“You’ve got to pay attention to how each piece lays,” my dad used to say. “You have to stack the long, straight pieces on the bottom or the pile won’t stay level.” When I was eight, just learning to haul, split, and stack a cord, I didn’t much care about how the knots in a particular log laid in the stack—I mostly wanted to know when mom was going to bring lunch and sweet tea out to the field for us. While in reality my siblings and I probably only worked for a couple of hours at a time before being released back to summer escapades in the much cooler woods, some of those days, perched at the top of the big hill, felt like they dragged on forever.
It was hot. Always. The sun beat down and made my jeans feel heavy and sticky. I would sit for hours at the splitter, moving the metal handle back and forth while dad loaded log after log of Pennsylvania hardwood. My attention waned, and often I would be jolted back by the stalling of the splitter as the hydraulic pusher met the unyielding metal wedge. Dad, in well-disguised frustration, would nurse the choke and ease the old equipment back into its vibrating existence. Over and over, all summer long, the rhythm of preparation sang over our home: haul, split, stack, haul, split, stack, haul, split, stack.
When I pulled into the driveway a few days ago, just at the precipice of October, I could see just enough through the trees to know that mom and dad were out at the woodpile. Stretching from the two hour ride from Buffalo to home, I walked into the garage, pulled on a pair of leather work boots, and fished a pair of deerskin gloves from the drawer in the hall. If there was one thing that I learned on our family farm, it was that you should never come to a task unprepared. I only came to the woodpile once without my gloves.
We spent the rest of the evening hauling the bone-dry maple and oak to another stack closer to the house. When the heavy snows of Pennsylvania winter come, the wood has to be hauled from the stack to the door with a sled. Each member of my family has taken their turn wading through hip-deep snow drifts out to the field in the pitch dark, headlamp illuminating the freefalling flakes. It’s better now that we keep our supply closer to the house.
The next morning, I put my boots and gloves back on and headed for the heap of wood now sitting behind the house, waiting to be stacked between two trees. As I prepared for the work ahead, it occurred to me that I had never started a stack. Dad always laid the foundation for the pile, and then us kids were allowed to fill in the less structurally critical layers. After a moment of self-doubt, I remembered all of the many lessons, over many hours, over many years. I found the long straight pieces, and I laid the first row, using small wedges of maple to level any divots in the knotted forest floor.
Just as the sweat started to roll down my back, Papa (my grandfather) came out in his boots and with his deerskin gloves and started to help me stack. We didn’t say much because we were paying attention. We were paying attention to how each piece lays. We worked together for the rest of the morning like that, with the pride humming between us. He, proud of the legacy, I, proud to show that I had learned something in all of those years.
And of course, the learning was so much more than how to stack a straight cord—a cord that would stand steady even under the weight of snow and howling wind. I learned how to commit to a task, even through discomfort. I learned that doing a job well is the only way of doing a job. I learned that you have to be intentional about each piece, or the whole won’t be steady—so it is with wood piles, so it is with life.
I learned that home is a team sport, and even now, with wings spread to new cities, my siblings and I will sometimes talk about our feeling of responsibility towards this corner of the world, a responsibility best demonstrated in this little story: while Papa and I were walking down the hundred year old lane at the bottom of the hill, I sidestepped to avoid a fallen branch. In the same step, he stooped to pick it up and with the no-nonsense strength of a farmer, pitched it into the woods. A simple act of caretaking, a display of responsibility, an unassuming act of love towards the land we call home. And so, even after twenty-four years, the homestead still teaches. Thanks be to God.