Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

Until a fortnight ago there was a healthy, graceful, 70ft-specimen of Eucalyptus dalrympleana - or mountain gum - in the garden.

Now there isn't. Or rather, the remains of the trunk and branches are lying in sections on the ground. To knock a few quid off the tree surgeon's bill, I'd grandiosely told them not to bother reducing the trunk and major branches to fire-grate-sized logs. Leave it in rings, I said, and I'll split them up with an axe. Which they did. The next time I looked out, the men had departed and there were a couple of tons of wood lying in wheels in the sodden grass. The biggest rings, from the base of the trunk, were about two feet in diameter and a foot thick.

Not a problem. A joy.

I filed a razor-sharp edge on the axe-head, put the two biggest, knottiest-looking rings one on top of the other for a chopping block, and started swinging.

Why is splitting wood so supremely satisfying? Does anybody know? The first afternoon of log-splitting didn't feel like labour.

The lovely tree bore me no ill-will and yielded generously to the blade. Knots were few and honest about their hidden extent. My pile of split wood grew quickly and looked as photogenic in the winter-afternoon sunlight as only a woodpile can.

My old axe and I became reacquainted.

Accuracy was at first based on hope, then faith, then belief, then certainty. As confidence grew, the starting point of the axe-head moved further down my back so that full momentum could be achieved long before the axe-head reached the apogee of the arc.

Each stroke of the axe meant a preliminary rough guess at the amount of force required to split the wood. My axe was a little too sharp.

If I overestimated the force required to split a log, the axe-head buried itself in the chopping block and was the devil to get out again. Otherwise it was the most pleasurable afternoon I'd spent since I'd last wielded an axe, which was couple of winters ago.

The next day, the grandson came to spend the afternoon. Right, I thought. Today would be that Holy day when man initiates boy into the mystical pleasures of manual labour.

In all of his four years I don't suppose he'd seen even a hole being dug with a spade except at the beach. …

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