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Original Issue


For years I was convinced that dry-fly fishermen were in the same nut league as amateur oboe players, that their sanity was suspended on a gossamer thread or tippet. My brother had a dry-fly friend who, as soon as it was warm enough each spring—and sometimes before it was warm enough—submerged his wife in a swimming pool and floated that year's crop of hand-tied beauties over her, in order to quiz her afterward on what she thought they looked like to a trout.

So for years I believed that the dry-fly fisherman was the ultimate in unhinged fanaticism. But now I am not so sure. An awareness has sunk in that I am a nut myself. I am a nut about axes. The things you chop with.

To me, axes are beautiful.

You don't weigh axes in fractions of ounces, or in any precise way. You heft them, and you learn to know a three-pound head from a 3½-pound head.

You don't buy them at fancy stores; you con people out of them when you find rusted, split-handled relics in their barns or garages. Or you pick them up for a dollar or two, the heads anyway, at tag sales.

I remember discovering two good but rusted and nicked ax heads at a tag sale at a farm and standing in the barn discussing them with the owner, who was wearing overalls—the kind you buy from a Sears catalogue, not Bloomingdale's. In one hand I held a really good-looking ax head only slightly rusted, slightly nicked, with graceful lines and a classic curve to the heavy back of the head opposite the blade edge. The tag on that one read $1. In my other hand I held a somewhat ugly broad-bladed ax head, pitted as well as rusted, but the tag on that one said $2.

"Why is this one one dollar," I asked, holding up the better-looking head, "and this old one two dollars?"

The man looked at me with disdain. "Because it's a better ax head," he said.

I felt diminished, of course. In time I learned why it was better. Today, derusted, sharpened, fitted with a 28-inch handle, the ugly $2 purchase has become my next to favorite ax.

I've spent more time than I like to admit cleaning up old ax heads with rust remover and steel wool or pot cleaners like Golden Fleece or Brillo or Curly Kate or whatever happened to be handy, and a lot more time with the ax heads in a vise, working out nicks and getting an even edge with a flat file.

I've searched country hardware stores for good 28-inch or 30-inch hickory ax handles, known technically as "helves." (Finding good helves never has been easy, and it's getting harder as well as more expensive all the time.) I've spent long and laborious hours working on the head ends of the helves with coarse sandpaper, getting them down to the size at which they can be pounded into the cleaned-up ax head for the exact hard fit I want. Into the slitted head ends I drive home triangular soft-pine wedges to set the ax head for good, and then chisel the excess off cleanly. Then I touch up the edge with a Carborundum stone.

After a long time an ax head might show signs of loosening, as the wedges season and shrink, but it's a simple matter to tighten the helve in the head again with the small metal wedges made expressly for that purpose. You find these wedges in country hardware stores in as wide a variety of sizes and shapes as frozen pizzas at your local supermarket.

Once you've restored your axes you can sit back and just look at them or you can lovingly test the edges with your thumb, or you can invite particularly astute and appreciative friends to view your collection.

Or you can go outside in the fresh air and swing one.

Now, I have nothing against exercise for the sake of exercise—for other people. They tell me it makes them feel better afterward. I'm sure that's true. But so, too, do you feel better after you've stopped hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. Exercise for the sake of exercise? Exertion that's its own reward? Not for me. Exercise like that is just exercise, and I say the hell with it. What do you get out of it? Take jogging. You hurt a little, you sweat a lot, you shake up your insides and you get bitten by dogs.

In bicycling, your thighs hurt, your tires go flat and you get hit by cars. Walking, you get mugged. Swimming, you get water in your ears or you get stung by Portuguese men-of-war. Playing softball, you run into second basemen under pop flies.

In touch football you twist your ankle. In basketball it's the knee, to say nothing of dizzy spells and lost contact lenses. In tennis you get blisters and sunstroke, and the elbow, also anger and aggravation, which holds, too, for golf and bowling, along with self-disgust.

And as you engage in those pursuits, people look at you with pity, or loathing. But swinging an ax is an entirely different matter. Cutting wood. There's exercise, and, damn it, there's satisfaction, and fulfillment, and reward.

Naturally, this requires a tree. I use a chain saw to make the big lower notch in a standing dead tree, but I cut the higher, smaller notch on the opposite side of the trunk with an ax. When you make those cuts with an ax you can hear that first almost inaudible warning crack as the tree starts to lean, and you can step back in awed satisfaction as it falls, right where you wanted it to fall. If you use a chain saw all the way through, you can't hear anything. You can't hear yourself think.

I do use a chain saw to cut the limbs and trunk into burnable lengths, because I'm not a total fool, but I use an ax all I can. I lop off the limbs and branches of felled trees with a sharp ax, evenly, cleanly, as close to the trunk as possible, and then split stove lengths to size with a dull ax. Though some people swear by a maul—a sledge with one sharp end—for splitting big logs, I find it cumbersome, uncomfortable for me to use, and even the lighter, six-pound heads give me elbow twinges. So I use wedges and a sledgehammer to break big logs down to ax-splitting size. I really have nothing against the maul. It's just that I love splitting wood with an ax.

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....