Conversations with the Woodcutter

  • By:karen-millen




At three years old he was already holding an ax and at five he had enough skill to publicly exhibit his gift, that of cutting logs, which has led him to be the best in a sport, like so many others, beautiful and unknown. He is an aizkolari (in Basque, person who handles an axe). And, as he tells it, it was quite likely that he was, as were his father, his mother and also his maternal uncles. «The truth is that I have not seen anything else, the whole family, it is normal that my first game was to cut things». He is the youngest absolute champion in history, the last one was Martin Garciarena in 1950; world runner-up and also the man who has spent the least time cutting 14 logs: 26 minutes and 46 seconds. The previous record was in possession of Donato Larretxea for a quarter of a century, he used almost a minute more than Iker Vicente. In the months of confinement, he prepared himself thoroughly and organized a charity event for the occasion, the proceeds of which were used for research on the coronavirus.

In this sport there are hardly any professionals, "two or three," he says. «It is very difficult, each one has to go pulling the chestnuts out of the fire, looking for sponsors or exhibitions». The bets do not help much either, as it happens in other specialties. "Before they played even the farmhouse, and now they can reach up to twelve thousand euros, but whoever cuts the logs is not even invited to a coffee." He is 23 years old and has a small ship in which he trains. It looks like a gym with rustic touches. At the top, some large photos show some stellar moments of his father, even with a large chainsaw. There are also clothing used in competitions, scarves, trophies and sponsor logos. He cuts two days a week, dedicates another two to running and another couple to bodybuilding. This is a mixture of strength, resistance and technique and, contrary to what it seems at first glance, it is not easy at all.

He cut 14 logs in less than 27 minutes at a charity event to investigate Covid

To handle the ax you have to know the wood very well, almost always beech, “which can be soft or very hard; Until you strike the first blow, you don't know what you're up against." You can change the tool depending on the difficulties. In the competitions, he explains, the lots are always divided among the participants in such a way that each one receives an equitable distribution of the parts of the tree, since the top is made of softer wood and the base is harder. They are usually between 40 and 45 centimeters in diameter and the angles of the cut must be calculated very well so that they coincide on both sides when they reach the center, where they are split. He counts these things with an ax in hand. He has a hundred and buys them in Australia, at 500 euros a unit. The handles are made here, and the sharpening too. Each tree has its own and each piece of steel its personality, "I know them all, not that I give them names or anything like that, but I recognize them by the marks that I put on them in color and by the year." On the wall there are three fastened with some nails. They have broken leaves.

'One of ours'

Conversaciones con el leñador

Living in a small and remote place has its drawbacks. Studies, for example. When the time came, at 17, when I finished secondary school, "I had to go to Pamplona to study, but I was already picking up the level, so I told my parents that I wanted to try hard for a year to see what would happen." And what happened is that at 18 he was proclaimed champion of Navarra and from that moment on he began a career that has taken him to where he is, to a place that he would not change for anything. «I like this and, although I did not dedicate myself professionally to it, I would also do it, I do not change it for any other sport, nor for money; It is who I am and what makes me happy.”

It's the weekend and the parking lot is full of vehicles. Tourists stop at the bridges to take photos. And next to the balconies overflowing with geraniums. A French couple takes a nap on the steps of the church, under a plaque commemorating a Jesuit missionary baptized here, Juan Esandi, who "was slaughtered by the Moors of Mindanao" in 1768.

Iker has bought a house and has transformed it into a tourist establishment. In Ochagavía there is not much to work on and the beauty of the town and the nearby forests long ago attracted tourists. He took advantage of the fact that a neighbor, when she died, left her house as an inheritance to relatives who live abroad and were not interested in keeping it. He is an only child and for now he doesn't want anything serious with the girls.

Next to the ship he stores 50 tons of beech each year, which he uses for training. They are given them in exchange for displaying advertising for the forests that attract so many visitors to the Salazar Valley and the nearby Selva de Irati. The trunks are covered with straw so that they do not dry out. Iker grabs a chainsaw and deftly prepares one, strips off the bark, loads it into the SUV, and heads up one of those trails only locals know to a dirt road that leads into a sea of ​​towering trees. Columns that undulate and filter the light.

We are talking about Australia, where he spends three months a year competing and where he has a friend who is like a brother, about the relationship with the earth and the roots, about how sometimes in small worlds unfathomable territories appear. Iker says that in this world everyone knows each other, they compete against each other in tournaments and exhibitions and then share a lunch or dinner. He is someone eloquent: "My rivals are my friends."

I explain to him that it is the writer John Berger's fault that we are here and a passage from one of his novels, 'Once in Europe', where he writes: "When the ax enters the forest, the trees say: Look, the mango is one of ours!” He laughs. He is thoughtful for a while. They are things of the people who dedicate ourselves to telling stories in front of those who dedicate themselves to living them. Iker is not very given to metaphors. «The mountain is like people, in the beech woods, if you don't remove the old ones, their shadow prevents the young from growing; doing that you always have a forest. The other way, if you don't cut, they rot and die and you have nothing. But, he listens to him, the phrase that you have said to me is very good, I like it a lot ».


Conversations with the Woodcutter
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