After three months of silence I find myself in rural Michigan, entering a still greater silence. The business is on hiatus, my employers have granted me a leave of absence, and I am volunteering at a retreat centre rooted in the Mennonite faith tradition. Pastors come here to rest and pray, church groups too, and now there is one wild man working among them in exchange for room and board.
The work is solitary, and it is exactly what I have been looking for. From the busy streets of downtown, the vibrant inner world of a co-operative housing project, the teeming horizons of entrepreneurship, from the friends, the strangers, the acquaintances, from all these I fled three weeks ago, by Greyhound bus, into the arms of the woods.
I live here now, I say to myself, and the words do not sink in. Certainly I am alive, and certainly I am physically present in this place, but the soul is a strange fish. It lives where it wishes to live, and roams freely from the present to the future and into the past, from homes of long-ago to distant hopes for what may yet be. To be present, to be here, is hard work.
I work five days a week, six hours of the day. The retreat centre property is large, partly meadow and partly forest, and there is lots to do to keep it looking respectable. Trails need to be trimmed, lawns mowed, hedges pruned, gardens mulched. Each morning I fill the bird feeder and hang it in the garden, and each evening I take it indoors again, because there are raccoons about. I sweep the sidewalks. I go to morning prayer. And I share the silence with other retreatants, speaking only with the staff as we plan our work each morning, and twice a week with one of the directors, who listens to the unfolding of my inward journey.
The woods are huge, deep, spacious. Tall cherry trees, oaks, and maples overshadow thickets of raspberry, gooseberry, and autumn olive. Virginia creeper and poison ivy carpet the forest floor. Birds in numbers and varieties I have never seen before swoop between branches, and deer appear almost as often as I am quiet enough to notice them. Once, lying still among the pines, I heard their footsteps close by.
My work is solitary but it is not quiet. When I'm not shredding the silence with a chain saw or weed eater, I am working with an axe and maul. I spent most of last week working on two trees, a cherry and an oak, hauling the sawn rounds out of the undergrowth and splitting them by hand.
There is no work in the world as satisfying as splitting wood. You lift the cross-section of trunk onto the stump you have chosen as your anvil. You take the maul in your two hands, a huge cheese-wedge of steel welded to a long metal handle, unbelievably heavy and strong. You lift it like the hammer of the underworld, raise it to the fierce, bright sky. You let it fall. And the wood cracks, tumbling to either side of the splitting block. If it is oak, you scent the raw, wet musk of the heartwood. If it is old cherry, you see the fine, smooth grain revealed, the blond blending into the red.
Choosing a half, you place it back on the stump and take up your long-handled axe. It is light in your hands, a lithe quick thing that wants to wheel and strike. You can do finer work with it, but the precision takes strength. With the axe it is all one motion, the wheeling high, the striking downward. It's as much in the legs as in the arms, as much in the stomach as in the back. You lead the axe-head with your whole body, training all your power on the one place it should fall. Like lightning. Like doom.
What a young man wants is to be useful. When he stands between the stack of rounds he must split and the pile of firewood that will keep the house warm this winter, he feels his whole body answer the call to excellence, to living, striving presence. Here I am. Here will I stand or fall. Take up thine axe, swing and smite. Beware, for I am set naked upon thy kingdom. If you want to understand the young man in your life, give him an axe and an hour alone in the woodshed. See what kind of creature emerges, whether he is gentler and more sure of himself than before. See if there isn't a silence inside him that grows as the day draws to a close.
Splitting wood is an idealized form of what I have been practicing a long time now. It is the practice of physical work, an ancient art now out of fashion. I have never been much into sports, and exercise for exercise's sake has always felt like a chore to me, albeit one that leaves me feeling better than when I began. But work, whether it be mopping floors or hauling firewood, leaves the world changed. It is a creative act, one I am proud of now matter how mundane the task.
As a city kid transplanted to the country partway through my childhood, I wanted to measure up to the farm kids, who knew what hard work meant and idealized it not at all. They did what they had to do and then went and played hockey- no sweat. I never did learn to play hockey, but I learned to hold my own working under the hot sun. In work as in sports, you have to understand your body in order to do well, pacing yourself. You have to understand your mind too, knowing how to keep it in a steady groove no matter how dull and repetitive the work may be.
As a country kid transplanted back to the city partway through my teens, being able to work was a source of pride. I started working summers at a kid's camp rather than a farm, where both physical and emotional stamina were tested daily. The great release in that line of work, curiously, was the thrice daily task of washing dishes, where only steady, heavy work would get the pots clean and the counters wiped in time for the next round of games. The frenzy of activity in the hot kitchen became a steady buzz, in harmony with the humming of the refrigerator and the dishwasher. You could get into a rhythm, working like that.
And here at the retreat centre, rhythm is everything. The sun rises and sets. You go out into the woods and come back. Your axe rises and falls. You breathe hard, pushing the wheelbarrow stacked with wood out to where the path meets the truck road. And if you are lucky, and have found yourself working in a place that treasures silence, where contemplation is the highest goal, you may find that what you are doing is not so much work as it is an outpouring. As if a great, great sadness, vast beyond words, were flowing out through your muscles and into the wood, into the woods, into the silence. "Sweat is the tears of the body," one of the directors said to me the other day.
So I am happy here.