I’m in the Catskills for what’s most likely the last time this year. I went on a couple of day hikes this week, and Friday I helped Ward and his friend Rich clear a patch of trees on the property for the twenty-foot yurt they’re putting up later this fall. My job was to operate the log splitter. Once you see this thing at work it immediately dispels any romantic notion of the saliva-in-the-palms swinging of an axe. The log splitter runs on a lawnmower engine; it’s sole purpose is orchestrate the slow downward pressure of a heavy steel wedge. Sit on a stump a couple feet away, set the log, hold the lever down. A few seconds later: a soft snapping sound as log splits opens. There are warning stickers about hands and feet.
It’s repetitive, the work, but oddly therapeutic. Earmuffs dampen the noise and a fan on a fifty-foot extension cord keeps the gasoline fumes away. Ward’s going at it in the distance with his chainsaw while Rich gathers branches and wheels the cut logs into a pile to my left. I break them down into halves, quarters, sixths, depending on the size of the log; into fuel that will keep the wood stoves radiating their essential heat in the colder months. I turn and toss the split logs into a pile to my right, get up and grab more logs from the pile to my left. I quickly work up a sweat. Later Ward takes over my job and his ten-year-old son and I transfer the split pile, one wheelbarrow at a time, into an open wood shed, making walls of lumber.
My back and sides are sore. I remember that I have a body. I remember summers growing up when I’d come in from playing roller hockey all day and there was nothing I wanted more than to chug an ice cold can of Coca-Cola. Now I’m dying for an ice cold can of beer but maybe this is some Shawshank Redemption dream. I’d like to think that we go to the gym and run and do yoga not just to look better or feel healthier but because for a vast majority of human history we had to lift heavy rocks and chase supper and run from panthers and do the kinds of physically demanding activity that requires total concentration and making minute adjustments to the variable environment, and that we’re still born with that blueprint dormant in our psyche, that memory, that necessity, of blissful physical exertion.
Another dream, perhaps.