When I was a boy, Robert Frost’s 1915 poem “The Wood Pile” inspired me to take up a splitting axe and go to work on a mouldering stack of logs behind my childhood home. The poem itself doesn’t romanticize the chore; the speaker understands the labor required to split a cord and is puzzled that it should have been spent only to abandon the fruits in an untrammeled wood. Fuel disappears in a fireplace at about the same pace it takes to split, haul and stack it. This is why the fellow with the tender shoulders and rough hands is least likely to complain of a dying fire and the cooling living room. Splitting logs is damned hard work. It’s also terrific exercise.
What would Frost think of the current taste for mimicking labor for the purpose of exercise? Some of these gyms have duffle bags full of stones; paying clients haul them around in punishing routines. It brings to mind another Frost poem “Mending Wall”
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. (13-16).
Frost is aware of the futility of repairing a stone wall that each year tumbles, but at least there is a wall to point to (or a tradition to uphold). What about mimicking splitting wood, a task with neither? In a gym, this is safely executed by pounding a tractor tire with a sledgehammer. I don’t doubt the exercise is effective; I just prefer having a wood pile to admire when finished.
Of course wood-splitting isn't possible without a few arrangements. Space—say a clearing with a five-yard diameter. Some shock-absorbing surface is best—wood chips or grass—to help deaden the flight of the errant log. The best splitting surface is a heavy and squat log—some unsplittable cross section taken from the base of a tree with the beginnings of a root structure that will act as a stabilizing flange. The axe must be a splitting axe, or maul, with a wedged head not lighter than seven pounds and a sturdy handle with a reenforced neck. Goggles and gloves are supposed to be worn.
The technique is rudimentary, engrained even. Stance is shoulder width. Dominant hand grasps the neck, the other firmly above the pommel. Take aim at the cut end of a vertical log, drawing the axe back on the dominant side before bringing it up and over the head. On the down-stroke, slide the dominant hand down the handle, driving the axe head into the center of the log. The poetry, and I suspect the physical benefit, is in the rhythm that develops. If you wish to last more than a few logs, a measured pace must be established. Don’t forget that retrieving and stacking the spits is half the work. Aim for duration rather than volume. Learn to cleave in one blow. If (and when) the maul gets jammed, put the log on the ground, step on it and rock the handle back and forth until released. If that doesn’t work, lift the jammed log to the swinging position and execute a controlled stroke, striking with the sledge end of the axe. The log will split itself over the upturned blade.
What about safety? I know I have split safely when, the day following a session, my torso and shoulders are sore. But a sore back portends injury. A back becomes sore when it is put in charge of the stroke—a mistake as the back lacks control. And the arms are merely the cables holding the axe; control comes from the front and sides of the midsection—the muscles facing the action. I wonder, though, if the same exertion occurs when the danger is removed—say when pounding an immobilized rubber tire with a sledge hammer? I think Frost would agree: the difference between a sisyphean task and a fruitful one is purpose: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out” (“Mending Wall” 32-33).