Zen & The Art of Woodchopping

Way back in 1982 we used to live in a remote farmhouse – here:

We were poor, but we had no kids at that point. It was quite good fun most of the time, and there were lots of things to do around the place – we had goats and chickens and wood fires, of course. We’d get quite a few friends coming to stay from the hurly burly of London or, er, Hartlepool.
One day I’d been out chopping some wood – a great activity which warms you twice – once when you chop or saw the wood, and again when you burn it. I came into the house fully inspired, picked up a pen, and wrote this piece:

Zen & The Art of Woodchopping

From the preparation to the execution, woodchopping is a yoga of its own, a form of meditation unique to the country lover and country dweller. Every step of the action brings with it an equal and rewarding reaction. The meditation begins with the gathering together of thoughts and equipment.Slow, deep breathing comes easily at this time. The sharpening of the axe, the waxing of the saw blade are the next rituals. At this time, the woodchopper begins to think about the piece of wood that he is about to chop or saw. He must select a piece of the right length and the right thickness. Not too thick, for the rewards will be erased by exhaustion. Not too thin, for the rewards must be earned by a certain amount of physical exertion. As he peruses the wood pile, different pieces of wood may recommend themselves to him in different ways. One’s bark may have a particularly interesting pattern; the arrangement of knots and limbs on another may call to mind demons that dwell in the woodchopper’s mind. Whatever the reason for the eventual choice, the wood must be treated with respect at all times. It was once part of a living thing, one of the most noble inhabitants of this Earth, a tree – old, wise and all-seeing. Trees see all, hear all and are masters of meditation.

The woodchopper, having chosen his piece, must attune himself to it, attempting to become one with it. If the axe is to be used then the woodchopper’s breathing must become steady, slow, as he stands the wood in place on the chopping block. The axe must be balanced carefully in the hands, the feel of the wooden handle transmitting itself to the woodchopper’s mind, as the sight of the chosen piece of wood transmits itself to his brain. He must see every line of grain in the wood, try and separate them with his mind, before entering them with the axe. As the axe is lifted over the shoulder, ready to swing, the woodchopper, the axe, the wood, must all come together as one. As the axe swings through the air, the woodchopper must drive all thoughts from his mind, save the one thought of splitting the wood. He must see the axe passing right through the wood, he must feel it as the axe head feels it, slicing hard through the splitting wood, he must feel it as the wood feels it, split asunder by the cold hard metal of the axe, split and free with three as one – man, axe and wood. The woodchopper frees his mind of frustration, removeds all obstacles to clear thought and action with this meditation.

But it does not end there. When the woodchopper has finished the chopping, the wood still has more to give him. It may need to be sawn into smaller lengths, a further joining of man, wood, steel in a rhythmic ridding of lingering tensions. And finally, eventually, the wood is burned, giving of its life forces to warm the woodchopper and his family. As it slowly burns, the smoke and flames telling in pictures of all that it has seen, the woodchopper can meditate once more on the wood; its living, its giving death; and he can gain the enlightenment that all worrying, all tension and frustration is futile, that life goes on with it or without it. He may live his life with this in mind, a more whole and happier man.

I could really do with chopping some wood right now!


  1. Pribek · December 29, 2008

    Great wisdom and writing Gary!

  2. Gary · December 29, 2008

    Thanks Jack -I was much younger, fitter and less cynical and world weary than I am now, of course!

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