Jim McGuire: My hearth axe

I keep three tools on the hearth beside the woodstove. Along with the usual poker and ash shovel, there’s a short-handled hewing axe. I use it to split any oversize piece of kindling into smaller, easier-to-ignite sticks when laying a new fire.

The axe’s five-pound head is more than a century old. An honest antique, which I found many years ago, buried in the dirt under a dilapidated shed.

Hewing axes, or broad axes, were traditionally used to square up logs. They were foraged with only a single bevel to their sharpened edge; the opposite side remained flat. A master axeman wielding this tool could turn a round log into a square timber with such precision you’d swear it had been run through a sawmill.

I recently noted a slight loosening of the head from the handle. Time and use—sometimes misuse!—does that to old axes. Aging wood shrinks as it dries out.

It wasn’t anything I couldn’t fix with a new wedge, though for a moment I did entertain the idea of carving a longer handle. I had some lengths of suitable hickory saved back for such projects.

But I cherish old things and old ways. And that old axe holds wonderful memories.

I found the head thanks to my dog—a shaggy German Shepherd with the look and size of a dire wolf. In truth, this fearsome beast was really a friendly milquetoast—dangerous only if he accidentally knocked you over in his eagerness to be petted, and thence commenced a desperate licking apology that threatened to scour you within an inch of your life.

One morning, he got himself stuck chasing a groundhog under an outbuilding on a farm I’d rented. Being a canine claustrophobic, he began yelping and howling to be rescued the moment he got snagged.

I laid on the ground and had a look. He was too far under to reach. And no amount of cajoling, threatening or shaming had the slightest effect in calming him down, nor did it encourage the least attempt on his part to free himself.

My distraught dog simply remained still, rolled his eyes and increased the vocal racket. There was no option other than to crawl under and drag his scared and sorry carcass out.

Naturally, I didn’t fit under the shed any easier than had my dog. I retrieved a folding shovel from my camping gear, flopped back onto my belly, and began trenching a path toward the still-panicked mutt.

I really didn’t need to have my own hysterical fit. But it was all I could do to ignore arachnophobic fears whenever a sheet of spiderwebs slid over my face.

As I slithered and dug my way along, I also tried to forget my landlord’s mention of how the shed had once served as a chicken coop. God knew what manner of nasty stuff those clouds of stirred dust I was breathing contained!

Eventually, I reached the distraught shepherd. I spoke reassuringly and gave him a pat. He reciprocated with a flurry of happy tail-wagging that momentarily blinded us both and set me on a coughing jag.

After vision and breath returned, I discovered my dog wasn’t snagged on anything, but had simply wedged himself under a sagging floor joist. Apparently his reverse gear wasn’t working.

I shoveled and wormed my way to his rear, grabbed both haunches, and yanked; he yawped and yowled and woofed like an asthmatic grizzly. Then popped free—a furry champagne cork on a bottle of New Year’s Eve bubbly—and ungratefully began clawing his way to freedom.

I rested a moment. Dragging a 200-pound dog backwards isn’t easy when you’re flat on the ground.

It was while taking this break that I spotted the corner of the axe’s poll in the dirt. I dug and pried and soon worked it loose.

The head was rusty, and the handle had long since rotted away. Who knew how many decades it had been in the ground?

Later, I showed it to the fellow who owned the farm. “You want it?” I asked.

“Naw,” he said. “Keep it as a souvenir. Sounds like you earned it!”

My father cleaned off the rust, sharpened the blade to a razor’s edge, then carved and fitted a gracefully curved 15-inch hickory handle with a fawnfoot-style end knob. He sealed and finished the wood with a mix of beeswax and linseed oil.

That was 50 years ago.

Such objects become more than mere tools. They are a talisman, with hidden properties akin to charms and amulets and totems. Capable of invoking the most precious sort of magic. Good juju—and you don’t ever mess with them.

Given a new wedge, the old axe will remain strong and useful long beyond my allotted span. Then, only my part of its story will return to dust.

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By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at naturalwanders@gmail.com.