The Late Night Buddhist: Zen and the art of chainsaw maintenance

By Scott Taylor
Reader Columnist

As I write this, it’s late September and the season has come (probably long ago for those overachievers who aren’t into procrastination) for filling the shed with firewood. Despite the amount of work, dirt and sore muscles involved in cutting a winter’s supply of wood, it’s one of my favorite chores. 

There’s a certain zen to woodcutting — just the snarl of a two-cycle engine echoing through the woods and the smell of fresh wood chips to fill your senses. (Yes, I know they’re not eco-friendly, but I’ve always loved the smell of a two-cycle: a chainsaw, a dirt bike, a little outboard motor buzzing across a morning lake. I get nostalgic just thinking about it.)

Of course, your chainsaw only throws wood chips if your chain is sharp, otherwise it’ll just grind out sawdust. Herein lies another zen moment of woodcutting: sharpening your chain. A fresh, sharp-as-new chain is a joy to use, and methodically filing away — feeling the proper angle and number of strokes — is about as zen as it gets. 

I have friends who are experts at chain sharpening (Joe, the horse-logger/ timber framer; Mac, the wilderness surveyor; Mix, the quintessential country-boy/ mountain-man; Perry, my old-school-logger/talks-like-a-pirate neighbor), but I suck. 

Back in southern-almost-Kentucky-Illinois, I met a guy who invited me to cut all the downed hickory, oak and ash out of his woods. I showed up one day with my little Stihl and proceeded to chew my way through a couple small limbs when Billy Ray (honestly, his name was Billy Ray, but not Cyrus; he looked more like Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, complete with beer belly) came out of his trailer carrying a much larger saw with a bar as long as my leg. 

He said, “You’ll never get anywhere with that little thing. Here, use this one. It’s brand new — the biggest they make!”

Using that saw was like the difference between driving an old Volkswagen and top-fuel dragster. I was in woodcutting ecstasy. I sliced through 20-inch oak like Walter Payton through the Packers’ defensive line. I cut more wood than I could load just for the joy of it. I had wood chips in my shirt, in my boots, in my hair, in the neighbor’s hair…

And now all that was left was to split and stack (another zen moment) and look forward to luxuriating in the soul-satisfying (and free!) warmth of a wood fire on a cold winter day. 

It may sound counterintuitive to what we think of as “zen,” but using a well-designed, well-maintained piece of machinery can bring about that same feeling of satisfaction, enjoyment and contentment that sitting quietly or making a perfect brush stroke can. 

Whether on a cushion, on a mountain or at the controls of a loud piece of machinery, happiness is where you find it. Choose happy!

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