The Economics of Splitting Wood by Hand

by John Cuddeback on February 6, 2013 · 63 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

splitting wood

Hilaire Belloc once wrote that he never burned anything but oak in the huge fireplace of his ancient home in West Sussex. For a while I considered doing the same in the wood stove of my home in the Shenandoah Valley.  Oak of several kinds are indeed abundant here. Then practicality intruded. It has a way of doing that. There are in fact a number of eastern hardwoods that have a higher heating value than oak, such as hickory and locust. When upon approaching my home in winter one smells the smoke curling out of the chimney, there are a number of possible suspects: oak (red, black, and white), black locust, red elm, hickory, and less often, cherry or maple.

For thirteen years we have heated this house almost exclusively by wood; and I have never purchased a single cord. All the wood that I use is bucked with my chainsaw and hand split with a maul or axe, by me, my family, or my college students. My commitment to purchase neither wood nor hydraulic splitter is at times a sign of contradiction. It has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions how much time I would save with a hydraulic splitter—a ‘splitter’ in common usage. When upon hearing that I heat my house by wood somebody asks, “Surely you have a splitter?” I usually point either to my son or to my arms. For most people there is a very simple line of reasoning: the hydraulic splitter saves time and is therefore better, if at all affordable. For a number of years I wavered. Time is always at a premium, and sometimes I feel as though I simply cannot keep up with the demand for wood. Before my son Nicholas grew strong enough to be a significant help, the volunteer assistance of my students was indispensable.

The situation recently came to a head when someone simply said to me: “What you’re doing is not economical.” Economical? My accuser proceeded: Why not just purchase the wood you need? Think about it John. Since you are a professional and your time is worth more per hour, you would be better off to pay someone else to do it for you—or in other words, buy the wood. Heck, since you’re a writer and lecturer, spend the hours writing and lecturing that you would have spent getting wood. You will come out ahead.

I really puzzled about this for a long time. It seems that here I have bumped up against an unquestioned, at times unconscious, assumption of many in our society: that money can be used as the most reliable standard for measuring and comparing activities—at least all those activities that are not obviously of a higher order, such as worship. But it seems to me that this assumption is dangerously flawed. There are countless activities and forms of work that I could pay someone else to do for me, at a wage well below what I earn, which as an academic is modest by many standards. Is the goal to make enough money that I can pay others to do all the menial, or manual, activities in my day? Or perhaps more realistically, to pay others to do as much as possible, given the limitations of my income? That, it seems to me, is a common, if unrecognized, trap.

If on the practical level ‘economical’ means arranging one’s affairs to maximize the earning and utilization of money with a minimum of work-input, then the project of heating my home from the wood of my forest is not economical. By the same standard I fear that raising my own children would not be very economical. Once money, especially in the form of hourly wage, is used as the fundamental measure of the worth of activities, where do we stop?

Greek philosophers of the fifth and fourth century B.C. are the origin of the word economy. Oeconomia, literally the law (nomos) of the household (oecos), referred to a rational ability, also called an art, that arranges the various aspects or parts of household life. The word nomos, rather than meaning law in the proper sense here, more connotes an order. Some kind of order must be put into the home. For these Greeks, arts are rational abilities, learned both through the mentorship of masters and much personal experience, whether the art of shepherding, ship-building, or military strategy. Any art at root gives order or arranges its subject matter so as best to achieve the end or goal of the art. The goal and the methods of the art of shipbuilding are relatively obvious and beyond dispute. The arts directly concerning human life and community are more complex, and disputed. But Aristotle stakes out a position regarding oeconomia that echoes down through the ages and reverberates in my ears: “household management attends more to men than to the acquisition of inanimate things, and to human excellence more than to the excellence of property which we call wealth.” (Politics I.13)

People, and their good, must be put first in household management. As Socrates says in the Apology, the good man is the one who actually treats more important things as though they are more important. How we arrange things in our household should always have first to do with the good of the people that most essentially constitute that household. Perhaps I am missing something, but I think this is much easier said than done. I have often found that in my zeal for money, and sometimes for free-time, I have lost sight of the persons whose happiness is the whole point.

How then might I think about splitting wood by hand? The main thought that kept coming to mind is simply how much I enjoy it. There is a unique satisfaction in a well-placed strike that sunders a round of wood. Hand-splitting is a full-body experience, engaging countless muscles and all five senses except taste (actually, sometimes even taste). The rhythmic smack is followed by a pungent scent determined by species and age of the wood. A few rounds slowly grow into a pile of triangular pieces that stands as a solid monument to the work you have just done. You cannot help but look upon that pile, and then look back again, having a feeling of personal accomplishment. “That pile will keep my family warm for … days.” Refreshed, exercised, and satisfied, you turn to whatever else the day holds in store. And this is to say nothing of the conversations had, and bonds formed, with fellow splitters.

So I ask myself: Should I really give this up? Am I being silly by continuing to do that which a machine, or purchased wood, could easily replace? I think I have at last come to my final answer: no. This is not silly; it is good. Work, especially manual labor (manual of course originally means by hand), has an importance in itself. Our society seems to have accepted with little or no consideration the premise that manual labor should be avoided if possible. I suggest that manual labor, as a particularly human form of work, has a special and enduring value in human life. This is especially evidenced in its power to unite the one working with other persons, places, and things.

When Hesiod wrote, “The gods have decreed work for men!” he does not refer to a cruel twist of fate. Certain kinds of work are in fact a blessing, a way not only of producing goods, but of enacting fundamental connections. Given the importance and value of splitting wood in my household, I have realized that to replace those many hours with an hour or two of running a machine, or with purchased wood, would be a net loss, a sign that something has gone wrong. The machine is certainly not evil. And I can picture a scenario—for instance injury or sickness—in which I would turn to it. Nor am I arguing that splitting wood by hand is for all households. But I do assert that to replace a profoundly human form of work simply because one could come out monetarily ahead, or even save time, is not in itself good. To do so might well be an instance  of putting things above persons.

My son Nicholas is now in his early teens. He can swing a pretty mean axe, piling up the wood with steady progress. I remember well when multiple strikes of his little axe were as so many raindrops on a window. As years passed by we kept setting up a chopping station for him at a safe distance from mine. Little talk, much swinging, even if not much splitting. Then the tell-tale sound—a sort of hollow echo—of a strike that has hit home. This followed by the ripping sound of a strike that has broken through. I will never forget his looking over to see if I had heard that magical sound. Of course I had. I would not take that away from him. I would not take it away from us.

John A. Cuddeback is professor of Philosophy at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, where he has taught since 1995. He received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America under the direction of F. Russell Hittinger. He has lectured widely on various topics including virtue, culture, natural law, contemplation, friendship, and household. His book Friendship: The Art of Happiness was republished in 2010 as True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. His writings have appeared in Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, and The Review of Metaphysics, as well as in several volumes published by the American Maritain Association. Though raised in what he calls an ‘archetypical suburb,’ Columbia, Maryland, he and his wife Sofia consider themselves blessed to be raising their six children in the shadow of the Blue Ridge on the banks of the Shenandoah. At the material center of their homesteading are their heritage breed pigs, which fattened on acorns, yield a bacon that most of the world can only dream of.

{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Gorentz February 6, 2013 at 12:21 am

Most of the oaks known as white oak here in sw Michigan have a high heat value – higher than red oak and approaching hickory or locust. And they are a lot easier to split than hickory. (We heated our house with wood for over 30 years – but stopped late last winter.) Hickory can be very difficult to split by hand, but it’s easier on a very cold day at temperatures such as you probably don’t get in Virginia.

You said nothing about the olfactory experience of splitting wood. Red oak and cherry have especially distinctive smells. When riding my bicycle in timber country I can tell by the smell when a truck load of logs is red oak. Sugar maple has a more subtle odor – maybe hard to distinguish from others. But there are tactile differences.

I have some of the same opinions about spading our garden by hand as you have about splitting wood. It’s not very economical and interferes with other work that needs to get done. But I like looking at the soil to see what’s in it, and then there is the matter of working through the memories of the previous year’s garden.

avatar Adam February 6, 2013 at 6:04 am

Great article. As always you have stated clearly so many thoughts that were floating around vaguely in my mind. I “bump into…an unquestioned, at times unconscious, assumption of many in our society: that money can be used as the most reliable standard for measuring and comparing activities…” all the time in my work, and I will be referring people to this article whenever possible.

I do have one question: It may just be a glitch in my browser, but the fourth sentence reads, “Then practically intruded.” Was the subject of that sentence going to be a species of wood?

avatar Marchmaine February 6, 2013 at 11:47 am

Ahhh, the soothing balm of Aristotle for our overly idealistic era.

As a fellow landowner, who works in the corporate world, I often get very similar comments; however, for fun, I like to turn around their own suburban “unconscious assumptions” and price back in to the project all the “externalities” that they overlook. It turns out that considerable sums are spent manufacturing exercise, outdoor adventures, and “quality-time” with children (to name only a few things you mention). Sometimes the assumers assume too much.

avatar Jim Clark February 6, 2013 at 12:10 pm

John, I appreciate your article for many reasons, and on many levels. I too find frustration in our culture which demands that all things must be done in the most “automated” or “economical” way possible. The irony is that we have come up with 1000′s of ways to do everything faster, or more efficiently, but then spend meaningless hours watching “Reality Television” (which is far from reality, but that’s another topic), people watching on Facebook (the voyeurism of our age), and following the mindless streams of consciousness on something called Twitter.

We all say we need “more time”. But ultimately, it should be about being wise with our time. Time is precious, as it is a gift from God. I cannot think of a better use of time than to disconnect from the world, and spend a few hours chopping wood with my son. God bless you, and your work. And thank you for this article.

avatar John Cuddeback February 6, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I appreciate these comments very much.
Here I will share another challenging line from Aristotle:
“Some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well.” (Politics I.9) I love how Aristotle points us to the connection between household management and moral character.
Adam: I think that my sentence to which you refer was a little unclear in the original. My point was that reality intruded upon my hope of being like Belloc in burning only oak. It was going to be too difficult to restrict myself to oak, especially with these other great species near at hand in the woods!
Jim Clark, what a great point about the challenge to be wise in judging how to use our time. How many of us parents will look back on missed opportunities for meaningful time spent with our children?
John Gorentz, I hope that you have many occasions to pass on to the next generation your obvious experience in woodcutting, and gardening.

avatar Marie K. February 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm

John, he did mention the smell of the wood:”a pungent scent determined by species and age of the wood”.

Adam, he wrote “practicality” not “practically”.

Dr. Cuddeback does not make mistakes!

;)

avatar Rebecca Kirby February 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Even sillier than hiring someone else to split your wood for you so you can write and lecture is to join a gym so you can exercise while someone else is splitting your wood for you.

avatar Marion Miner February 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Dr. Cuddeback on FPR; excellent.

Though my own wood-splitting experience is limited, I thoroughly enjoyed the article (and the Aristotle).

avatar Kenneth Rolling February 7, 2013 at 2:47 am

Thank you for the article.
I would readily grant the point that it is to misjudge such humane arts as splitting wood, if one judges them on merely monetary terms. What I wonder is how essential such arts are to a life of wisdom. As you say, this particular act, is “a way not only of producing goods, but of enacting fundamental connections, [which I took to be inter-personal and inter-natural connections]” but is there something to such arts that is necessary, or perhaps at least beneficial in a unique way, to the individual in himself for the way in which the doing perfects the doer. I mean, I suppose, that one is enacting ones own nature in doing them, rather than enacting connections (not that one ever does the one without doing the other). There were those among the ancients (the Stoics come to mind), and perhaps there is a mediaeval correlary in Benedictinism, who placed manual labor at the center of one’s spiritual/philosophical practice. So, must the philosopher work (as more than just a means, here, of course)? And what does this say about the liberal arts, should our answer be affirmative? Is loving wisdom without such hylomorphic enacters a doomed abstraction?
Best to all.

avatar love the girls February 7, 2013 at 3:21 am

John Cuddeback writes : “an unquestioned, at times unconscious, assumption of many in our society: that money can be used as the most reliable standard for measuring and comparing activities—at least all those activities that are not obviously of a higher order”

‘Unquestioned’ and ‘unconscious’ are attributes that can be applied to virtually all of social life. But I don’t think people typically and unconsciously make the error you think they make. Or at least, they don’t make the error where it matters, i.e. in their own lives lived.

If we look at the activities that people gravitate towards we can see that those activities have a natural aesthetic loveliness to them. Such as gardening, knitting, baking, playing tennis, walking and similar. Even the washing clothes by hand enthusiasts, who forego clothes washing machines do so because it somehow resonates with the poetic nature of their soul.

The choices are not grounded on the standard of relative monetary worth, but on the standard you use for choosing to split wood.

Splitting wood may be pleasing to the poetic nature, but cutting logs into length using a handsaw is not sufficiently pleasing and so a chain saw is used instead. Or similarly, washing clothes by hand is somehow wanting and so a washing machine is used instead.

avatar Matthew Parowski February 7, 2013 at 9:34 am

This is an idea that I’ve been working on: debunking the notion that “Time is Money.” My thesis is that time is much more valuable than money because it is ultimately valuable. Yes, you can convert it into money, and you can convert it into other things that money can buy (e.g. as expertise in a field or — as discussed in this article — a beloved and fulfilling hobby), but you can also convert it into something truly lasting, such as a deep and meaningful relationship with another person, most especially a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent… or God. As the Beatles sang, “I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love.” But time can and will if well-invested. I will not degrade the value of my time by simply thinking about its monetary value.

avatar love the girls February 7, 2013 at 10:25 am

Thinking about this further,

If there is a error that is commonly made, or at least commonly made at Front Porch Republic when these sorts of subjects have been discussed in the past, it is of not using a standard of monetary worth when that standard should be used.

What is typical is an enthusiasm that denigrates those who would use a vacuum cleaner , or a circular saw because they are efficient, as if efficiency is an evil. True, efficiency, like monetary worth, is not the highest standard, but they are very important standards because they are handmaids that rightly used in their proper place. Not that I think John Cuddeback is an enthusiast given my daughter’s, (a senior philosophy major at his school), description of him and his home economy, but it is an enthusiasm commonly enough found.

Further, I suspect that the reason that the friend suggested monetary worth with log splitting is because heating a home solely with wood has more of the character of the practical as opposed to the character of the aesthetic. Of course the two can be combined, such as I prefer to frame using a rigging ax because of the aesthetic loveliness of it, I also happen to be pretty efficient at it also, but my workers use a nail gun. The suggestion of using a log splitter is akin to a nail gun to build your own house, its a reasonable alternative.

avatar Catherine Martin February 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Activities like splitting wood, making soup, and practicing yoga create happiness because done with attention, they keep the mind in the present moment. All the senses described in this post, along with the movement of the body block the past and future, so often the cause of anxiety and depression.

Self-sufficiency also creates happiness. Though we live in the city, my husband and I fix our broken appliances, clean and repair our house, shovel snow and mostly make meals at home despite our comfortable income. If you want a taste of the alternative, check out the film, The Queen of Versailles.

A side note: Here in Minnesota, many people heat with wood and use an axe or rent a splitter to ready their fuel; the ones who wield the axe always have the hotter bodies.

avatar Jim Everett February 7, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I, too, enjoy woodsplitting. And I enjoy philosophy. See my combined interests at woodreader.wordpress.com in the entry “The One and the Many”.

avatar John Cuddeback February 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Love the Girls. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. We are indeed in agreement that there are many unquestioned and unconscious principles at work in all of our lives. I have suggested that many of us are making the mistake—often, though not always, unconsciously—of taking money as a primary standard for comparing and judging activities. I certainly do not deny that money is an important standard that has its proper place. At the same time it seems to me clear from experience that money has become a primary standard, which has usurped the place of other principles of judgment—such as the value of certain activities as ways of enacting connections with other human persons.
You note that people make decisions based on ‘natural aesthetic loveliness;’ and indeed they do. Would that ‘natural aesthetic loveliness,’ as well as other important goods, had a more significant place in our private and communal deliberations.
There may be some enthusiasts that reject efficiency, as though it were an evil. Such enthusiasm, in my experience, is not very widespread. And where it is found, perhaps it is but an over-reaction to the way in which our society and ‘economy’ tend to treat efficiency as the ultimate standard. I remain convinced that putting people first, and their connections and true flourishing, will require that we stand back and re-evaluate some basic ‘economic’ assumptions in our society.

Kenneth, you too raise some great issues. Thank you. E.F. Schumacher held that good work should have several characteristics, among which were both that it brings people together and that it is a kind of perfection of the individual himself. Even the philosopher in search of the highest wisdom has much to gain from truly good manual work—especially in an age where there seem to be fewer and fewer common activities that connect us in a rich way with other persons and with the natural world around us.

avatar David Walser February 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Strange that I would recieve this article today, as just yesterday evening I was engaged in the hand splitting of seasoned Hickory to keep our abode warm. As I was working I thought, “is this really a wise endeavor as I am now 62 years old and sometimes I pay a price for doing it for a few days?” I really enjoyed this article as I concluded for myself just yesterday that I thouroughly enjoy splitting my own wood and have a sense of satisfaction every time that I do it. Life is so much more than Money!

avatar David Shipway February 7, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Burning black locust seems like a crime to the boatbuilding communities on the coasts who treasure this wood for it’s durability, stability and longevity. You could be getting $5/bf for that firewood, mate!

avatar The Sow's Ear February 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Fifteen years ago in our neighborhood, we remember, discussion of openness to life and generous procreation sometimes ran aground on warm objections to the evils of Providentialism. A frank discussion of our own temptations to ungenerousity would be scotched because there was danger that a legalistic understanding of Catholic Church teachings on procreation might lead — had already led — some people to improvident, serial, competitive reproduction. Don’t let’s talk about openness to life; what about all the people out there being pressured into having children?
Our own acquaintance is limited; perhaps there are a great many people out there being made to feel inadequate because they don’t have a dozen children. We don’t think we know many of them.
Likewise, although we hesitate to judge in any individual case, it appears to us that mankind in the aggregate makes more judgements on the standard Mr. Cuddeback sets forth for consideration — whether “money can be used as the most reliable standard for measuring and comparing activities” — than on any principle that would “denigrate … (efficiency) as if efficiency is an evil.”
We think that it may be of benefit to us as a culture, to ourselves as individuals, to examine a good many of our “economic” practices with an eye to determining whether their justification depends upon an acceptance of the idea that the value of a choice may be determined by calculating it as income or deficit. After the choice has passed that test, maybe then it will be appropriate to make a particular examen for the faults of enthusiasm or preference for inefficiency for its own sake.

avatar Fr.WBS February 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

You wrote: “Work, especially manual labor (manual of course originally means by hand), has an importance in itself. Our society seems to have accepted with little or no consideration the premise that manual labor should be avoided if possible. I suggest that manual labor, as a particularly human form of work, has a special and enduring value in human life.”

In the liturgy the priest prays, “Benedictus es, Domine, Deus universi, quia de tua largitate accepimus panem, quem tibi offerimus, fructum terrae et operis manuum hominum: ex quo nobis fiet panis vitae.”

The work of human hands is blessed indeed!

avatar love the girls February 8, 2013 at 1:16 am

John Cuddeback writes : “it seems to me clear from experience that money has become a primary standard, which has usurped the place of other principles of judgment—such as the value of certain activities as ways of enacting connections with other human persons.”

Let me put it a different way. When my wife goes marketing she purchases organic eggs and organic milk, but not organic potatoes or organic pasta. The primary end is health of the family, a limiting cause is money available.

Or take consumerism. Consumerism has the appearance of money as the primary standard, but it likewise has money as a limiting cause and a disordered appetite as the primary cause.

Where we do find money to be the primary standard, its because of some prior disorder such as the homogenization of america and resulting loss of local cultural differences, so that when all else is relatively equal, money then becomes the deciding difference. Such as the separation of neighborhoods not according to cultural difference but according to monetary difference.

avatar love the girls February 8, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to come up with examples of misplaced standards where money is improperly used as primary standard without much success, and then I saw this.

When I saw the term “best value” I immediately thought of this article by John Cuddleback.

http://thomasaquinas.edu/news/princeton-review-names-college-best-value-2013

And while I can understand the application of money as a reasonable primary standard when looking at the trade schools masquerading as schools of higher education, it’s nevertheless a poor and misplaced standard when assessing relative merits of choosing between schools such as Christendom or TAC.

Not that money doesn’t factor in, but ‘best value’?

avatar Kate Dalton February 8, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Harland Hubbard liked to say that one of the virtues of cutting firewood is it warms a man twice.

avatar robert m. peters February 8, 2013 at 10:15 pm

As I recall, the word “focus” is Latin for “hearth” or “fireplace” on which the family cooked, with which the family was warmed and before which the family communed. It would seem that we have, in Modernity, lost our focus. Indeed, one of the virtues of cutting firewood is that it warms a man twice. We heat our house with firewood; good it is to cut, tiring but good it is to split, and better still before the fire to sleep on the couch before the hearth, with the dogs, five in all, snoring in rhythm with their master.

avatar James February 9, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I would even challenge your neighbors’ assumption that using a hydraulic splitter saves time. Granted, I live in the west, so most of what I split is not hardwoods, but pine & cottonwood, but I split just about as much by hand in a given time as my neighbors do with their hydraulic splitter. And I don’t spend time hauling gas, figuring out why the darned thing won’t start even though I’ve pulled the cord dozens of times, etc.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm

What you do to cut, split, stack, haul and burn wood is un-economical for this current system because this system distances the citizen from the things which are essential to survival on the premise that the “Service Economy”, a saintly endeavor shall provide for us as we toil away in our various Skinner Box cubicles.

This has been the biggest Bait and Switch Operation in the history of our gullible species. Every Man a King ehhh?

avatar love the girls February 12, 2013 at 7:11 am

D.W.Sabin writes : ” this system distances the citizen from the things which are essential to survival”

And let us thank God for that distancing. There may be a good reason for gathering one’s own fuel as John Cuddeback does, or as my mother did gathering cow pies growing up in eastern Colorado on a farm without running water or electricity, where my mother did because it was essential for survival and not out of some nice poetic loveliness, but let’s not confuse the reasoning by pretending that John Cuddeback’s has anything to do with survival.

I suspect John Cuddeback lives a very comfortable life where I highly doubt he by practical necessity only heats a single bath of water on the stove for the whole family including the relatives who live with him where my mother mused once that her father was probably dirtier after the bath because the order of bathing started with the youngest and ended with him.

My grandfather made his choices grounded on the practical reality of that surviving and not surviving was the distance measured. And he would have used a wood splitter if it meant saving effort, which is why the machine was invented because distancing ourselves from essential survival is a good.

I don’t heat my house with a wood stove, but I do appreciate the ambiance of using wood to cook with outdoors. I also have a household appliance in my kitchen where most of the cooking is done on a day to day basis and where I recognize the difference between the practical and the poetic and am thankful that I can use wood for heating food according to the poetic versus my mother who gathered cow pies for the once a week bathing based on essential survival.

avatar Rob G February 12, 2013 at 10:28 am

“this system distances the citizen from the things which are essential to survival”
~~Sabin

“And let us thank God for that distancing.”
~~love the girls

There is a vast difference between being distanced from the things necessary to survival, and having one’s survival at risk. It may be a blessing not to have to grow one’s own food, but it is a form of poverty not to be able to or to want to.

avatar love the girls February 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Rob G.,

You are a hobbyist. What you do has nothing to do with survival, anymore than my flower garden, or my tomato garden has anything to do with survival. They exist for the poetic enjoyment they bring.

Cutting wood for heating a home as John Cuddeback does has the appearance of doing a task essential to survival, but only the appearance. It is not done because it is essential to survival, but for a entirely different good.

avatar Rob G February 13, 2013 at 10:36 am

If you are growing vegetables you are still close to something necessary for survival, i.e., food, even if your particular growing of them isn’t necessary for that survival. It may be poetic, but not merely so; it can also be ascetic and thus can have a character-forming aspect. It’s not the same for all hobbies, many of which are not remotely connected to the stuff of survival.

avatar Rob G February 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

“Cutting wood for heating a home as John Cuddeback does has the appearance of doing a task essential to survival, but only the appearance.”

Prof. Cuddeback’s task itself may not be essential to survival but it is directly connected to something that is, namely wood for heat. It is not reduceable to mere hobby in the same sense that, say, stamp collecting or motocross racing are because of this inherent connection.

avatar love the girls February 13, 2013 at 11:36 am

Rob G.,

I have no idea how your comment relates back to D.W. Sabin’s

We should not loose sight that John Cuddeback does work in a service economy D.W.Sabin ‘skinner box’. He has a comfy job at an institution that takes care of his every need.

avatar Rob G February 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm

If the service economy indeed does this then that’s all the more reason for the need to cultivate intentionally connections to the things essential to survival. Otherwise you’re just the economic equivalent of Bubble-Boy.

avatar love the girls February 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Rob G. writes : “If the service economy indeed does this . .”

Now I see where this leads. Chopping firewood wood to heat a home is medicinal to counteract the harm caused by working in some institution.

But if medicinal, then it strikes me that John Cuddleback would be one of the least in need of such a medicine because Christendom College is, next to Wyoming Catholic College, the least harmful imaginable. And if chopping wood sufficient to heat one’s home is proportionate to the harm caused by Christendom College, what would in turn be proportionately medicinal for those working at Notre Dame? Living as my mother did growing up on the eastern Colorado plains perhaps?

Obviously, there is a needed medicinal aspect to it in so far as we do need a connectedness that is more than lost to those working in feminized corporate and institutionalized modern society, but John Cuddeback’s heating his home is not a good paradigm for such a medicine because as medicinal it’s disproportionate. Where as his heating his home via chopped wood has a very nice proportion as enjoyment of the poetic.

avatar Rob G February 13, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Proportion has little if anything to do with it. Brighten the corner where you are, and all that.

And one-to-one correspondences with other individuals/institutions don’t make much sense when dealing with what are in many ways intangible, or at least unmeasurable, benefits.

avatar love the girls February 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Rob G.,

If ” proportion has little if anything to do with it”, and if it’s “unmeasurable”, then conversation on the matter is rather useless because in turn John Cuddeback’s example of chopping firewood to heat his home cannot be extrapolated beyond himself in any sense of a practical application.

avatar The Sow's Ear February 13, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I am not sure I follow the points of the gentleman whose mother hails from eastern Colorado. He seems anxious that no one presently engaged in activities which until relatively recent times were essential for the survival of the race – gathering fuel for heating and cooking, the cultivation of plants for human consumption, washing clothing by hand – should appropriate to the activity or to himself any inherent value which is not also present in either 1) the accomplishment of the same task by means of machines, or 2) the avoidance of the task altogether. I imagine he would resist the suggestion that these manually performed activities and others of the same order may, in fact, have an intrinsic appropriateness to human beings resulting from the nature of the physical universe in which we dwell and from which we are derived.

Nevertheless, I think it may be worthwhile to share our conclusion — arrived at by applying reason to our lifetimes’ experience of sometimes meeting our physical needs by mechanized, automated means, and sometimes – frequently – meeting them by our own direct labor — that as we come to know the universe, and to know it to be benevolent by our direct experience of it as responding to our manual efforts to win from it food, warmth, shelter, beauty, we become more human.

This conclusion is not merely poetic, aesthetic, abstract and theoretical, any more, I suspect, than are the choices of Mr. Cuddeback and all the respondents to his article who have been splitting wood by hand for years. An inclination merely poetic would not, we think, be proof against the rigors of honest sweaty labor and periodic inconvenience to be found in splitting all one’s heating wood.

We have been engaged in farming even longer than we have been teaching at a Catholic institution of higher education; milking cows and goats, butchering beeves, hogs, and chickens, cutting hay – for some years by hand, then with a sickle-bar and tractor — raising our animals’ feed and our own food as well. No poetic impulse gets us out of bed at five o’clock every morning to hand-milk our Jerseys, but a very concrete desire for clean, raw milk, for the cheese and butter we make with that milk, for the pork we raise on the waste of those products, for the beef we raise from little bull calves started on that milk. There is very little of the abstract about our enjoyment of thick pork chops grilled on wood of our own cutting and splitting, from hogs we raised and slaughtered ourselves. We are less concerned with the theory of rotational grazing than with the very concrete results we see from its practice, in the form of more forage and a longer grazing season.

We do these things not on a romantic impulse, but because we like them and believe they are Good. Our parents, like those of a great many people of our age whose families settled a few generations ago between the Mississippi River and the Sierra Nevadas, grew up without indoor plumbing and electricity, and they taught us to value hand-labor in the service of our family, to love and honor the soil and the work of getting food from it. We enjoy the work itself, and when we do not enjoy it we have still an abiding pleasure in our partnership with a tiny valley in hill country by which we eat, feed our animals, and improve the land.
The experience of meeting our basic needs directly, by the work of our hands and the application of natural principles in our environment, is one which more completely fits us to live in the universe. We suspect that any carpenter who takes joy in framing with a rigging axe already knows this.

avatar The Sow's Ear February 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm

And since when is employment at a Catholic institution of higher education “a comfy job at an institution that takes care of (our) every need”?

avatar love the girls February 14, 2013 at 9:08 am

Sow’ Ear,
If you can do it on the Sunday, other than out of necessity, then it’s not labor, but leisure.

John Cuddeback can go out and split wood on Sunday because it’s within the category or leisure, the guy who makes his living at it cannot.

avatar love the girls February 14, 2013 at 9:29 am

The Sow’s Ear writes : “And since when is employment at a Catholic institution of higher education “a comfy job at an institution that takes care of (our) every need”?”

It pays a living wage at the standard of our modern culture which is by nature comfy. It has easy hours and out of the cold and so forth. Looks pretty comfy to me.

avatar The Sow's Ear February 14, 2013 at 9:48 am

Oh. Christendom must be more generous in its salaries than our institution; the Federal government, in its infinite wisdom, offers us a place on the public dole every year because by their calculations, given our number of dependents, we live below the poverty level.
Of course, they can’t see what we eat for dinner.

avatar Rob G February 14, 2013 at 10:10 am

LTG, you seem to have a penchant for making these things into hard binaries: survival or leisure, proportional or useless, etc. Prof. Cuddeback, Sow’s Ear and I would all, I think, argue that radical dichotomies of this sort are not applicable to activities that have varied practical, aesthetic and ascetic aspects.

It would be like trying to determine mathematically whether it’s better to give up chocolate or coffee for Lent. They are things that by their nature cannot occupy a specific determinable place on some continuum.

avatar love the girls February 14, 2013 at 11:08 am

Sow’s ear,
Christendom isn’t ranked, but, Tier 3 colleges average between $60,000 for associates to $70,000 per year. That is a living wage and more. Plus lectures and writings in addition. http://www2.westminster-mo.edu/Academics/research/vitalstats/faculty/salary/comparisons/tierIII2B_0506.pdf

Rob G.,
“into hard binaries: survival or leisure, proportional or useless, etc.”

That’s because we can make such determinations. I can prune the plum trees on Sunday because it’s leisure. But if I raised the fruit for sale where I made a living at it, I could not do it on Sunday. What we do is we look to the end to determine the nature of the act.

avatar Rob G February 14, 2013 at 1:08 pm

So you’re saying that activities of this type necessarily fall to one side of the other of a radical division between “leisure” and “making a living”?

avatar love the girls February 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Rob G.,
If it can be done on a Sunday, it’s not manual labor, but is instead leisure. If it can be done on Sunday, it only has the appearance of manual labor, similar to unjust laws have the appearance of laws and are not laws per se. From the article and how it is written, John Cuddeback’s wood splitting is leisure because he is doing it for some good other than what is properly understood to be manual labor.

avatar Rob G February 14, 2013 at 2:38 pm

So let me get this straight. If you have to do it it can’t be leisure. But if you like doing it it can’t be manual labor, unless you also have to do it.

avatar Marchmaine February 14, 2013 at 8:52 pm

LTG, you are a boor; what a wast of internet space. If we ever run out of internets, I am going to blame you. Now stop before we all regret it.

avatar love the girls February 14, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Rob G.,

What is forbidden is servile labor, i.e. the hard physical labor the slaves and serfs did. What is not forbidden are works that are by nature intellectual or artistic.

Hard physical labor which is done for intellectual or artistic reasons takes on the character of the end and is not forbidden. John Cuddeback’s wood splitting takes on the character of the artistic and intellectual and is thus not forbidden.

Hard physical labor done for intellectual or artistic reasons is by nature not ordered towards survival.

avatar love the girls February 14, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Marchmaine,
I appreciate the comment. Now go back to killing cows and selling them at prices only the well off can afford.

avatar Rob G February 14, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Sorry, LTG, but I’m not buying it. (Of course, I don’t have to buy it, because as Marchmaine implies, it’s free.) By applying your legalism to these matters you are completely missing the many nuances involved. It’s a good thing that our endeavors don’t all collapse into the tired binaries you propose — it would make for a very tedious world.

avatar love the girls February 15, 2013 at 6:22 am

Rob G.,
Where in John Cuddleback’s article does he make these ‘nuances’? He’s pretty straight forward, in proposing that he is splitting wood for an entirely different reason than the standard of money. And that doing it for that different standard is a good.

Earning money for servile labor is forbidden on Sunday which is why I used it to explain the distinction, or ‘legalism’ if you prefer. Because the instructions by the Church on the third commandment are rather straight forward. The Church doesn’t make a bunch of ‘nuances’ on the third commandment. And just as the Church expects us to be able to make the distinctions based on those very short instructions, so likewise can we make a very similar distinction in what John Cuddeback is proposing.

What John Cuddeback is proposing is that hard servile work can and sometimes should be done for artistic or intellectual reasons. Reasons that specifically make not breaking the third commandment.

avatar love the girls February 15, 2013 at 6:38 am

Let me clarify. Servile labor, that is physical labor, that is ordered to making money, would be servile labor ordered towards survival because the servile earn their bread by the sweat of their brown to survive.

The reason I commented on D.W. Sabin’s post was because he was using survival inappropriately. The reason I commented on it at length is because the error is a common one on blogs like this because they attract the well off who can do physical labor at their leisure and mistake that labor for hard work of men who don’t have a choice in the matter, and then have the foolishness to look down on those same men for not meeting their pie in the sky aesthetic standards that only the well off can afford.

avatar Rob G February 15, 2013 at 10:40 am

Sabin was not using “survival” inappropriately. I think you misinterpreted his comment.

As for the Sabbath-related things, I believe you are interpreting them far too strictly, unless you are part of a church that has a strict Sabbatarian belief of the sort you mention. When you say “the Church,” I do not know which one you are talking about.

avatar love the girls February 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Rob G. writes : “When you say “the Church,” I do not know which one you are talking about.”

There’s only one. The Catholic Church.

avatar Rob G February 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Your analysis doesn’t sound right to me but I don’t know the ins and outs of Catholic sabbatarianism, so I’ll let the Catholics here comment on that. I will say that I’ve never heard anything like that from either the other Catholics here or my Catholic friends.

avatar John Gorentz February 15, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I used to say wood for fuel warms you three times: a) when you cut and split it, b) when you burn it, and c) when you burn yourself putting it in the stove. From now on I’m going to add a 4th: d) when you get into heated internet arguments over the virtue of using wood for fuel.

avatar Dan Reid February 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm

The argument for splitting wood manually–I understand this completely. It is good work that brings a peculiar pleasure. In my part of the country it’s usually aromatic red cedar or Douglas fir or alder. I moved recently and no longer have a wood-burning stove. When I smell the wood smoke coming from neighbors’ fires, I miss the experience.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Love the girls,
Congratulations, your presumptions run you square into a blind corner. I do not possess a comfy job in a large institution as you assert, I am a free agent , operating a small business . I pay a confusing array of taxes for my son who works for me .Your self satisfaction is obviously an impediment to your intellectual understanding of the issue at hand.

No matter, misunderstandings can be bridged by the realities of the situation.

Burning wood, shoveling logs into the fire after cutting , splitting and stacking them is a skill that pays back in comfort.

The society , as it stands now is perhaps not quite divorced from cause and effect but it operates under a kind of release from cause and effect. That, and labor is now considered a pejorative.

I do wish I had a paycheck, it might simplify things around here.The Concept might not be such a Harpy.

avatar love the girls February 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm

DW Sabin,

Thank you for your reply, and let me clarify. I wrote that John Cuddeback has a comfy job. To wit:

“We should not loose sight that John Cuddeback does work in a service economy D.W.Sabin ‘skinner box’. He (John Cuddeback)sic has a comfy job at an institution that takes care of his every need.”

I look at John Cuddeback’s wood splitting as a luxury. I don’t in the least begrudge him the luxury, but it should be recognized for what it is.

I sometime wish I too had a comfy paycheck coming in regularly, especially since the economy crashed and I now work twice as hard for half as much money where I virtually sacrificed the rest of my family scrapping pennies to send our oldest daughter to John Cuddeback’s Christendom College. A choice and sacrifice that makes zero sense via a monetary standard, but makes all the world of sense by a better standard.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 17, 2013 at 3:26 pm

ltg,
Burning wood is never a luxury. Its dirty and requires a lot of hard work when hard work aint really enjoyable like say, a 6 am run on the ice to the woodpile or maybe a 10 pm forage .

But , having spent a half million bucks on my own kids institutions, I understand your frustrations. However, the individual academic aint the issue….it is the omnipotent administration …an edifice that cares generally, not a whit about educating citizens. It thinks of consumers and so is ill equipped to do any of its job related to the Good.

avatar Beth Wiener March 3, 2013 at 2:06 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed your post John. We also burn wood on our farm and we burn primarily oak. I have a great respect for the fact that you hand cut your wood, and that your son takes great pride in assisting you with providing heat for your family!

In my opinion the bond that you share in performing this activity with your son is priceless, not to mention the sense of responsibility that you are instilling in him.

avatar Zinman March 3, 2013 at 9:04 pm

When you state, “Work, especially manual labor (manual of course originally means by hand), has an importance in itself,” how would you reconcile this statement with that of Josef Pieper (from his essay “Work, Spare Time, and Leisure”): “To serve some other purpose is the essential characteristic of work.”

avatar John Cuddeback March 4, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Beth: Thank you very much.
Zinman: Excellent question. As you know, Josef Pieper distinguishes between actions of work, as actions that fundamentally get their meaning from something other than the action itself, and actions that have their meaning in themselves, such as contemplation of the truth, or love between friends. So why then do I speak of work, especially manual labor, having an importance in itself? Here I do not take issue with Pieper’s distinction. What I am seeking to avoid is the mistake that tends to reduce the meaning of work simply to its product. If we think work only gets its meaning from its product then we miss the truth that work can also bring about good fruits within the one working, distinct from the direct product of the work itself. For instance, the work of making a wood cabinet has the cabinet as its product, but it also has an interior fruit, such as developing a sense of the beautiful. Work remains, as Pieper says, an action that serves a purpose outside itself, but in this interior fruit, work can also have an element that it shares in common with higher activity. It is very important to bear this in mind, I think, when we compare different kinds of work.

avatar L Katherine Baker September 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Wonderful! I enjoyed your classes way back at Christendom :-)

Your peice made me remember this article from ’09. In it the author claims her time is worth too much an hour to breastfeed her baby and she suggests that breastfeeding babies is really overrated anyway and not something that enlightened young women with earning power should consider doing especially considering how “expensive” it is. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/04/the-case-against-breast-feeding/307311/

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