Cut, Split, Haul, Stack, Ponder: Leopold’s ‘Good Oak’

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Coralee's interpretation in colored pencil of the Patagonia cover art.

Coralee’s interpretation in colored pencil of the Patagonia cover art.

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Cover of the current Patagonia catalog; Half Dome in watercolor & ink by Jeremy Collins.

Patagonia catalog cover; watercolor & ink by Jeremy Collins. It’s all connected.

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Inside a split.

As Brian ran our (currently)working log splitter this past Sunday afternoon, I waited a few yards away for him to toss the splits for stacking. Our splitter is very old & was not originally manufactured to be a log splitter…there’s a great story there, but I don’t know all the particulars at the moment…it’s made from a hodge-podge of old tractor (?) parts & it’s from his father, I know that much.  It seems to relish operating properly for about a week at a time, then lying dormant for up to a year before gracing us with its abilities again…& only after we spend large sums of money replacing its various body parts.  Suffice to say, Brian usually chops wood by hand.

While stacking wood & waiting to stack wood, your mind wanders. I thought a lot, a lot, about Aldo Leopold’s essay “February: Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac. I hope my photographs here are able to impart some of what Leopold refers to in that essay. I think it’s best summed up with one of his most famous quotes:

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.  

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.  

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from…

I don’t believe, of course, that burning wood (burning anything) makes me a conservationist…many would quite possibly think it makes me the opposite.  I will say we’ve never had to fell live trees to burn wood.  A windstorm three years back has now made it likely we won’t be wanting for wood for a decade or more around here.  I also realize that most of North America was once forested.  And I live in a region of the country that was once prairie for as far as the eye could wander.  Now it’s mostly corn, if it’s summer, and if it’s winter, as it is now, it’s mostly scarred land.  I keep ruminating on that word as I travel the state of Iowa this time of year…scarred.  The rows of green corn stalks are quite beautiful to behold in the summer, I’ll admit, undulating in the wind, mimicking the prairie grasses long displaced.  But the empty, aching land is troublesome in the winter.

Brian works a few times a month at an ethanol plant.

I live in Iowa.

I read Leopold.

I stack wood.

I ponder.

The words of “Good Oak” were written over 60 years ago…the lessons will never die.

There is much to ponder in a split of a wood.

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15 thoughts on “Cut, Split, Haul, Stack, Ponder: Leopold’s ‘Good Oak’

  1. How lovely this is. I stacked and waited for the split wood many , many years, pondering as you do. It is good to Ponder Truth and let Love in, and surround one with its warmth. There are many riches in that lovely activity , not bought in stores but riches in Spirit. Thank you for the reminder…Merri

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    • Thank you for your comments, Merri. I like very much how you phrased it–“riches in Spirit”…a very good reminder for those days when nothing seems to go right. Stacking wood does seem to strengthen both body & soul. xx

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  2. My husband always chants, heating with wood warms you twice. I agree with you about being a conservationist, not the other way around. We burn local sawmill remnants. And, yes, the boys do find and keep artistic cuts for their own. We used to live in rural IL and I love reading your blog, feels like home….

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    • Thank you for commenting! Always wonderful to find a connection online. We used to live in extreme SE Iowa & traveled over the Big Muddy to rural IL often. There wasn’t much there, but the drive was always interesting & peaceful.

      I like your husband’s motto–warms you twice. I will be sure to remind my husband of that perk the next time the wood splitter goes into hibernation & he is forced to hand split. xx

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  3. Your photos and text replay the Aldo essay beautifully. He’d be proud of you to remember him this way. As the crow flies, Vinton is not too far from his farm where the events of Leopold’s essays occurred. Daddy

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  4. What a beautiful post. We went through the South and Midwest this year on a family trip and thought “how beautiful” immediately followed by “probably bleak in winter”. Our (American) all out combine harvester farming and mono-culture are probably to blame for that. The prairies aught to have a lot of deep rooted grasses in them.

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    • You got it exactly right–bleak, monoculture. Where we live there are miles and miles and miles AND MILES of dead, empty fields. I keep closing my eyes and imagining what it would have looked like in the 1700s…I can only imagine. xx

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  5. Lovely post today. I am smiling at your interpretation of the wood splitter.How useful that you get your wood from wind fallen trees…we have the birch bark beetle that reeks havoc on our trees and folks try to use as much of the wood that they destroy for either building or fire wood.
    Continue to ruminate….you do so beautifully.
    Stay warm 🙂

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    • Birch are probably my favorite species of tree–so sad there is a beetle destroying yours! There are not a lot of birches here where I live. In NE Iowa there are quite a few paper birch, I love those. It is awesome we can share a chuckle across the miles at the folly around us (that darn wood splitter!). Thank you for visiting, Camilla. xx

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  6. Ruby, your daughter Coralee is incredibly talented – I’ll be watching her! I have never heard of Aldo Leopold before but I think A Sand County Almanac needs to be on my self – thanks so much for the lovely introduction 🙂 xo

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  7. I have to say, I grew up in a house that relied solely on wood heat (there was oil backup, but we never left longer than a day without someone home in winter because my parents didn’t really trust it). My dad used to get a load of cut timber each year — first he’d hook up his tractor to his big saw to cut the big logs, then the splitter, then we stack it by cords in a very particular way all measured out. He knew exactly how much we’d need for our house and he’d sell (and deliver) the excess to locals families. I’m pretty sure that paid for heating our house every year. I was not allowed near the saw, but occasionally got to help on the splitter and definitely in the stacking and loading the truck. If you can’t tell, this post made me super nostalgic!

    Oh, and ps I just got a new copy of A Sand County Almanac. Once I finish the current book I’m reading with my son (The Wind Masters — it’s amazing, I bet Merritt would love it!), I’m so there!

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    • That’s a great memory from your childhood, Sarah! Stacking wood truly is one of my favorite ways to spend a brisk fall afternoon. I grew up in a house that relied primarily on solar power for heat, with 2 fireplaces as back-up. I never had a warm shower! Drove me crazy, but that was back when solar was really new. It must be more reliable/efficient nowadays. Thanks for the book tip for Merritt! Happy Holidays!

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  8. WOW! Great post. The images are excellent … the picture of the family wood splitter is priceless (and ageless?) … Powerful and redemptive words that resonate with another artist / one who spends time with trees and wood. Oak? Ohhhh, I am (admittedly) envious. We cannot get oak around here. If the rare opportunity comes up to buy it, a strong-pretty penny is required. Again, a great post.

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    • Thank you, T, for your praise of my post. I actually feel like the writing of it was inspired somewhat by your blog–you’re always so insightful. Iowa used to be roughly 20% woodlands and oak/hickory were the primary inhabitants. It’s not like that anymore, sadly. I hope you stay warm this holiday season! Peace!

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