To me, swinging an ax is the best exercise known to man. You have something to show for it, in the neat mounting woodpile. You keep on enjoying the exercise long after it's over, all winter long, because you see the results of your labor burning in front of you, keeping you warm. Last winter I saved close to a thousand dollars on oil bills by burning wood that I'd cut. That's the kind of exercise I feel good after.
Just swinging an ax—it's something like swinging a bat, only better. There's as much satisfaction in lopping off a limb close to the trunk with one clean swing of a sharp ax as there is in getting a line-drive base hit with a man on third. And if you indulge in fantasies of yourself at the plate with a bat in your hands and people on the bases—then, well, you can have better fantasies with an ax in your hands. There's no pressure. Nobody's watching. Take two and hit to right. Hot damn. There goes another limb, with one swing. One nice swing.
Then there is the business of the wood itself. My favorite is ash. Ash trees tend to grow straight and tall, with few limbs and branches, and in western Massachusetts where I live, some kind of killing disease has gotten to many ashes, so that it's fairly common to find dead ash trees standing in the woods. The main reason for my love of ash is its straight-grained quality: Once it's sawed into lengths, you barely have to swing an ax in the direction of the logs to split them. It seems that all you have to do to split the logs is to look at them a little cross-eyed and make vague motions with the ax. Also, ash seasons quickly. Even green ash will burn just fine only a couple of months after it's been cut.
Traditionally, hickory is the best of the hardwoods for burning, but it's difficult to find and it doesn't split quite as easily as ash. The same goes for oak, and for maple, which takes a long time to season. Elm is nearly unsplittable, but I don't fight it, I leave it alone. Precisely because of its resistance to splitting, elm was once used to fashion the hubs of wagon wheels. The best—the longest-and warmest-burning—of all hardwoods is apple, but you don't find dead apple trees in the woods unless those woods happened to be an orchard a good while ago.
Dead wild cherry is easy to find, and commonly used, but it's not really good firewood. I found that out the hard way, a long time ago. I was living near Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., which may seem to be country to some, but isn't. You had to scrounge for wood there, asking permission to cut dead trees on private property, getting fresh-felled wood from areas where workmen stretching power lines had been clearing space. My closest neighbor when I lived there in the early '60s was one of the pioneer hippies, beard and bhang and all. He told me of a supply of cut and stacked firewood that was just sitting there getting ready to rot. It was in a field at a nearby nunnery, he told me. The wood would never be burned, he said. Workmen had simply felled some offending cherry trees and cut and stacked the wood to get it out of the way. We would be doing the nuns a favor to take it away.
He thought it would be best if we did them this favor at night, so we went there in the moonlight. All we had to do was step over a low barbed-wire fence, go to the woodpile and carry it back to his Volkswagen and my Saab. My flower-child friend was 6'4", and the step over the barbed-wire fence was nothing to him. I'm 5'9", and stepping over the barbed wire was one hell of a step for me. After only two trips with armloads of wood I quit.
Later, burning what little wood I'd brought out from the sacramental woodpile, I had a distinct notion that it burned in my fireplace with a little blue halo of smoke over each log. Also it burned too fast and gave little heat.
I've probed deeply to fathom where my feeling for wood and axes comes from, and I've finally settled on G.A. Henty. At an early age I was given a carton of books with yellowed and brittle pages from some older cousin's attic, and for a long time I was steeped in Henty tales of Colonial times, of Revolutionary War scouts in canoes with long-barreled rifles and long-handled axes. Canoes, rifles and axes—three symbols of manhood to me when I was nine, 10 and 11. I learned to handle a canoe with competence, and with a .22 rifle I could hit whatever I aimed at. Both were fun, but I have little interest in either today. They lack reality. What practical good are skills with a canoe or rifle today? They're about as useful as being expert in repairing Essex cars.
But an ax, now....