Zen, and the instinctive art of the lonely wood chopper

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 08:29 18/04/2012

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Now is the time to get ready for winter. Now is the time to chop wood.

When you swing an axe at a log that needs splitting, there are four possible outcomes. Outcome one is that you miss the log. This is no problem. The axe head sinks into the hard ground leaving the handle poised conveniently at waist height for you to grasp when feeling returns to your arms.

Outcome two is that you hit the log and the axe gets stuck. This isn't much of a problem. You have a simple choice. Either you bend, grunt and heave axe and log aloft as one, humming while you do so in order to drown the protests from your spine. Or you plant your OSH-approved Croc on the log, and try to wrestle the axe free for a bit. Then you bend, grunt and heave axe and log aloft as one.

The third outcome is that you strike the log a glancing blow. This is a problem. Take the weight of an axe head, multiply it by the speed of its descent and factor in the square of the axe wielder's grunt, and elementary physics tells you that the axe head is invested with considerable energy.

In outcomes one and two this energy is transferred on impact into a) the ground or b) the log. In outcome three it remains in the axe head.

An axe head full of energy is like a kid on a sugar high. It simply has to do something. The something it does is to continue describing the orbit that was supposed to terminate with impact. This continuation comes as a surprise to you the axe wielder, a surprise that feels as if the ball of your right shoulder is being torn from its socket.

At the same time your brain calmly observes that the axe head is aiming for your OSH-approved safety Crocs (I favour pink ones). And should it somehow miss these, its rising orbital path will take it in a direction that might be described as groinal.

Common sense suggests that you should let go of the axe. But the trouble with common sense is that it's an habitual late arriver. Instinctive terror turns up promptly for every party, but common sense likes to stay out of things until after the fun has happened.

The fun here involves a radical change in the relationship between you and the axe. The change is known as an agency shift. In the usual way of things you are the swinger and the axe is the swingee. But at the moment the axe glances off the log and keeps going, because you are not prepared for the orbital extension, and because it throws you off balance, and because you are eager to preserve your shoulder, and because you are even more eager to preserve the unviolated condition of your a) Crocs and b) groinal region, the roles are reversed. You become the swingee. The net effect is that you are flung into a sort of commando roll.

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When the wood chips settle you find yourself on the ground, with the handle of the axe, from which the energy has now thankfully dissipated, between your legs. It is at this point that common sense saunters up, straightening its tie and oozing condescension. It surveys the wreckage, tuts a little and wonders out loud whether it might have been a better idea to let go of the axe.

But no harm is done and after the application of a little bottled medicine from the fridge, the nerves return to their cage and you to the fray. Which brings us to outcome four, the split log, aka the Great Improbability.

Theologians and other top thinkers reckon that the cardinal virtues in this life are faith, hope and love, with love being number one. But not when wood chopping, it isn't. Love's useless to the wood chopper, and hope's hopeless. What you need is faith.

I can't explain this but if you have faith that a log will split, it generally splits. And when it does, faith begets faith. Soon log after log is cleaving like the halves of a walnut and the whole business becomes addictive. You ignore the blistered palms. You ignore the screaming spine.

Slowly the wood pile grows. And when finally the western horizon is one orange-golden backlit wonder, you drop the axe, stand back, admire the pile of firewood, tour it, pat it and say, "I bloody did that." You feel manly, happy, and ready for winter.

I recommend it.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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