The Cordwood Challenge, What to Expect and Related Thoughts

A video I shot this morning talking about what to expect when doing the cordwood challenge.  Further thoughts below.

When I did my axe cordwood challenge last year, it wasn’t quite what I expected in every way.  Here are some thoughts on that.  Doing the axe cordwood challenge will affect how the process itself is experienced.  First off, a lot of the experience of anything we do is made up of things like expectation, attitude, pre-conception, social prejudice and just in general what we bring with us that colors our experience.  As a person progresses and improves their skills with an axe, some of those things will change quite a bit.  I tend to think that in most cases, views of the work itself, it’s worth and enjoyability and how much it is percieved as "work" in the negative modern sense, will improve.  On the other hand, maybe that will not be the case if someone has a very romantic and inaccurate view of what it entails to start with.  Who knows.  That is part of this experiment.

Much has to do with efficiency and ability. It is usually a lot more fun and motivating to do something that you are good at and using an axe can be very frustrating if things are not going too well.  Picking up an axe with little or no experience can feel awkward and ineffectual.  In order to be efficient at the work, we have to be able to hit where we are aiming, understand how the axe cuts or doesn’t, have at least a rudimentary understanding of effective strategy, and be able to deliver energy where we want it with a relatively low amount of energy expended; or put otherwise, as little as possible of energy expended is wasted unnecessarily along the way.  It may look easy, but it’s easier said than done and simply takes time with axe in hand to start building physical memory.  Thus, of course, the cordwood challenge in the first place.

The amount of energy expended will go down as coordination is built and excess movement and tension start to fall away.  At least that is how it should happen eventually.  It is possible to waste a lot of energy with excess movement and tension, but the ability to relax into the work will only come with familiarity and comfort with the tool.  I’ll try to offer some tips, but the best recommendation I can probably make is to watch people who are good at chopping and learn that visually.  Watch them a lot and you’ll start to imitate them without even thinking about it.  Look at my recommended axe video play list.  Especially watch competition choppers and the video The Axeman.  Jon Ugalde’s video of 79 year old Basque Axeman Enrique Bildarraz is a great example of high efficiency.  Skills or not, a nearly 80 year old man doesn’t have energy to waste.  Energy efficiency is not synonymous with time or force.

In any case, it takes a lot of time to chop wood with an axe relative to using a chain saw.  That is a given.  Although both speed and force could help you finish work more quickly, It is very important not to force either one too fast.  The forcing of either or both is a great danger, making accidents both more likely and worse when they do happen.  Not only that, but forcing either too much is likely to decrease your efficiency, because errors will be magnified and increased.  Be patient and concentrate on technique, aim and strategy.  The power and speed will happen naturally to a point if they are in your nature.  If they are not, that’s okay too.  You will just proceed somewhat slower.  You don’t actually need a lot of either.  We’ll talk more about the generation of power later.  Beginning choppers should err toward gentle chopping and concentrate on accuracy and system.  Make no mistake.  Power and speed are a waste of energy without accuracy and system.

Expect to have near accidents as you learn your way around the process and build your catalogue of what can happen.  We go through a higher risk phase when first learning to do something dangerous.  With time (except for the common “cocky phase” somewhere in the middle), dangerous pursuits should become safer as we learn what can go wrong and to foresee potential accidents happening.  We all have a little safety officer in our heads watching out for us throughout every day doing even commonplace things.  Some accidents will be foreseen as a matter of common sense and everyday physics that we are already dealing with regularly our whole lives.  Some accidents are not as easy to see coming.  Hopefully we can shorten that high risk period with some demonstration and discussion, but much has to be learned by experience and real life experience.

I think for men especially, it’s important that we have some kind of at least symbolic destructive activity.  Fighting, hunting and violence in general are in our DNA.  That may be inconvenient at times, but it’s there whether anyone likes it or not.  I find dismembering trees with an axe rather therapeutic and relaxing while being a good outlet for my destructive nature.  The work requires an odd combination of aggression against a living or once living organism, relaxation/effort, and focus while letting go of the chattery overthinking mind.  If you do it a lot, and begin to relax into the work, it will eventually pull you into a good place to be, quite, focused, present, engaged, relaxed and active all at the same time.  I don’t know anything quite like it.