Albert Scherpbier Albert Scherpbier Sacha Ruland

He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK

Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 17 September 2014 09:51
Isn’t that just always the way it goes: now that the photographer and the interviewer are watching you work, the chainsaw doesn’t want to start. After a few attempts, the shrill sound at last cuts through the silence of the village of Wahlwiller. The professor lowers the saw into one of the many tree trunks lying ready to be cut into chunks. Soon after, his axe whizzes down with deadly accuracy: chop! Chop! CHOP!! With every stroke, Professor Albert Scherpbier clears his mind. “And then lighting the fire – that’s just fun.”

We are at Viva Lanterne, a beautiful estate in Wahlwiller owned by friends of Scherpbier. The historic farmhouse has been renovated into a picturesque paradise, where an elderly dog snoozes in the courtyard and two rabbits hop by in the space of five minutes. “That’s not so unusual”, the professor says. “At some point they released four rabbits here that bred with some wild ones, so those ones aren’t all that wild.”

Log piles

Behind his friends’ private garden lie two large piles of logs. Once a month, preferably more often, the dean of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences comes here to spend a day chopping wood. A normal household burns three to four cubic metres of wood per year. This farm, with its wood-fired heating and water systems, needs at least 110 cubic metres. “Ideally I’d come every week, but I’ve got one or two other things to do”, he deadpans. Scherpbier has been sawing and chopping wood since he was 10 years old. His childhood home in Kerkrade had a wood-fired stove, and it was there that the young Albert learnt the art of wood chopping from his father. Ever since, he has loved the warmth of a wood fire. “It’s completely different from central heating. It’s just so nice to sit near it.”

Hobby hacker

Scherpbier has lived in Gulpen for 14 years, where he has an indoor as well as an outdoor wood stove. There, too, he occasionally chops wood. “And because lots of people know I do, now and then I’ll chop down a tree in someone’s garden. As long as it’s not too dangerous of course, because it’s not easy to know exactly where a tree will fall.” He is ‘just’ a hobby hacker, he says. His two sons and a son-in-law, themselves hobby hackers, sometimes come along. “My son-in-law even climbs trees that have to be chopped down. I don’t do that anymore. They’re also faster than me now, but that’s okay. I do it for relaxation. After a day of wood chopping you get rid of so much stress, and you sleep like a log. It’s basically hitting stuff, but legal”, he chuckles. Anyone who sees him at it will understand well how it can restore the balance after a long stint of intellectual work.

Eight axes

Scherpbier keeps his eight axes in his study at home. “To cut down a tree you use a different axe than you would to split kindling. This here is a splitting axe, to make chunks of wood smaller.” He rarely misses, and he has got better with age. “You learn how to approach a block of wood. The most important things are technique and concentration. The axe should do the work. But because you’re concentrating, there’s an element of intensity in your stroke and that makes it better.” This concentration is what leaves his mind clear after a day of wood chopping. “I also enjoy the variation. Chain sawing, chopping, stacking the wood, driving it in the tractor over to the shed …”

Chopping wood is his main hobby; his car is a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser that he can use to move trailers full of wood. He likes being a handyman too: “Fixing things, or breaking them”, he beams. “But lighting a fire – now that is just so much fun.” Could it be that this 60-year-old still has a little boy in him? “Actually, yes”, he laughs. “As lots of men do, I think, but they may not admit it as easily.”

Albert Scherpbier (1954) is Professor in Quality improvement in medical education. He studied Philosophy and Medicine at the University of Groningen. Since 1991 he works at Maastricht University, where he is dean of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences since 2011. In his research he is particularly interested in learning at the workplace and skills training. 

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