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Volume 14, Issue 4: Tohu


Jared Miller

I grew up into a liturgy of wood. Only a few chosen ones may do so now; the simple ritual of gathering and burning firewood has become extinct in favor of electric elements and clean gas, blue under ceramic logs, forever burning but never consumed. But the old real wood creates change—creates liturgy. In the hot high summer, we cut; in the early autumn, we split; and most other times, we burned. In the spring and early summer we did nothing with the wood. That was the time for resting, forgetting winter and all its associations, enjoying the growing and living wood. The wood year does not account for all the months, but does even the Church year do more? What are the long, empty weeks between Pentecost and Advent but the spring and summer of the faith, a time for seeing, and doing, and simply living, freed from the ritual thought of what necessary things have gone before in the unthinkable depths of winter?

The cutting of the wood is brutal, loud, and short. It requires the calm and will of the Israelite worshiper, who could lay a hand quickly but firmly on the sacrificial victim's head, and in a single smooth motion draw its head back and unstring its bare throat with the ritual knife. So the congenital lean of the tree is judged with a sure eye; a thin wedge is cut into the leaning; slightly higher up, a swift back-cut unstrings the inner strain and the tree falls, pivoting over the wedge and shoving the air aside, its branches collapsing under the trunk, like the ribs of a beached whale folding under its own weight, groaning only as immense things can groan, pitiful only as immense things can arouse pity. The limbs shear off with a flick of the saw. The blades lance the blisters that form in August just underneath the thin, topmost bark, and the warm watery sap spins from the flying chain, a clean viscous fragrance in the hot, dry air, mingling with the grimy red bar oil and blue gasoline exhaust from the saw. The saws, when sharp, fall easily through the wood, girdling the trunk which falls into neat rounds like unhinged vertebrae, and the long curled flakes of white heartwood pile up like snow, systematically drifting every sixteen inches along the trunk's line.
Splitting is a delicately balanced matter of muscle and finesse. It means finding the right fault and hitting it squarely so that the wood divides naturally like an orange falling apart into its inherent segments. The rounds of wood, circular perfections, are laced with hidden fissures, secret joints and marrows. You hold the wedged maul with the right hand near its head and the left at the extreme end of the haft. The back swing draws the head down past the hip in an arc behind and above the shoulder, and as it reaches the apex and accelerates downward, the right hand slides down the haft, meeting the left just as the blade strikes the wood. There is something like joy in this elemental release of power, something of knowing the fullness of your strength in the pendulum moment of that single arc, feeling the round spring apart as if releasing some inner centrifugal tension, and catching a trace of the vital sappy odor as the head drives through to the scarred block beneath.
We burn the wood because our blood is not warm enough. The ancient Israelites wanted wood because the sacrifice could not burn of itself, being too much made of water and blood, so the priests piled the holy wood beneath it on the altar, and as the wood burned it purged the water and ignited the fats and carbon tissues remaining in the body. The ascension offering was fully consumed, a gift entire and outright, an unconditional surrender and expression of longing to God. The whole animal burnt to ashes upon the wood: blood, fat, water, muscle, tissue, and hair; and being transformed and transported through a veil of fire, was able to ascend heavenwards to the place beyond the most holy, to the very nostrils of God. Through and with and by the animal upon the sweet altar wood, the worshiper by destroying his own symbol was able to ascend, like wood smoke into the very breath of God, to be united wholly and transparently with Him.
To breathe is to draw something down inside yourself, and it becomes part of you with a transparency and richness that light and sound can never achieve. Smells and tastes are the most sensual of the senses; even touch finds itself blocked, separated from its object, unable to mingle wholly with it; breathing and eating are by far more vulnerable and valuable. Wood smoke, drawn down inside, will shape itself to mean anything. I have known it as sweet pipe tobacco and apples, cider and the cold fleshiness of gutted pumpkins, wet earth and cool sweat, and all things that set the heart on edge as keenly as gunpowder and dogs and bird-hunting in the uplands late in the year. Without the true wood smoke to breathe, there is no autumn.
Cut, split, and burned, the tree becomes a life for a life. It is a radical and violent metamorphosis, the ecstatic twist of a cocoon. The undivided tree is proud and unwieldy; unless divided and torn down, it cannot be transformed and cannot ascend, and it cannot be breathed in. Cut, split, and burned, it becomes a life for life, and thus it becomes a metaphor of what we enact yearly in the festivals of the Church. Exhausted, worn out, and waiting, we are cut by sin and split to the marrow by the Word. Waiting, finding, turning, fasting, suffering, we catch fire and burn down to ashes. And from the cleansing and fertile ash the world rises new, and we rest finally among the growing trees, knowing nothing but that they now grow green.

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