Counter intuitive lessons in creative thinking from a tough old Elm tree.

Cracked Tree Stump

Darren Hester via Compfight

Why counter intuitive action gets results.

Arriving in Canada as an adult brought up in a warm part of the world, I had no experience with felling large trees for firewood, cutting and splitting logs. On our farm in Zimbabwe, we rarely cut down indigenous trees, even leaving good specimens growing in the middle of fields and preserving large areas of natural habitat as refuges for wild animals, birds, plants and insects.

We grew fast growing exotic species, mainly eucalyptus or “blue gum” trees for firewood and fence poles, pine for furniture and roof timbers. Most buildings were constructed of brick and mortar as timber frame houses would have been consumed by termites in no time.

Most farms had a blue gum plantation, when firewood was needed for a few cold evenings each year a worker would cut a tree down with his traditional axe, chop it into pieces of a suitable size and cart it to the house in a wheelbarrow. Even farms using wood as fuel for tobacco curing employed people with axes to do the job. Chain saws were expensive, parts hard to get and dangerous in the hands of unsophisticated workers.

On the rare occasion when a large indigenous tree, a msasa or a fig had to be removed, it would be done by men with axes even if it took them a few days to get it done. Time is something people in Africa have in abundance, chain saws less so.

Without that experience of cutting trees handed down from father to son in North American farming families, I had to learn the skills fairly quickly to stay warm in winter. Our old farm-house is heated by a dual, fuel wood / oil furnace. I try to avoid using oil both due to cost and because it is a non-renewable form of energy. At around $700 a tank which would only last 3 weeks in very cold weather, it is an expensive source of heat.

The oil option is a good safeguard which allows us to be away from home for a few days without the house freezing. It is also handy for heating up the house on a bitterly cold morning while getting the fire going.

We have a few acres of hardwood bush at the bottom of our field. Every year a few maples, ash or oak get blown down, or die. I haul them out, cut them up and split them for the following year’s wood. Last fall, I cut down a large elm tree that had succumbed to disease. I cut it into 20″ lengths and left it to dry all spring and summer.

Elm is incredibly hard to split, it is a very fibrous wood, the grain does not run straight  and it is tough.

I have a large hydraulic splitter on the back of my 68 hp tractor, it will easily split maple or ash logs of more than 40″ diameter. It would not split the elm logs. I remembered a neighbour telling me that if I cut across the face of the log with my chain saw, it would split easily. That didn’t work. I cut in from the outside a couple of inches down the length of each piece and that let me split each one into two halves.

Now I could not split the halves.

In the 8 years I have been cutting and splitting wood, I have split tons of ash, maple, willow, walnut, cherry and various other species, but never a large elm, only a couple of small ones. I always split from the circumference to the centre and generally get a clean split.

My familiar method failed completely with the elm. After much frustration, some thing told me to try a different method. I noticed that there were circular cracks in the logs running parallel to the circumference, around the annular rings, much like those in the photo above. It seemed totally counter intuitive to try it, because I had never tried it before and it always seemed more difficult to split logs across the grain instead of with it.

I tried, it worked and in a couple of hours I had all the logs split.

That reminded me how often we waste time by continuing to try old methods when they no longer work. How many times have I wasted hours trying to get a computer programme to do something because logic tells me “that is the way it should” only to find that I missed something simple and it will not work the way I think it will.

How many times have we got stuck on something by following our normal thinking patterns and then someone unfamiliar with the subject asks “what if you try this” and it triggers a counter intuitive approach which leads to a solution. Embarrassing but enlightening when that someone is a young child.

How can we increase our ability to think counter intuitively?

  • By reading a wide range of subjects.
  • By involving ourselves in unfamiliar creative activities, music and art.
  • By discussing unfamiliar ideas with people from different backgrounds.
  • By asking questions, of ourselves, of others, continuously.
  • By changing routines, developing new habits.

Just as one man’s meat is another’s poison, what is intuitive to one might be counter intuitive to another.

How do you use counter intuitive thinking? Does it solve problems for you? Help you become more creative? Leave a comment.

Wishing you success.


Peter Wright





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