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Zen In The Art Of Hand Logging

Zen In The Art Of Hand Logging

You are told a lot about your education,
but some beautiful, sacred memory,
preserved since childhood,
is perhaps the best education of all.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

Ah, Sunday mornings were made for sleeping in! What a treat!

Eventually it was time to get up of course. Our parents saw to that.

Eat your breakfast. Get changed. Go to church -- what a drag.

I used to bring things to church that I could play with while trapped inside.

One of my favorites was just a ball of paraffin wax. It was hard and inflexible at first, but gradually softened and changed as I feverishly worked and warmed it.

Saying that I was a behavior problem with at Sunday "school" would have earned an understatement award in any contest. Luckily for the community one day my Sunday ritual changed.

At eleven years old I came of age and was given permission by my mom to opt out of church if I wanted to. Gee, let's see, tough choice. Not.

Sunday Mornings Less Travelled

The alternate activity with the most allure was what my father did each Sunday. Hand logging. Venturing into the woods with just a few hand tools, returning with sweaty clothes and winter firewood.

One of the more interesting aspects of this endeavour was that we did it in the middle of a fairly large city. Without asking.

But number two in my books was that I would be my dad's assistant, catching crumbs that fell from the master.

Words can not describe the difference between the two activities. Sunday school was a literal prison, complete with brain-washing sessions. Hand logging offered fresh air, exercise, adult-building experiences and the wonderful rhythyms of a naturally circular, step-by-step activity.

Few activities offer such a wide range of outdoor experiences in a single process. A tree first had to be felled, then delimbed, bucked into shorter lengths and finally readied for transport -- and that was just "the outward half". The half outside our property.

Once the logs had been repatriated to their rightful home -- our yard -- we could begin the various steps involved in transforming them into heat, light, and the wonderfully indescribable atmosphere of a flaming fireplace.

City to Forest in 5 Minutes

If I didn't have it at first, I gradually developed an acutely sensitive set of ears. On Sundays they were tuned to that singularly marvelous question -- "Care to join me for a bit of logging?"

That phrase was all the seasonal reference I needed -- winter had begun!

In a falsely reserved way I would casually nod my acceptance of Jayce's offer. Yeah, sure. Why not. Nothing else better to do (that's for sure!)

Never one to be hurried, nor slowed for that matter, my father would finish breakfast before changing and heading down to the basement.

That was it, the official starter's pistol. Let the fun begin!

In retrospect I am exceptionally appreciative of the fact that my father never told me that hand-logging was actually good for me. The clandestine aspects of "taking" public wood and later, of being able to occasionally steer the carload on the way home were more than enough intrigue to keep me motivated at the time. The deeper lessons took many years of unconscious contemplation to realize.

The Ride

Riding our bikes there was the easy part -- all downhill, and a steep one at that. In a matter of minutes we were "in the ballpark", slowly coasting along the powerline right-of-way, with my father nonchalantly looking up at the tree line.

Pulling his bike over to the side, he started up a trail I had not even noticed -- a surprisingly wide swath through the dense raspberry vine-like scrub that always thrived in clearcut areas, like under power lines. We had to take our bikes up with us since we never carried locks, or at least not locks that we actually used, and soon had them stashed to the side of the trail so they couldn't be seen from the road.

Resuming our trek up the rest of the path, we were in the trees themselves in a matter of minutes. And what a transition.

Saying the northwest is a rainforest is either redundant or futile. Those who have never lived here can not really imagine how much rain falls in a given month, let alone the early winter months, while those of us who live here have simply removed any question of "what is the weather like?" from our vocabulary. Wet, damp, raining, misting, pouring, threatening or just blustery -- if it wasn't one of those right now, it would be before you got home, so layer accordingly.

This was why being in the woods themselves was such a treat. Trees made wet weather interesting, rich, varied and acceptable. Providing protection that, unlike umbrellas, was three-dimensional, they were like guardians as you stood among them. With all the first growth logged off long ago, the mixed forest was Nature's way of supporting and encouraging diversity. All beings were welcomed, nurtured and transfixed by her greatest accomplishment.

Scouting the Tree

As I stood and soaked up the ambience, my father actively sized up the finalists, using skills and powers of reasoning that I could not yet fathom.

To the best of my recollection every tree we ever felled was an alder. According to Jayce, Alder was the tree of choice. Quick growing, easy to work with and good burning properties ...apparently. All I knew was that the cut bark had a kind of orange color that looked very cool and distinctive in the otherwise green and brown forest.

By now my father had made up his mind. The search had not taken very long, nor been very wide ranging as my father was never one to be overly precise about anything. Nor was he ever far off the mark, no matter the subject. If pressed to describe him in just a word or two, I would have to say "balanced" or "curious". If allowed a third, "contented".

As I looked up at the tree that would gradually become ours, I could find nothing "better" about this one and perhaps it appeared not even as good as its neighbors. In later years I would learn that my father was considering things like the girth of a tree -- too small and it didn't have enough wood to make it worth the effort of branch removal, too big and the "rounds" would be too big for the fireplace. All I knew was that the only trees never chosen were "leaners", being much too hard to control where they would fall and even more dangerously unpredictable if one were to try to change their Newtonian predilections.

First Things First

My father was a marvelously consistent person. The tree was approached the same as any other task, book to be read, or nap to be taken. Jayce relished beginnings, a clean slate. Preceded by a little planning or maybe a pencil sketch on the back of an envelope, all his instincts distilled into an approach, the methods of which would be any bricklayer's envy.

Jayce's well-reasoned certainty of how he would approach the task at hand was amplified by an upbringing, or lack thereof, that had brought out an independence that few ever approach. Still there were some aspects of hand logging that always caused him to turn briefly professorial.

Safety for sure was one of those areas.

While thoroughly clearing the brush from near the tree trunk, Jayce would point out that the first step was always to "clear an area". He relished the phrase and added emphasis to it every time he used it. His tone was still matter-of-fact and quiet but this moment always culminated with a stern look in my direction.

I pitched in with him and soon we had cleared back any small bush branches, dead wood or fallen limbs that had the slightest chance of impeding our progress. All this wrestling with amazingly uncooperative thorn bushes seemed like unnecessary effort and aggravation, but as my years of hand- logging experience accumulated the wisdom of this simple act sunk in deeper and deeper, like a massive pile being driven ever so slowly but effectively into the ground.

Perhaps one of the reasons that computers have become so ubiquitous as a writer's medium is the instant availability of a clean workspace -- a blank screen -- with just the click of a mouse.

Still, it never seized to amaze me that those little bushes were at least as hard to clear away as the tree itself. Like lightly coiled springs, each branch only had strength when you tried to split it in two. Push it away and it came back. Bend it backward on itself to break it and it would simply unfurl at its own pace while you weren't looking.

Only later did I realize that we had never used a machete or similar tool. Given Jayce's great simplification and safety principles, I have to assume a machete was too aggressive a tool and thus too dangerous. He had realized that brush trimming was an area that could safely be mastered by the mental adjustment of one's patience level.


At this point if we hadn't used any tools yet, it was time to.

The most respected instrument, in terms of how it was to be handled, was a very sharp double-headed axe. I was almost never allowed to use it, even in my teens. In the earliest days of assisting my father, a hatchet was all I was trusted with and even then my mistakes in technique were noted and commented on. Eventually a second, much duller, double-headed axe was entrusted to me and I proudly used it for delimbing the newly fallen trees (and splitting rounds when I was older still).

Our most deadly weapon, from the tree's point of view, was our suede (pronounced "swede") saw. More a classic or an antique than a mechanized monster, it worked through the tree much like the ancient Egyptians worked through limestone.

To visualize what a suede saw looks like, imagine a large archer's bow made of tubular steel about an inch thick, yet with the frame very light and approachable. The blades, also about an inch thick, were like dwarf versions of what we see at lumberjack shows, bolted into place like hacksaw blades.

Since all our preliminary work in the woods was done via bicycle, the saw was like our panamax ship -- just fitting on the bike frame yet still allowing for free movement of our feet, riding with a saw on board was a proud moment. Putting us a cut above those who simply peddled to get somewhere.


We still have that saw somewhere in the basement, gathering dust but by no means forgotten. These days it is more likely to be used for sawing up discarded two by fours or large garden prunings. Its last major use was by my father when he was almost 80 years old and living on a houseboat.

It has become an inseparable part of our family, another way to pinpoint our uniqueness. Like a farmer's retired work dog, it is kept warm and comfortable out of respect earned from many years of faithful service.

Seude saw blades were another matter -- never one to buy new when something old could be reused, my father resharpened them with, ah, old world techniques and less than impressive results.

If a tree falls in the forest

The suede saw worked with our lifestyle and in the most important way of all -- it was a near silent operator.

Saying that my father was anti-chainsaw is like saying that symphony audiences are not the types to scream and cheer. Chainsaw users were called "SUB-tle" -- Jayce's way of saying that they weren't.

It is easy to see the need for a chainsaw at times, and just as easy to see how many times it would have been a welcome break for the peace of mind of those involved if some over-zealous back yard operator opted for a handsaw instead.

As for us, we knew only one way and were willing foot soldiers in "saw wars". In fact, my hand logging days were so incredibly natural and peaceful that I draw on them to this day some 35 years later. Enough so that I feel little need to be out in nature on a regular basis. Thanks dad.


To my impatiently youthful eyes, my father always seemed to do something only after every possible act of delay had been exhausted. So it was with falling a tree. I was often cold, wet and tired before the saw was even brought to bear.

After tree selection, my father then visualized the natural direction of fall. If this was not ideal, he imagined what slight correction he could make that would not push the laws of physics into dangerous territory.

Next he would establish a cutting position. A couple of opening draws on the seude saw tested if the surrounding bushes were still too close. A few more sawing motions established the groove.

At last it was time to start sawing in earnest.

I got a breather at this point and usually used it to study the tree we had selected while meditatively enjoying the rhythmic sounds of the saw's teeth penetrating each year of a tree's life.

As a youngster this was a time when I was more of a problem than anything else to my father.

"Stay well back. Over here. Trees fall in unpredictable ways."

Physics + Humbleness = Success

Much of what went into the next few minutes was lost on me at first but gradually I came to understand how my father did it.

Any woodsman will be quick to tell you that falling a tree is not something you should ever take lightly. Professional fallers are acutely aware that their profession is one of the most deadly in the world. If you want to survive tree falling, numerous critical techniques have to be mastered, and the sooner the better.

Falling is a mixture of elementary physics and "the devil is in the details" intangibles. Without meaning to offend, it really is best to start with the most self-evident parts first and hope you are still listening when the really tricky bits are covered.

At a minimum, you have to cut through a tree with your saw. This needs to be said because much of what actually gets done is not cutting with a saw! If you blindly start cutting through a tree, then at some point you will very predictably come to a complete halt. Why? Your saw will bind, becoming wedged into the tree with more force than even the steel blade itself can withstand.

As a tree is cut, its massive weight settles, bearing down on the very gap you have created. To avoid this, there are two things you can do.

As you saw into the trunk, you can take wedges and drive them into the cut behind your saw blade. You will need to periodically tap them to make sure they are taking the load and you may need more than one to do the job properly. And hopefully the wedges hold the cut open until you complete it.

Alternatively, and more typically, you can undercut.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the power of an undercut is with an analogy. Ever tried to push your friend over? You lock horns and struggle and strain and yet maybe you are the one to buckle first! On the other hand if you sneak up behind them and bend your knee into the leg they have currently locked straight, they are halfway to the ground before they know it. With one hundred times less effort.

An undercut is really the way to go and is done on the back side of the trunk -- the side in the direction of the fall. Usually done with an axe, to avoid binding a saw, a notch is created. This weakness gives the tree room to bend, making it easier for it to fall over and thus harder for it to jackknife -- the tree's equivalent of an automotive backfire and probably the number one cause of death among tree fallers.

Ah Yes, Direction

One of the more enjoyable things about my father was that he never claimed to be perfect, frequently showed his weaknesses and took any criticism or jokes quietly in stride. The number of times we got lost on car trips were far beyond counting and a sure way to draw a laugh even years later when many of my childhood memories had already faded to black.

Jayce was a man of rhythyms and meditations. They gave him tranquility and a winning attitude, but took away in the short-term efficiency department. To put it diplomatically.

Still, none of this was true about tree falling directions.

Without a lot of fuss or outward signs of effort and calculation, Jayce knew where he wanted the tree to go and how he was going to make it go there. And he had his escape route mapped out, cleared of debris and away from any possible route the tree had planned to the ground. The goal was for the tree to fall in a safe and predictable way, with a minimum of collateral effects and a plan B escape route in case a portion of the woods tried to get too up close and personal.

Since this was hand logging after all, it was always nice if the tree did some of the work of moving itself out of the forest for us. At the same time, gravity was always the biggest factor. The massive stand of trees we endlessly drew from without denting was part of "The Pits" -- a huge ravine on the backside of the steep hill we lived on. Just cycling up the streets we lived on was tiring enough -- moving tons of logs uphill was not something we wanted any part of.

Given the general lay of the hill, Jayce also tried to factor in how other trees and their branches would affect our alder, or vice-a-versa. Invariably a compromise would be reached that allowed safe passage past the still standing trees, mostly or entirely avoiding the dreaded hang-up of the fallen tree, and aimed downward toward our access trail.

Don't Force It

As a child most of this was quite lost on me. Standing at a distance the first few times, eventually I was at least allowed to do some of the cutting. Awkward at best, it involved working in cramped and obstacle-ridden confines while drawing the saw in a sideways fashion that did not impart much force to the cutting teeth. It quickly exhausted but provided a satisfactory reward when the blade was in motion.

Handing the saw back to Jayce, I watched as he finished the through cut. Getting the two cuts to line up was a bit hit-and-miss, but close enough worked too. A forty foot tall tree was not likely to remain standing when only a half-inch strip of wood was left as its only tether.


One last set of warnings to me and he delivered the final strokes of the saw, at times continuing to cut even as the tree started to move. Sometimes, in mid-cut, there were warning cracks and strains. Other times it just silently and swiftly started to move.

Then, in a few seconds, one of Nature's mightiest organisms was at rest on the forest floor.

With the tree now horizontal I was once again busy, delimbing the branches and assisting my father with bucking the tree into lengths.

When I first started to help my father I was only allowed to use a small single-bladed hatchet to remove branches. In later years I was given, after the requisite weekly warning, the duller of the two double-bladed axes. Like every other youth I was impatient with the tool I was given and yearned for more power, not more control.

What youth lacks in brains and experience, it eagerly makes up for in brawn and bravado. Until you hurt yourself. With axe work it is not really a matter of if, but when. Swinging a hatchet or axe with branch-chopping energy is more than enough force to penetrate flesh and bone, even with just a glancing blow.

Luckily the hatchet was pretty dull.

The big tip on delimbing is that it requires a specific direction of approach. If you try to chop "down tree" -- hitting into the crook of the limb, toward the thickest part of the tree -- you will encounter more resistance, expend much more energy and have less room to work in. And swinging harder will increase your chance of injury.

The Soft Uppercut Trumps The Brute Force Approach

Again and again my father encouraged me to swing upward, aiming at the underside of the branch, but right next to the trunk. Done properly, the branches almost bounce off the tree. Done with youthful enthusiasm and you would launch the hatchet or axe at a 90 degree angle to the branch at very high speed!

A youth enthusiastically swinging a hatchet is a one man wrecking crew, with only one crew man to wreck -- oneself.

Two hands, even on the hatchet, helped steady it. Trying to hit the right spot with less force produced a more accurate hit and still got the job done, if perhaps a little more slowly. Still, the only way to survive a day or two of delimbing was proper body position.

Golfers putting out on the green with others still to putt will often lean way over to avoid stepping on the potential path of their partner's next putt. A similar approach worked here -- keep your distance not just from the tree but from where the axe will go when (not if) it glances off.

It was a good idea to take care if you still wanted to be able to kick a soccerball or jog a marathon later in life.

My father was a remarkably reticent man when it came to letting us try things. Even dangerous things. A few words, and that look, and he would let you have a go at it. Maybe even let you miss once or twice without comment.

But things you were sure to hear and remember were "Don't force it", "If you have to force it, you're doing it wrong" and "Let the saw (or axe) do the work."

Such good advice. "Don't force it" could serve as the penultimate motto for us all.

It Sunk In

We live in self-evident times. The atom has been split, we've been to the moon and back, dammed countless rivers and built million block, ten thousand million pound pyramids.

We can do whatever we want.

Freedom, economic wealth unheard of even 200 years ago, and twice the free time our ancestors had -- no wonder we get itchy feet and have gravitated to "extreme" sports.

There is just one problem though. When do we find time to learn?

That guy on TV pulling the 900 degree jump on the skateboard -- when did he learn? Olga Korbut, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds -- do we give them any training time or is it like the guy in Shawshank -- "just give me that chance!" and they turn out to be born professionals.

A Penny For Your Thoughts

We talk about effort, and willpower. Opportunity, and sacrifice. Endless hours devoted each day. The importance of good coaching.

But what about the value of reflection?

Significant things are not usually understood at first blush. Relativity didn't pop into Einstein's head in between music tracks on his walkman. Nor did Einstein conceive of relativity after sitting with his head in his books for 100 hours straight.

Relativity came to Einstein while he was riding on a trolley on the way to work. In one of many quiet chances for reflection he made the most of.

Don't Just Nod Your Head Knowingly

We may have heard about the importance of "meditating" on something, but it doesn't usually sink in. It isn't Hollywood enough. There isn't much of an adrenalin rush in calm thinking. Instead, we all "just want that chance!!!"

The sinking in part takes time. And peace and quiet. And time.

It can't all be conveyed to you here -- it is an inward, not an outward process. But don't neglect this aspect of craft mastery. Unless you have already resigned yourself to a life of average.

Save Some

We never completed the hand logging process on any given Sunday.

Thank goodness, or it would have been back to the ball of wax!

Usually right when I was working up a sweat, breathing hard and chomping at the bit to do more, my father would announce that we had done enough for one day.

If I continued, he might even raise the volume of his voice. An outburst by his standards. Admonishing me to save some some.


Youth lacks balance. My father had it in spades.

Instead of working ourselves to exhaustion, we would gather our tools, wrap up the axe heads and head back to our bikes with a wonderful feeling of contentment. Something I hope you have a chance to attract to yourself one day.

You can't experience deep contentment just by completing a marathon -- that is too empty an accomplishment. It won't come to you by beating another human being -- competition with others is not the way.

Deliberately selecting a labor intensive task that is at once simple and sublime, then completing part of the task but stopping maybe half way -- that can be a way.

Judge your task's balance by how good that cup of tea tastes afterward. By how vivid the sites and sounds of nature are when you close your eyes for a brief after-lunch siesta. And by how peaceful your thinking is the rest of the day.



Even though I never felt like quitting, I had to admit a lot had been achieved that day. A tree had been chosen, then felled. Maybe half the branches had been removed and several lengths of trunk had been sawed free and were ready for flipping out to the road.

We hiked back down to our bikes, feeling the sweat and warmth for perhaps the first time. What a great way to get out of your tiny little world of aches and pains and wants! Here you were, doing hand-to-hand battle with a goliath and you had triumphed, or at least survived!

In the days before "natural high", we knew we were on one.

The Ride Back

At our bikes we re-attached our tools with a bit of string or wire, and pushed the bikes back out to the road. The ride back was always a humbling act, perhaps too humbling to a brash youngster. Everyone else used a truck or a car and here we were riding a vehicle that few other adults at that time used at all, even for recreation.

All too soon we were at the road and ahead lay the grind, uphill all the way.

Youth doesn't plan too far ahead, and by about half way back, now walking, I was more than glad to have left some work, and energy, in reserve.


My father never seemed to get tired, much less exhausted. Like some kind of generating plant that turned at a steady rpm, he knew himself better than anyone I have ever met. He simply outran the competition while never competing with anyone.

Step by step I walked, and pushed, climbing the half mile of Everest-like slopes. Youthful impatience worked against me. I checked out the neighbors and neighborhood, without really savoring the moment or gaining from it.

Eventually my father would stop peddling ahead of me and walk with me.

Conversation might happen, or not. Topics could be all over the map. Jayce might remark on how beautiful a day it was. Or if it was raining, on how fresh the air was, or how perfect the temperature.

Cresting the hill we had a short level ride before we were done -- pleasantly buzzed, appreciative and contented.

Accomplishment is king and we had QED'd the theorem once again.


The following week we would return by bicycle, coasting downhill with our feet once again straddling the tools lashed to our bike frames.

Hiking up the trail to where it first widened, we again stashed our bikes by tipping them into the brush so they couldn't be seen from the road. Unlashing our tools, we would hike the rest of the way up the trail to where the fallen tree lay, partially hewn, in a clearing of its own making.

With the stage already cleared, today's work would require a steady output of muscle energy directed at finishing up the sawing and de-limbing processes.

Youth Versus Brains

Youthful energy would plunge recklessly into the task, ignoring the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. Maturity would pace itself, steadily sawing away at each roughly measured length.

Undercuts were as important here as during falling but were more likely to be forgotten. With the forest floor so uneven, the huge weight of the tree was constantly seeking a more settled posture, and what started off as an easy cut would frequently change to a friction-filled workout or worse, a trap for the saw blade.

Wedges, Tradeoffs And Balance

The first bound-up saw signalled that it was time for some wedging. Unlike the humiliation and danger of using wedges during falling, wedges in the bucking-up-into-lengths stage were safer and very labor-saving. The small hatchet pulled double duty, alternately driving in wedges then trimming branches.

Slowly but surely we would advance horizontally "up" the tree. The lower sections of the tree were the fattest but had the fewest branches -- a nice trade-off since they had to be cut shorter or we would not be able to lift them out. Later sections could be longer and still be liftable, but were often heavy with branches.

Typically on day two we would finish the bucking up process and probably flip a few more trunk sections down the trail. There was no set goal, and certainly no excessive ambition. We worked at a task that my father loved. He considered it exercise, an interesting mental challenge and a spiritual retreat.

Having no such lofty goals I plunged head long into it and, quickly tiring, forced myself onward with a much more temperamental and less rewarding mindset.


Flipping was a unique activity in itself. The first stage of the process, hefting the trunk section up to chest height, was more like weightlifting. Then one had to quickly become a strategist to figure out the spot to flip the section into.

One goal was to consider the general direction we were taking, which sadly was not always downhill. Another goal was using log flips to also flatten thorn bushes that were now in the way of an easy exit. But the most interesting goal was to use other logs to achieve bonus distance.

The first two or three logs were flipped so that they were pointed downhill and/or in the general direction we were going. Later logs would then be flipped so that they landed sideways on the earlier sections and thus wanted to roll, log over log. When it worked, this could save you a flip or two, especially if you had widened the trail through previous flips so that the brush was not blocking the falling log tragectories.


There was nothing like an incentive to make you want to perfect your flipping technique. The fact that these advanced efforts took our minds off our physical labors never fully registered with me until decades later. The journey was indeed the reward.

For safety reasons and to avoid having to hike our bodies up and down trail repeatedly, all logs would be flipped to about the same point before advancing and repeating the flipping process. Alternating log flips gave each of us small breathers. Watching each other's handiwork was an added bonus.

All these challenges and work "grooves" and gains helped make up for the fact that the naturally luxuriant green tree was becoming white (saw cuts), brown (dirty) and orange (where the bark was partially removed with an axe). The transition from Nature to fuel came with sufficient costs of effort, risk and humble tool usage that we never felt like greedy materialists.

In time we were back where our bikes were stashed, only this time we had eight or ten 5-foot lengths with us. The bikes were then relocated nearer the road and the lengths slipped into their place.

The unproblematic process completed, it was time for another long uphill ride home.

Log Loading

In a family with more bikes than people, the loading and unloading stage was always a bit more exciting -- for me anyway. To bring the wood back we had to use our car!

In the 70s not too many American cars had a one-barrel carburator. Even fewer were station wagons. The fact that our one-barrel carb station wagon had been bought with the money from selling our overly gas-guzzling previous station wagon was further proof of my father's one-of-a-kind view of life. Just a few years later the rest of the world would be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a more energy-conserving mindset. Jayce didn't have to change a thing.

The Chevy II was spartan in other ways as well, but it had a great heart. In fact, after my father had used it for 11 years, pulling 5 kids and a home-built trailer full of camping supplies over mountain passes to wonderful summer holiday camping destinations, I ended up buying and using it for another 25,000 miles myself.

For now, it was our horse and wagon.


Hitching the trailer to the car was another of those oft-repeated but never mastered actions. The weight of the trailer, multiplied by the minor slope irregularities in our gravel driveway, and the need to truly cinch up the threads on the clamping mechanism so it wouldn't slip free on its own -- any one of these was easy enough to deal with by itself, but taken together they were more like a Zen master's koan to his student -- a task that appeared simple at first but proved easy only for the master.

In time, with effort and reflection, understanding and mastery came to the student -- me.

Once the trailer was hooked up and we were on the road, my father would invariably point out how the trailer had changed the driving properties of the car, for the worse. How it in fact drove the car. Decades later and that point still resonates with me -- yet I've never heard any one else but an accident investigator talk about it much less teach it. Despite a large percentage of the population towing trailers to summer camp grounds at breakneck speeds as they passed the remains of other trailers already in the ditch.

A man of few but ever so well-chosen words, my father could have been a great salesman (if it had interested him in the least). Instead, and luckily for me, he chose the path of sharing, and his voracious curiosity kept him fueled with things to share.

If an abundance of curiousity isn't the most important quality one can develop, I don't know what is. Jayce made trailers and brakes and work and risk ...interesting things to think about. His greatest gift to me.

On The Q.T.

In short order, the trailer-driven car arrived at the foot of the path and here the, er, "informal" nature of our endeavour would become a bit more apparent.

My father would be quieter than usual, and what he said would be in a lower tone of voice. He might even quietly suggest I keep things "nice and low key". We had some wood to quietly borrow.

To increase our chances, we minimized our time spent on the road. Moving up the trail to where the logs had been stored, we flipped the log sections the final one or two lengths needed for them to find the ditch walls and cascade down into the bottom of the ditch. Only the logs that we could carry in that trip would be flipped to the curb and loaded a few moments later.

Time for the getaway, er, drive home.

Young Driver At Work

At first I was more likely to get a chance to just start the car and pull it forward at the log pile site. Later I might get to lean over and steer the car on its slow, uphill return trip. In my early teens I occasionally got to full-out drive it. But not always and I couldn't expect it. Such things were earned, and done only when things seemed "cool".

In any case I happily took what I could get.

Unlike most people's early driving experiences, my father was more intent on explaining the car's point-of-view than worrying about where I was on the road or if I had done a Motor Vehicle approved signal, etc. In fact one of his favorite driving-related themes was how the ultimate in good driving was to have driven a mile or two and not be aware that you had just done so. The philosophical depth behind that statement continues to impress me, decades later.

Not Just Rats

We often joke about the rat race but rarely realize that this makes us rats, in races. If we do, we too often get caught up in the thrill of the race, and fail to see the negative consequences of such aggressive and competitive behavior. A big part of my father's legacy is that he tried to be good at things, but never to compete at them.

Jayce never considered himself anything but a humble peasant, in his words, yet he developed such a broad and compelling world view that us kids couldn't resist adopting and using it also. We would have resisted if he had competed with us. Instead he led us by curiosity, analysis and a humble deeply-reflective way of re-appreciating things.

Wisdom leads to more wisdom and things worth appreciating lead to other things worth appreciating.


Jayce was a fountain of youth, an endlessly flowing spring of encouragement and a labor-loving peasant example of how to live the good, i.e. simple, life.

On any of those lucky occasions where I got to drive the car home, in addition to the inevitable remark about how the now heavily-laden trailer was in charge, emphasis was also placed on the now load-diminished abilities of the brakes.

If I said that the way other people operate the brakes in their cars has been an ongoing area of study ever since might not believe me. But there it is. You learn a lot about someone by how they use their brakes.

When my father identified something important, it was often also something that others didn't get at all. And still didn't, even as adults. I not only got valuable lessons, but in my youth, so that they're acorn-like roots could hopefully grow into mighty oaks of wisdom.

A unique man, a true thinker, a fundamentals-practicing coach, provider and dad. Hoo-ah.

Nascar Fan He Wasn't

In the days before "jack rabbit starts" were called what they were, my father was already the most brake-friendly driver on the road. Why mat the gas pedal when you were about to need the brakes? And don't heave on the brakes -- gently pump them instead.

Hills always brought out the most words. When descending "under load" -- people, logs or otherwise -- he would use a lower gear even if it meant going much slower than everyone else would like. Above all, he never for one second took the act of driving for granted.

Demonstrating both the least and the most attention to driving, my father excelled at this essential parenting function. And no doubt saved the life of myself and my siblings from this number one killer.

Parking A Trailer

All too soon the drive home would end. If I was behind the wheel Jayce would get me to pull to the side of the road on the short flat section just above our home. The steep street we lived on, the load we carried, the rough-and-narrow driveway -- way too many factors to expect me to master at such a young age. Risk-averse, yet fearless, my father would calmly complete the trip by backing the trailer into our driveway and one load of logs was docked at their new berth.

With the two or three foot height advantage the logs now had in the trailer, tipping them onto the ground and over to the side of the driveway was largely straightforward and uneventful. A calm anti-climax to a gravity-defying trip that our ancestors would marvel at. How it was all done using horses and sleighs is a bit hard to imagine.

The Final Cuts

Sunday morning and time for work! Clothes on, breakfast done, out we would go.

I don't know how many fall days I spent outside with my dad working on logs but it was as common and accepted as carrying water would have been a hundred years earlier.

Had we been chainsaw users, bucking up the rounds would have been done on site. Splitting too might have been automated with a power auger that effortlessly embedded itself then pried apart round after round with assembly-line monotony. Instead, we were heaving around 5-foot 100-pound lengths, wrestling them onto homemade rickety-legged sawhorses.

Reaching for our suede saws once again, rough knicks would be made with the saw to indicate where we would cut the log into rounds. No careful measuring or use of a template here. After knicking the entire length and observing how wide each gap was, a fresh round of corrective knicks might be called for, and made.

Rounds That Satisfy

A typical length would be cut into five pieces, with four cuts. The first cut was easy -- it was made on the lighter section already extending over one end of the sawhorse and was a straight through cut, much like the ones lumberjacks make in their hand-sawing competitions.

As the sawing would begin, often too hastily, I would be admonished to "relax", "let the saw do the work", and "don't force it". How many times I would be told that I don't know but the reminders sunk in. Eventually.

Amazing how hard it is to be moderate, or balanced. How much easier to put everything into it. Yet how much less effective and even wasteful.

With the thinner "sticking out the ends" cuts done, the log that remained was slightly bigger than the width of the sawhorse. The only way to cut it completely through was to make two partial saw cuts, turn the log over and complete the two cuts as accurately as possible.

Youth again plunged into the remaining cuts, with mixed results. Often I would cut right through one cut, leaving a very awkward "single-cutter" that Jayce would have to hold, or even lift, the whole time for me. Other times I would cut too far and the log would start to bind against the saw blade. Equally frustrating was when my eager but wild cutting produced crooked results that didn't line up. Now the lengths would not split into rounds no matter how many times I lifted and dropped them onto other rounds. Argh!

Despite these setbacks, hand-sawing the lengths into rounds was one of the more engaging and solidifying activities of my childhood and it would be impossible to not have good memories of this experience. The adage "don't tell them its good for them" comes to mind.

Splitting, Part One -- Mental Preparation

Over a period of weeks, with fall turning to winter, the 100-pound log lengths would gradually be converted into smaller fireplace sized rounds that could be stored inside right away. Over-sized rounds would first need to be split into half or quarter rounds, producing "middle sized" wood in Jayce parlance.

Round splitting was meant to be another "groove" activity -- done in an unhurried manner, for greatest enjoyment and safety, or not done at all if I was doing it with a too-impatient headspace. I wonder how many youngsters were fortunate enough to be given feedback about their headspace while working with their parents on "chores".

Our headspace determines whether we are thrashing or growing, fighting or relishing, in tune or grinding our gears. If we haven't become aware of our youthful over-blunt approaches to life before we leave the shelter of our parent's home, we could be in for a life of repetitive hard knocks that we bring on ourselves. The WAY we journey is the true destination.

Splitting, Part Two -- The Task Itself

Splitting was done by placing the round to be split on top of a larger round. This elevated the round to a better working height and also protected the axe from the inevitable "follow through" caused by the excess momentum when we split through a round. The bottom "base" round needed split-resistance and so it was often filled with knots that are almost impossible to split. This way a suitable base round could be used many times before we were forced to replace it.

The act of splitting wood is deceptively simple looking. Lift the axe high above your head and swing as hard as you can downward. Nothing to it.

This is certainly true if your goal is to head to the emergency ward. Or if you don't mind becoming exhausted in five minutes or less. Efficient wood splitting, on the other hand, requires powers of analysis, precision and even some counter-intuitive techniques.


Many small and medium-sized rounds were soon ready to be carried into the basement. Destined to be future side pieces in the fire, "keeping the fire in" by burning gradually over a several hour period, they first had to be stacked 5 to 6 feet high along one wall of our basement.

If ever there was part of the entire hand logging operation that a youngster would under-estimate, it would have to be stacking. I mean, you pile the wood up somewhere and you are done. Can't be anything more to it than that, right?

True enough, until the pile collapses right in front of you.

Noisy, violent even, it was like you had been caught with your hand in the cookie jar. At that point simply restacking the pile as quickly as possible was out of the question. Words would be spoken. Sage pieces of advice repeated.

Things like "Keep the bottom logs away from the wall", "gradually stack the logs closer to the wall as you go up" and "the ends are the most important" penetrated my embarassed psyche. From a child's perspective, it all seemed like excess bother. Only in the future would I begin to see the problems, solutions and the dynamics involved.

Home Fire Ingredients

Other types of wood were needed to complete the list of ingredients for a good fire. A smaller form of middle-sized wood was needed to build the fire and throw intense "flame heat" into the room. Kindling was needed to assist in starting winter fires.

Cedar is a remarkable wood, perhaps first utilized by native Americans but in any case versatile in the extreme. Cedar shakes last up to 50 years (compared to asphalt shingles mere 25). Cedar roots yield incredibly long, strong and consistent fibers ...perfect for weaving baskets. Cedar bows are fragrant and yet can burn with great intensity.

To start a fire, long and thin splints are needed, as they catch fire and burn the quickest. Cedar has the most uniform grade making it the easiest wood to split into the oversized matches known as 'kindling'. Cedar is also loaded with an oil that keeps its tinder dry and makes it highly combustible.

One problem with cedar is that the oil is also poisonous. You need to be careful not to get any slivers, and to remove them as soon as possible. One or two slivers wasn't enough to make you ill or anything but, unlike other types of slivers, cedar slivers never stopped irritating.

Middle-sized wood was added to the fire after the kindling had got the flames started. Many different "middle" sizes were useful. At first you had to avoid smothering the delicately flaming kindling pieces. As the fire grew, larger pieces could be added, sometimes supported by the side "keeper" logs so their weight did not crush the pieces below. Once the fire was fully established, pieces as large as half rounds could be added from time to time, or as needed.

Splitting, Part Three -- The Good, The Bad

Creating middle-sized wood involved splitting some of the rounds created earlier. Splitting was one of the more challenging activities because the axe had to be used with varying and sometimes considerable force on pieces of wood that could be knot-filled, unbalanced or just rock-hard.

On the easy end of the scale was splitting alder rounds into halves or thirds. Not a hard wood, and typically with few knots, one hit per split was the norm.

A little tougher would be an alder round with a big knot in it, or something like fir. Legendary as a construction material, fir was also a great burning wood but it had more knots and resin (i.e. glue) than alder.

Splitting a round with plenty of resin or knots involved repeated hits in the same spot or embedding the axe with the first swing and then picking up the whole round, only to swing the whole thing back down on the round below. Repeatedly.

Splitting, Part Four -- The Ugly

It was not uncommon for the axe to come out or suddenly drive straight through the round. Since we hand sharpened the axes, we didn't appreciate the work we created each time we attempted to use them as digging implements.

Occasionally a piece of wood would not yield to the two easiest methods of splitting, forcing us to bring out the bag of wedges. The round would already be littered with axe penetrations and perhaps a crack or two, but it was still largely held together by the iron-like fibers around the knots.

Tapping in a wedge, then another, before returning to pound in the first wedge, etc. would gradually force open the wood. Tiring and fiddly work, there were ways to avoid having to use wedges numerous times on the same round. After an initial wedge-assisted split, the remaining portions might be small enough to fit the fireplace as-is, or be used as side pieces. Phew!

Wheel Them Away

Sawing and splitting were activities that could go on for several weeks. Satisfying work, splitting created huge piles of wood that needed to be hauled away frequently to avoid a cluttered work area.

What better way to do this than with a homemade wheelbarrow. Like the homemade sawhorses, we saw many versions of our wheelbarrows over the years. Often left outside in the rain, they gradually returned to the earth, intent on completing their life cycle.

Before they expired, they went through an extended not-quite-as-easy-to-use-as-they-used-to-be phase. The wheels would become wobbly, to the point of providing free friction braking -- they kept us alert, and taught us such tricks as load-balancing, lift compensation and the importance of smooth motion to maintain momentum. As age-challenged contraptions, they needed a slow-and-steady approach.

Ideal Stacking

Stacking efficiency while loading the wheelbarrow cut down on the number of trips needed. Keeping the front end of the wheelbarrow more full than the back meant the handling properties would be better. And of course, being "relaxed" and "letting the wheelbarrow do the work" were always good bits of advice, even if rarely heeded.

Stacking was a humbling task, seldom mastered until well into the teen years. Of special importance were the ends of the pile. If there was a wall, that was ideal, but if not then the ends had to be "boxed" with alternating directions of wood to stop the pile from cascading to the ground in the days and weeks the wood was stored for each winter.

A more subtle problem was establishing and maintaining the proper angle of the pile. Youth tended to place all the logs right next to the wall itself, but experience knew that the bottom ones had to be some inches away. Even when youth knew this, mistakes were made.

After the second or third collapse we were usually more receptive to Jayce's suggestions and later piles made it through January and February, losing their dignity gradually rather than catastrophically.

Making Kindling

Kindling was prepared on a different timetable than the rounds and middle-sized wood.

We never fell cedar trees, perhaps out of respect for both the girth, and beauty, of these upright creatures but more likely because every now and again we would come across a discarded power pole. Cedar was often used in power poles because the cedar oil was an effective preservative.

All I remember is that we always had two or three cedar rounds waiting in the basement and from time to time we had to go "make some kindling".

Close Combat

In a basement nook next to the furnace, was a stool (round of wood), a small red hatchet, the cedar round to be worked on and the base round that would stop us from chiseling too deeply into the concrete below.

It was very close work, the hatchet just inches from our legs. The round would first be split into quarters or thirds with a larger axe, while we stood back at some distance. Once in quarter pieces, the cedar took little effort to splinter and we rarely had to swing the hatchet. Instead we would place the hatchet on the cedar section, lift both wood and hatchet together and then firmly hammer both down onto the block below.

Smaller pieces of cedar, say tenths of a round, would be held in one hand while the other placed the axe about half an inch in from the edge. A short lift of both, a hammer back down and one piece of kindling was made. The problem was that we used maybe a dozen pieces of kindling with each fire.

Starting Not As Easy As Finishing

Youth starts many things it does not finish. The kindling reserve was measured by the box it was stored in. We were sent down when the box was nearly empty, and we were allowed back upstairs when it was full once again. Fair enough, but no room for an early exit.

Slivers, and the errors that boredom and carelessness created, were the usually minor downsides of this otherwise routine and simple-minded task. The larger benefits were invisible at the time -- improved hand-eye coordination, unconsciously acquired materials analysis skills, ever-improving force estimation, and the subtle "feel good" of task completion -- these prized trophies were not seen as such until many years later.

The Fruit Of Our Labor

For most, having a fire is a one or perhaps a two step process. Get the fire started. Enjoy it.

For Jayce having a fire was the culmination of weeks and months of gratifying, zen-life effort. It was a moment to be appreciated and savored, to say the least. And it saved on the heating bill to boot!

We all shared in his enthusiasm, if for different reasons.

Even in my earliest memories, sitting in front of a fire was a captivating, almost addicting, thing. It didn't hurt that our house was five degrees colder than the average -- 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and just 60 at night.

Being able to pop popcorn in our old-fashioned popper was a nice bonus, but we really didn't need it. The fire was like a dream hatcher -- we peered in, journeyed, and emerged -- satisfied.

It is one of life's great lessons that wonderfully intangible delights can be the product of the most tangible and physical of efforts.

The Fire Itself

Like everything else, Jayce had a unique approach to lighting the fire. Always one to first "clear the area", Jayce savored and humbly laid out the starting materials as a kind of offering to the gods of comfort. For us, the elapsed time from layout to first match always seemed to be several times longer than absolutely necessary.

Small rounds of wood, or half sections of larger rounds were first placed on the sides of the fireplace to act as "keepers" -- at first absorbing heat from the fire to dry themselves out and then later providing considerable fuel to the fire as it went through its most productive burning stages.

In the center of the future fire a bed of paper and kindling was laid out. Despite Jayce's seemingly random approach when we tried to duplicate his layouts we never seemed to achieve the same effects.


The actual lighting of the fire was always delayed a moment or two at this point so that a check could be performed of the wood supply. Was there enough middle-sized to carry the fire to the next step? A bit of extra paper available, just in case? No flamable material too close to the fire? Alright then, time for the match.

Needless to say, I do not recall my father ever having to rush off to quickly grab more wood in a desperate attempt to save a failing fire. That would have reaked of poor planning. Instead Jayce built several wood carriers/holders over the years, stored to the side of the fireplace, and furniture in their own right. My favorite had a handle made out of extremely thick copper power cable.

As kids we all wanted to help light the fire but more often than not he would do it himself. He always wanted to ignite several areas with the same match. We usually became intimidated by the spreading flames as we frantically tried to reach the back areas of the paper bed while the match flame rapidly approached our fragile young fingers.

In time we all became good fire lighters, and enjoyed it with the same satisfaction a wine maker would have when popping the cork of a particularly rare and dignified vintage.


No matter the method, we all soon felt the warmth and radiance of the growing fire. Building it into something larger and more permanent took a bit more effort, but we were up for the task.

Middle-sized pieces had to be added. A task that separated the youthful enthusiasts from the veterans, it involved choosing a piece that was suitably flammable, and yet not too heavy. Later pieces could be wetter, and heavier.

On occasion we applied too much too soon and soon found ourselves staring at a dismal smoking mess. Then the dreaded words "let me have a go."

Fanning The Flames

Trading places with us on one of the low stools, homemade of course, Jayce would reach for a section of newspaper. Unfolding a broadsheet or two, he would hold it up to the fire, leaving a one or two inch gap underneath.

Immediately we would hear the sound of the air as it rushed under the newspaper, entering the firebox at just the right place for the best fire-stoking results. Soon the newspaper was like a glowing lampshade of typography as flames leapt up behind it.

A risky approach, we were never allowed to hold up the newspaper ourselves. The suction of the fire as it lusted for more air would often cause the paper to be drawn into the flames. Tinder dry and in the most flammable orientation, the paper would very quickly burst into flames and need to be abandoned to the fire, often with the help from the poker.

Failing to do this in a timely fashion caused the roaring pages to tip forward onto the hearth, their flames dancing into the room. Not likely to burn the house down, the result nevertheless was soot and ash throughout the room. Our youthful amateurism displayed for all to see.


Combustion. Air and fuel combined together, and given a headstart by a match. You can call it a chemical reaction if you want but to a child it is the magic of the flames -- an endlessly varied screensaver.

Words don't do it justice. More than the consumption of wood to produce heat, a fire is truly heart-warming as so very few things are these days.

A fire is Christmas time, roasting marshmallows on a summer evening or a welcome heat radiator after a long day of skiing. Romance, survival, peril, satisfaction -- all brought to you by the humble flame acting on a sufficient supply of fuel.

With one income and five children, we didn't have much growing up. But we had a lot when we had a fire.


The ash left at the end of a fire is one of the less understood things in life. What is it made of? Why didn't it burn too? Why is it so often white or gray, and not some other color?

A man as technical and curious as my father had the answers, of course, and in time we did as well. The ash components were oxides. The result of oxygen combining with something other than carbon and hydrogen.

Not counting the highly variable water content, wood itself is about 50% cellulose and 50% glue. Cellulose is a very long- chained molecule (think millions of tiny units linked together) that, in its purest form is closer to a plastic like nylon or glass filaments than anything else. The glue -- lignen -- is the binder needed to join the "glass fibers" together and, just as importantly, to protect them from surface abrasions that would drastically weaken fibers best known for their tensile (not compressive) strength.

The cellulose molecule has just three atoms -- carbon, hydrogen and oxygen -- and none of these produces a solid ash after combusion. Lignen contains numerous other minerals and many of these combine with oxygen to produce stable oxides -- the ash.

Air Flow And Heat Exchange

With the binding of oxygen atoms to the lignen minerals, the result is roughly double the size of these pre-fire ingredients. No wonder that it doesn't take long for the ash to accumulate in a fireplace. And as ash accumulates, the combusion properties change as well.

If all of the ash is emptied from the fireplace, it will actually be harder for the air to reach the wood and the fire will burn worse, not better. With too much ash, the burning pieces will tend to tip toward the front of the fire. Then as they break down and redistribute their weight there is a considerable chance they will fall right out of the fire and onto the hearth.

One property of ash, most commonly experienced long after the fire has died down, is that it is very efficient at retaining heat. Just as oil can burn you much more severely than boiling water, due to a higher possible temperature, the fact that ash won't burn means that it can reach extremely high temperatures without changing. Its other property of being a feathery light structure means that it is a super-efficient insulator.

These two properties together mean that the ash in a fireplace remains capable of burning wood or paper for as long as a day or two after the visible fire itself has burned out. It also explains why striking a burning log in a fire will produces sparks and flames -- you are stripping the insulating layer of ash away, revealing the flammable layer underneath.

Rope On A Brick

In reflecting back on my hand-logging experiences, it is hard to say which part of the process was the most enjoyable. Or the most originally performed. We certainly didn't wear out our telephone directory looking up the names of services companies!

Take chimney cleaning for example. Most people in those days either had so few fires that they didn't need to clean their chimneys, or brought someone in to do it. Jayce had a brick.

Tied to a length of soot-blackened rope and armed with his usual calm courage, he would scale the steeply-sloped roof, rope casually looped over his shoulder. Then he would simply raise and lower the brick inside the chimney, gradually rubbing the soot away from the chimney bricks with each pass.

Like everything else, it wasn't done scientifically as much as philosophically. Thoughtfully. He probably even had some idea of about how much he cleaned with each pass, and therefore how many passes he needed to do a sufficiently complete job of it, give or take.

I can see him counting them off, estimating where and how much was being removed each time. Just another process to be savored, but never suffered or complained about.

What a unique experience indeed.

Thanks Dad!


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