Cutting Wood with Robert Frost

Original Photo of Wood Pile.  Photographed by Andrew LangSpring has finally arrived, and the past couple of days have been kindling some old memories.  Alfred, a friend of the family who happens to be a local farmer, cleared out some small trees along his fields last week, to which the equivalent of eight cords of fire wood needed only be picked up from the wood line where they laid.  Riding on the back of his tractor with a trailer attached, we spent the past couple of days cutting fire wood.  Being outside among the wide-open fields, gathering wood for next year has only heightened my senses toward the act of cutting wood.  Sawdust and its potent smell flying through the air as the chainsaw literally chews its way through the log, the hot smell of oil and exhaust mixed with the loud, obnoxious noise of the motor as the saw works under the pressure of the hand wielding it, the vibration of holding the log in place to keep it steady for the clean cut: all of these elements combined have brought back memories of splitting wood for my grandparents back when I was younger.

At least once, sometimes twice a year, my father would take my sister and me down to my grandparents for the day, so we could cut wood to help them prepare for the winter.  They lived in a housing addition along a recreational lake, where dense foliage went straight to the water’s edge.  In fact, I fondly remember running up and down the gorges and through the woods surrounding that housing addition, pretending to be Davie Crockett or some other hero-type.  We would often visit my grandparents from both sides of my family, but only my grandma and grandpa from my father’s side had a fireplace to burn wood in.  Since we lived so close, only an hour’s drive, we would help out when they needed wood cut.

Cutting wood for them was laborious and meant that we’d be there the whole day.  They often had twenty plus cords worth of wood stacked twice as high as I was tall (back then).  Starting was always the hardest part because it meant establishing a working rhythm.  My dad would run the splitter, a hydraulic press with a wedge welded at the end of an iron beam.  He would man the lever, controlling the pressure the press would give, its loud sputtering exhaust bellowing out under the burden of its load.  My cousin and I would prepare each of the logs for my uncle to lay on the splitter, where we’d watch the first log split apart under the force of the hydraulic press.  The crackle as it split was always loud and sharp, the wood being resistant to the force being placed upon it; nevertheless, the press always prevailed, even when big knots in the logs placed it under more strain than usual.  Once the logs fell off to the side, my uncle would load the next one onto the beam, and my dad would press the lever forward, splitting it in two so that my cousin and I could throw them onto a pile to be stacked down by the house later on.  The longer we worked, the more we were rewarded with time outside, something my cousin, my sister and I didn’t mind so much.   We often explored the wood pile and the surrounding wood line.  We were still young after all, so we would help only when it was needed.  The things we would discover in the wood pile!

The Art of Cutting Wood

Woodcutters in the forest - Carl LarssonCutting wood like I have been the past couple of days with Alfred and from those times with my family is quite different from the way it was done in the days of yore.  Trees were felled with cross-cut saws, large and cumbersome blades with teeth the size of fingers that often required two men, as logging was a man’s business back then, to wield them.  It took effort to cut through a tree with a blade such as that.  Being synchronized with your partner was half the trick to using this saw blade.  This style of cutting has even become a marriage custom here in Europe, where newly wedded couples are to work together to cut a log in half, the point of this menial labor being clear; it takes two to work through the problem.

The other alternative, depending on the diameter of the tree, was to wield an axe.  Cutting with an axe, much like using a saw, required technique and skill.   You couldn’t simply swing until the tree fell down; you had to cut wedges out of certain points in the tree trunk, especially if you wanted the tree to fall in a certain direction.  Once the tree was down and the limbs had been removed, the log would need to be cut into segments just big enough to fit into the fireplace.  If you cut them too large, then the logs wouldn’t fit into the oven, and you’d be left with an awkward-shaped log to stack on the pile.  Cutting the log to just the right size took lots of time and lots of effort.  This doesn’t include splitting those logs into smaller parts — halves, mostly — for the benefit of evenly stacking them in a pile.

After we finished cutting wood along the treeline, Alfred, Peter and I rode back to the house on the tractor and had lunch.  While we were eating, Alfred heartily told me an old German proverb: “You will sweat three times when you are dealing with wood — by cutting it, by stacking it, and by burning it.”  This saying couldn’t be more true.  Stopping to consider all of the effort that goes into preparing wood for the winter, for providing warmth to a household during the cold, bitter months when Jack Frost is outside playing, this forces one to appreciate a saying such as the one Alfred told me.

The Wood Pile

Ironically, this proverb reminds me of the poem, “The Wood-Pile,” written by Robert Frost and published in his collection of poems North of Boston in 1914.  Quite often actually, Frost would write about his experiences in the woods, talking about the paths one often encounters or the thoughts one often has while walking through the woods.  This one poem stands out from many of his others, in my opinion, for reasons that Louis Untermeyer clarifies as “lines… bare of image-making and speculation, stripped clean of everything except perfect observation…[and] in the heightened description of a woodpile, a person emerges” (125).  In this poem, it is not the narrator, driven by wanderlust, lost among the trees, who Untermeyer is referring to, but a man who has abandoned the fruits of his labor.  The poem places us immediately within the “frozen swamp one grey day” (Frost line 1),  the narrator we know is “just far from home” (line 9).   A bird chirps to him from its hiding place — “He was careful / To put a tree between us when he lighted” (lines 10-11) — as if to tell the narrator that he is someplace where he doesn’t belong.  This little bird is what draws the narrator’s attention toward that which the poem is about.  “And then there was a pile of wood for which / I forgot him [the bird] and let his little fear / Carry him off the way I might have gone, / Without so much as wishing him good-night” (lines 18-21).  No longer intrigued by the bird and his protests against this would-be intruder, the narrator takes a moment to describe for us the pile of wood, “measured, four by four by eight. / And not another like it could I see” (lines 24-25) — this being the only pile of wood, the only vestiges around, to suggest that anyone else beyond himself had ever been in this part of the frozen swamp, but it is more in what the narrator takes note of about the “cord of maple” and its overall condition that peeks curiosity: it is rotting in the middle of the swamp.

It is from this observation that Frost’s craft as a poet becomes recognized.  This ordinary situation, a man standing in a swamp analyzing a cord of wood, becomes something more than that moment we are reading about.  As Untermeyer’s commentary suggests, a person emerges in Frost’s poem:

                                          I thought that only

Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks

Could so forget his handiwork on which

He spent himself, the labour of his axe,

And leave it there far from a useful fireplace

To warm the frozen swamp as best it could

With the slow smokeless burning of decay. (Frost lines 34-40)

And so ends the poem.  As the reader, our attention has now been drawn away from the simple, rotting wood-pile to whomever it was who abandoned that cord of wood to the swamp. For what reason would someone leave “the labours of his axe” in the swamp to rot “from the slow smokeless burning of decay”?  I cannot help but ponder the circumstances surrounding this individual, the wood cutter.  Perhaps the cutter is as the narrator suggests, someone who is quick to turning to fresh tasks and has simply lost track of this pile of wood in the swamp?  Or perhaps something more dire and sinister has happened, the reason for the cutter not returning being some serious ordeal that has befallen him?  Whatever the case may be, my thoughts have always returned to the possibilities left to the imagination, a testament to this poem’s lasting impression and to Frost’s ability to create something so compelling out of something so simple.

The Fruits of Labor

The stories a pile of wood can reveal to us.  The way Frost forces us to think about that wood-pile, left to rot by whomever set it, allows the imagination to wonder.  From my own experiences, I can imagine someone, axe in hand, chopping tree after tree down for the sake of setting it to dry.  The meticulous effort of measuring each log and cutting it to fit within the cord, four-by-four-by-eight, only adds to the mental image of this hard-working man.  This imagery sets me thinking about how my grandparents were given warmth year after year because of the wood we cut for them.  I think about the relationship the cutter never has to his wood-pile,  especially when I look at the pile of wood we stack along the back of the house and how we benefit from it every year.    I think about the circumstances that left that cord of maple to rot in the frozen swamp and how the wood-pile behind my home would never be subject to that.  After all, it has already been gathered and set in its place, ready for use.  I think about the freshly cut wood, waiting in the driveway to be split and stacked like the rest of the logs waiting to be burned.  Unlike the wood-pile that Frost describes to us, left to warm the frozen swamp as best it can,  the wood stacked behind our house has not been abandoned to the slow inevitability of decay.  No, my family and I will know the fruits of my labor next season when the first killing frost takes hold of the earth, placing its icy grip on all that would die during the winter months.  And like Frost’s words, my wood-pile will help to warm my body and soul, to keep the icy grip of winter, decay and death at bay.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. New York: Washington Square Press, 1971. Print.

Untermeyer, Louis.  Commentary.  New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. By Robert Frost.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1971. Print.

Image Source

Original Photo of Wood Pile.  Photographed by Andrew Lang on 13 Jul. 2013.

Larsson, Carl. Woodcutters in the forest. 1906. Painting. Wikipaintings, n.d. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

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