Monday, November 4, 2013

Tree Satori

                                     After I bought my land, I was dead broke. The land had firewood on it. How else was I going to heat the house? Now, how to chop down a tree without squashing something. Isn't that the first thought that comes to one's mind when considering the problem of gathering firewood? You'd like to predict which way or how the tree will fall. There are a few things to learn but very little is written, and in those sorts of skills the actual doing becomes more like an art. You've got the work in front of you; you are in close contact with it; a few procedures are established to go by: you may even have your own personal taste about how to use these procedures; the problem now is to get through it. As you look at that big tree, what firewood gatherers of the past are available for advice? As you become more proficient the tree usually crashes down safely in the planned direction. If you become very proficient, the tree always crashes down where you planned. And your physical body or anything else that is valuable is not located where it crashes. But in this business the possibility of deadly accident through error and bad judgment is always close.

Behind the buck barn stands an obstinate ancient Gray Birch. I have known this tree for many years. I am not friendly with it as I am with the Red Oak standing off a short distance. Over the years I have put upon both trees a botheration of goats who snack on low sagging limbs and are unkind to roots. And my general human rush is bound to violate tree stuff too. But the Red Oak has flourished, producing each summer a numerous crop of leaves and I swear almost visible growth. The Gray Birch has been less lucky. In terms of a tree’s history this fellow has seen better days. Now his bark is peeling off in wide swaths; his top limbs are bedraggled bare and weary. Often I have stood nearby scratching my head. I should get a life as many times as I have ventured to this place to contemplate the plight of this tree. I think I remember a clean straight tree, a stalwart. I’d bet he is a hundred. Although there are even now no weird splits or crotchets, he has obviously reached his doldrums. Despite all the clearing done around him, all the sun let in, he has persisted in leaning backward into a low swampy place away from the sun, away from the daylight into the shadows. Now I have lost patience and sympathy. I have come out with my chainsaw. A going back now would be a weakness, though I am tempted. These occupations are sometimes not worth the effort. One day it will fall over on its own. But a young lovely sugar maple stands in sunlight only a few feet away. Soon I will be old, and this sugar maple will put up with my spring amusement. Not everything should be left to wind and time. In dealing with this crusty old codger, the Grey Birch, suppose there should be an accident? Which way will he fall? Not I hope on the sugar maple. The woods’ complaint would groan in the wind for a long time. The woods must take a dusting, a clearing out, as must everything, and the Grey Birch will yield an easy cord of good firewood. I’ll be rid of him and next winter he’ll keep me warm.

Now, time to cut a notch. I fire up my chainsaw and on the side of the tree in the direction I want it to fall, I saw horizontally a thumb past a quarter of the way through the trunk. About three inches above this cut I begin to saw in the shape of a triangle another cut. This cut would resemble the hypotenuse of a triangle, as it meets the lower cut at its farthest point into the tree. The triangular slot, once it has been cut, will then pop out. There is always a great temptation to saw the first cut too far into the tree, in which case the tree will fall back against the cut and pinch down on the chainsaw bar. It is in the nature of temptation that it will ruin one's day. I feel in a hurry; other jobs are waiting. Temptation waits always in the thoughtlessness of hurrying. It is not unusual to find a rusted out chain saw blade stuck, sticking out both sides of a tree trunk, the tree having nabbed it and grown around it. If I do cut too far and my chainsaw blade does get pinched, no amount of wrenching and pulling and tugging will loosen the bar to get it out. Perhaps there might be just enough opening to insert into the cut a wedge. If this happens, and you beat enough on the wedge, perhaps you can make enough space to loosen the bar and tug out the saw. More likely, you are in a serious bind. An axe blade might open up the cut enough to get the wedge started. A second chainsaw is a luxury, and suppose it gets stuck too. Where did you think all that cussing would get you? Perhaps best disassemble the saw and move it away from any further disaster. You can buy a good, straight used bar for ten dollars; fixing a stove chain saw can get expensive. You’ll take a fierce ribbing at the saw shop. You might go and find your come-along. (No one can live in Maine without a come-along.) If a tree is nearby to loop it to, at great risk to your good health, you might be able to drag the tree over. Or get out the old duct taped axe and chop the tree on the side opposite the notch, and just chop it down. Damned if the saw bar gets rolled over, bent and ruined. On the other hand you could retreat, sit down and enjoy the weather. One day a big wind will come up and fell the tree for you. Why all this invention and struggle when a big wind could do the work? Nature may be for a minute fed up with you, man!

Enough depressing possibilities! Waiting for the wind? Risk that young sugar maple? Likely I’ll be senile before a wind comes up, if I am not senile already. I won’t get my saw stuck, not after so many years. Surely I have learned enough in my life to avoid this temptation. I have plans for the sugar maple! While the ancient is yet strong enough to stand, I stop cutting. I bring experience to bear. Now I am ready to insert my wedges.

I summon up the necessary persistence and application. If one must persist in this simple chore, deduce the rest!

Now I begin to saw the trunk on the opposite side from the notch and three or four inches or so above it. (Getting this alignment right is not so much a science as an art. You estimate it by the eye; study it and the eye will tell you how close it is to being right.) Again, saw no more than a third of the way through the trunk. When done, roughly a third of the way around the cut insert the first wedge. With the maul I pound the wedge until the cut slowly begins to open up. Another third of the way around the cut I start the second wedge and briskly pound it. Ever so slowly the tree begins to straighten up or tip over in the direction I want it to fall. Then I plunge the saw bar into the cut in front of the wedges. If you strike the saw chain cutting edges on a wedge, I hope you have a clean file because you’ll need to do some sharpening. Now cut an inch or two farther toward the notch; the tree can’t fall back, pinching the bar because the wedges are supporting it. More desultory pounding later, the arms and shoulders are feeling weary. Even on a cool early spring day, you’ll easily break a sweat. Then finally the wedges have opened the cut so the bulk of the tree is leaning toward where you want it to fall. Weight has come off the wedges so that they loosen in the cut and they literally fall out.

Now I may pause, for it is a satisfactory moment. I have adjusted nature in the interest of my human service. Then back to work; a breeze may up any moment. The chainsaw makes quick work of it. The forest resounds with the mighty crashing. The nearby young sugar maple breathes a relieved sigh.

The old codger is down! By means of my human machination, he has come down not on the young sugar maple or into the low muddy bog, where I can not drive my truck, but onto the high ground, where I can drive my truck, and safely away from the sugar maple. I will cut him up into stove wood lengths and load him into my truck. I do not regret what I have done. About fifty years ago Greg Watson of Sumner logged this land, but he left a good number of well established trees, such as the Red Oak, a sturdy and straight tree whose upper limbs preach bravely toward the heavens. I will not cut down that Red Oak. It is precious to me an I'll leave it to the future. I myself will be cut down to dust long before that tree. This that has happened that I have done hasn't it seemed likely?

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