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at email@example.com.