Zen and the Art of Stacking Wood

By CLAY SPRINGMEYER

So, I’ve been living at home in Helena with my parents for the last few weeks for winter break, which basically means I get to live there free of rent for my devoted and uncomplaining slave labor. If I meet my work quota for the day they even let me sleep inside.

Just yesterday I had the privilege of helping our wood guy, Everett, unload a truck full of wood. While we tossed log after log into a giant pile on our front lawn, I learned a little about this interesting fellow from Helmsville. The guy’s built like a linebacker, sports a bristly beard, and has the cutest black lab I’ve ever seen. At one point he lived on a fishing and houseboat in Alaska where if he wasn’t hauling in massive amounts of Alaskan salmon, he was logging off the coast and finding strange treasures. Apparently bowling balls float.

He likes some of  Senator Jon Tester’s policies, and as a logger and mountain lover understood the need for land to harvest wood as well as preserved public land for recreation. A history buff, Everett told me he enjoys going to the public library of any new town to read up on local history. He said at one point he emptied out his wallet and found 11 public library cards from different cities!

With only two public library cards in my wallet, I felt like a poor excuse for an English major.

Like I mentioned earlier, Everett and I made a giant pile of stove-ready wood in our front lawn. We were done unloading his truck by about 11 a.m., at which point I proceeded to stack the wood into rows on our porch for the rest of the day. Now, stacking wood by myself for six hours in the 12 degree Montana chill might normally be perceived as a negative experience. But I thought of Everett, who cuts and stacks wood for a living, who told me he spent eight hours the other day just shoveling his driveway so that he could make his deliveries, and suddenly my short shuttling trips from the front yard to the porch didn’t seem so bad. When else would I get to listen to my iPod and get a great upper body workout for that long?

After a while I got into a rhythm of hauling and stacking, and even the two times my largest row of wood collapsed wasn’t so bad. The movement and lifting kept me warm, and the endless repetition of the task became almost meditative.

I found a small book on Japanese Zen Koans in our family library the other day. For those of you that don’t know, a Koan is a story or question told by a Zen Master to his students in order to get them to stop thinking logically in order to achieve enlightenment. My favorite Koan was on the very last page of the book, and it went something like this:

A man was being chased by a tiger. He ran as fast as he could, and without realizing it came to the edge of a cliff. When he tried to slow himself down, it was already too late and the man fell off the cliff. After he fell halfway to the bottom, he grabbed onto a vine that hung from the top of the cliff. As he swung back and forth halfway between the tiger that snarled at him from above and the rocky ground below, he looked down and noticed two more hungry looking tigers waiting for him at the bottom. The man then felt the vine beginning to give way under his weight, and when he looked up he saw two mice chewing at the vine.

The man looked to his right, and noticed a small wild grape vine clinging to the cliff just in his reach, although it would not support his weight. The man reached and grabbed a handful of fresh grapes and stuffed them in his mouth. With grape juice spilling from his mouth, the man grinned. The grapes were delicious.

That’s the end of the story. You don’t find out whether or not he falls to his death, which is most likely going to happen. Even in the face of certain death, the man finds something to smile about. I think we could all take a lesson from this guy.Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to compare stacking wood in the cold to being crippled in a fall and eaten by tigers. All I’m saying is that if you look hard enough, there is almost always something to smile about.

Thanks for reading, be good to each other. Back to Clay’s blog home page.

-Clay

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A little about me: I escape the city as often as possible to go on random outdoor excursions. I enjoy standing in the middle of bridges for extended periods of time. I love reading. I love dogs. I also love making music, dancing, potlucks, pretending to be a zombie on Halloween, gardening, running on trails, cooking with garlic, copious amount of hot sauce, falling leaves in autumn, and drinking black coffee. I also love writing, and feel fortunate to offer my weekly perspective as a college student to the Make it Missoula collective.