25 August, 2007

Aldo Leopold knew a thing or two

Pine and birch, more so than any other type of wood, are very satisfying to split.

Uncut pine splits cleanly with little effort, and the rare knots slide without resistance between the split pieces. The sticky bubbles of sap that gather at the ends of the logs as they age occasionally cover the fingertips, but are soon rubbed away by the continuous friction that comes along with that type of labor. The bark sheets off cleanly if it comes off at all, and it is a rare occasion to find the log crawling with ants or maggots.

Birch splits in the same easy manner as pine; wet or dry, gnarled or straight, the smooth logs come apart cleanly, leaving only the sweet smell or the soda to which the tree gives its name. Inside, both are clean and white, free of imperfections. Their grain aligns itself in straight rows, without much swirling or twisting.

Unlike pine and birch, oak logs are tedious to split. The grain seems to weave together as the tree grows and each twist of the log, each knot along its length makes it that much harder to separate the split pieces from each other. The finished chunks of wood are difficult to stack, given their twisted nature. During the splitting process, oak emits a pungent odor, even when freshly cut, that is reminiscent of rotting wood. Unlike the sweet birch or the syrupy pine scent, which is strongest when the wood is fresh, the strong smell of oak can only be appreciated when it has been cured.

Oak carries a unique trait that separates it from pine or birch, however, that makes it my favorite wood to split. An oak tree is a living creature, and like most creatures it is aware of itself. These trees do not, obviously, have the same self-awareness that humans and higher mammals possess, but they are aware all the same.

The exterior of an oak log is a complicated pattern of lumpy bark, and if one were to plunge a nail deep into this bark, it would quickly be encompassed, overgrown by bark and moss. Inside, though, something strange occurs. The tree, aware of the presence of iron in its trunk, disperses a brown hue along the entire length of the trunk alone the same grain through which the nail has passed. The further toward the center of the log the discoloration occurs, the older the scrap of iron is that was lodged somewhere in its trunk.

This rust brown streaks make splitting each individual piece of oak a treat, and worth the difficulty that the splitting brings. The iron, be it a nail, staple, did not get there on its own. Sometime during the lifetime of that tree, for fun or function, someone intentionally drove that bit of metal into the tree. The metal does not kill the tree, it merely discolors it. In an odd way, it is satisfying to know that someone somewhere interacted with that same tree which I am now splitting.