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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

My neighbors must wonder when they hear the rhythmic gnawing of my handsaw. Who but an eccentric weirdo would labor by hand to cut logs into firewood when there are mechanical alternatives?

On any given day you’ll find this weirdo happily pushing and pulling the big handsaw, sniffing the perfume of the sawdust and enjoying muscle aches nobody has anymore. In this brief reverie, I spurn electric power cords and the scream of power saws, believing for a moment that I can do without them.

I might have lived a century ago judging by how I enjoy scavenging firewood, hauling it home and cutting it with my two-man “Superior Warranted,” a 4-foot-long crosscut saw that bristles with shark teeth. I’m so retrograde that I even split logs with a double-bladed ax, deriving pleasure from the sound of the deep “thu-wunk.”

I’ve got my ancestors’ blood in my veins, and I use their tools the way they used them in earlier times. I think about my family roots as I push and pull the big saw, and those thoughts are as warming as the cutting and burning of scavenged firewood that heats my home for free.

My grandparents all emigrated from Denmark in the early 1900s. My mother’s side farmed the black earth of Minnesota. My father’s side sought gainful employment in Michigan. Both branches were yeomen, working with their hands at whatever work Danish immigrants could find to establish themselves in a new land.

Later, my forebears convened in Chicago, where my parents were born – both named Andersen – and where they met and married in the Danish Lutheran Church (my mother never even had to change her driver’s license). I’m a double-Andersen, so attachment to name and heritage has been important. My parents were fluent in Danish, and we practiced Danish customs despite the homogenizing effects of the melting pot. I still like a good Danish with coffee!

Ethnic identity is important to me, so when I cut big logs I use my grandfather Walter’s two-man crosscut saw that came from the Michigan branch of the family, a saw I ogled as a kid in my father’s shed, where it hung unused all through my childhood.

After my father’s death, that big handsaw was mine for the asking, so I shipped it home, rusty and dull, and put it in my own shed. But not to be forgotten. A small flat file worked well to sharpen the teeth, and a wire brush cleaned off most of the rust. After applying a thin coat of oil, I was amazed at how efficiently it cut by drawing it back and forth like the bow of an enormous fiddle, breathing with every stroke as it cut deeper and deeper, scattering sawdust over the snow at my feet.

My maternal grandfather, Axel, was a master carpenter when he arrived from Denmark. As an opportunistic young man, he was more interested in building than in furrowing cornfields with his two brothers in Minnesota. He gravitated to Chicago, built bungalows on the near North Side, sold them to his fellow Danes and prospered. That’s how it worked among immigrant populations: They supported one another in business and through social clubs.

Axel’s saws, delicate wood-frame devices called “bow saws,” are for carpentry. They cut beautifully, though I don’t use them for firewood. They hang where they can be seen for the handsome tools they are – practical icons of my bloodline.

Firewood is a favorite winter ritual. It’s not a chore to be hurried and done with but an act of independence from machines and the so-called ease of the modern age. I use hand tools for the physical workout and the esthetic appeal even if it seems slow, archaic and stubbornly impractical. Sawing and splitting wood is a contemplative necessity, an antidote to the hours I spend on the computer.

The truth-telling comes when the fire is roaring in the stove. I stand before it feeling the warmth and sniffing the fragrance of juniper and pinyon. My grandfathers would look quizzically at this act of fealty to the past, but I think they would smile to know that I think of them while feeling comfort and warmth in the heart of my home.


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