Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tree Satori—Part 2

                     So the tree is down. It fell exactly where I wanted it. Now the work becomes safer, if not simpler. It was that big gray birch behind the buck barn, forever backward leaning into the shadow, and seedy. The log is very heavy. The work has proceeded according to plan. The tree did not fall into the muddy swale and my truck is not stuck in the mud, and I have pulled it up nearby the log in order to load it efficiently. Sometimes the work of cutting and hauling can’t be done in one day. Just because you can’t haul your handiwork out the day you cut it down, because the ground is still muddy from the winter, doesn’t mean you have to spend the afternoon reading Plato. Plato is for after sunset. Plato is a good reason to make a point of living long. But first square away your days! You may not finish the work on this tree till summer, when you have moved the wood near the house and stacked it in the woodpile there. But for the sake of happenstance, you've driven the truck alongside the log and all is well. Now, is it best to start at the top and work toward the stump, or start at the stump and work toward the top? Or even maybe start somewhere in the middle? In other words, where is the beginning?

Here are your tools: chainsaw, wedges, maul; and beat up fifteen year old Nissan truck.

Some say the top is the beginning, from which one works down toward the root; some say the root is the beginning and one should work toward the top. The top is often paltry in comparison to the bulk of the root. A good many woodlots have tops piled high untouched. The tops aren’t worked up at all! In season when a burn permit may be gotten, the tops make a handsome bonfire. Sometimes more frugal workmen are allowed to salvage the worthwhile firewood. There is always more than anyone would estimate, and bone dry, for the leaves are still attached and transpiring moisture to the sky. The top being closest to the sun supports a tangle of life giving branches. I have never been too proud to exclude roundwood from my woodpile. But get among these branches, screaming chainsaw in hand, and you may wonder which is the branch and which is the leg behind the branch. A tangle, a slip and a bucking saw may conspire unhappily. Is the trunk closest to the root where one should start? Start at the root and hope there’s a flower or two up a way. Especially when the trunk may sport fifty or more feet of clean, solid fire wood. In fact, after the which, why continue? Slash and burn. The big money is already made.

A woods just logged…day cold and dark and still…this winter's first snow.

But not the old penny wise wood burner. He runs his life on the assumption that his time is worth nothing, therefore, he has time to save time. If time is money and one works for money then half the job left undone is the most thrifty. I must not be very thrifty either of time or money: no tops trash my woodlot.

Now, I cross my arms thoughtfully and spin a cogitation upon the subject of which end of the tree is the beginning. One case may not compare to another case. Here is experience: I felled this tree exactly so and not otherwise for several reasons and among them was a slight ledgy hump on which lies the trunk about half way its length. It teeters as on a fulcrum. So most of the stress is lying on the fulcrum, and the best part of the trunk is lifted clear of the ground. In this case the trunk makes dandy cutting. Here's the best place to start work on this tree: at the root. As the saw screams the big chunks drop on the ground with a thump.

Baby the chain, baby the saw, woodsmen say. With the trunk slightly lifted on its fulcrum but still bearing weight, start cutting on the top, cut a good bit, perhaps three-fourths through the log, and then gingerly switch to cutting from below. Cut a small notch below, then cut on top again. The log being raised clear of the ground, there’s room to start the nose of the bar below the log without contacting the ground. The blink of an eye when the chain is in contact with an almost invisible stone in the sod under foot, for instance, may send you to file a numbed chain. The cutting edge of a sharp chain should draw itself at a good rate into the log. Sometimes this is hard to get. We, the amateurs, can't afford a new chain everyday, but we can sharpen our old chain everyday. The chain shouldn’t need to be pushed down to get it cutting. When a lengthy and thorough filing won't do the trick, it may be time to pony up for a new chain. New chains cost fifteen bucks or more, and it’s a dark day, but when I get home and back cutting again, I'm not unhappy anymore. The saw is cutting like mad. I can feel the energy in my hands. Running a good running chain saw is enjoyable work, but it doesn't take much to make it downright unenjoyable work. Baby the chain, baby the saw.

Now the cutting is going pretty well; the bar is piercing the log at a good rate. The bottom cut has almost reached the top cut. Before the log can start to pinch the chain, slowing it down, pull the bar out quick and cut again from the top, and the cut parts cleanly and that section of log falls off. In all work with a chainsaw, if there is any weight to shift, it will shift onto the bar of the saw. If the tree is big, it will lay its weight upon the chain and the bar of the saw in an instant, pinching the bar in the cut, and when the bar can't be wiggled out, it is a great aggravation. Should another woodsman see you in such a circumstance, he might find it worth stopping for a moment of ridicule. Quite a few woodsmen lug around two even three saws. Some even as many as five, whose chains they sharpen every night razor sharp. But a poor man will be happy with one saw and a wedge applied smartly.

I am then proceeding along steadily. My lucky fulcrum, which I spotted by means of long experience, helps a great deal. If I had not been so lucky, I may have to find a good place to cut somewhere along the log, and cut off a big section, but still small enough for me to handle; and catching it with the bolt-hook, which hopefully is not lost in the sod where the truck can run over it and puncture a tire, turn the log around to cut on one side then on the other side. Exhausting work because the log can be very heavy even when cut up into thirty or forty inch bolts, which most likely it won't be. Not to mention the possibility of impacting the chain with the ground and numbing it dull. And remember: these logs tend to be round, and if set up on a hillside, once they get rolling, the paltry flesh of a man will not slow them down.

Now that I have sawed off a good chunk of the log into twenty inch segments, maybe it would be a thought to shut down the chainsaw, take out the splitting wedge and maul, and enjoy the silence for a time. I may then work up a sweat, get the blood flowing to the brain, perfect for contemplation. I am a great one for talking to myself. I may wonder about a thousand subjects, none of which seem to be in books. You'll see me far to the back of my woodlot sitting on a turned up stump, castigating whomever over whatever. Fortunately, my boss is nature, who has provided me an entire spring to get a leg up on this work before the vegetable garden starts clamoring. But up again eventually, and at it for it won’t do to sit around all afternoon. And too much thinking gets on the nerves, especially thinking in day time. Thinking in such a way that the nerves are not soon all jittery and anger rising takes a knack and a bit of practice. Perhaps rare. Back to my chopping.

Now I have come toward the top of the tree, the area of thick branches. These branches make the best burning of all the wood by far in my country woodstove. Come winter, throw them on a bed of coals, which have been dug out of the night’s ashes, and they draw up forsooth with a bluish-red flame, extremely mobile, like fine silk in the wind, a wand of heat like the half transparent dusky glimmerings in Hell. By God, if I could get up enough of these thick, defrocked branches to burn, I wouldn’t burn anything else. I'd have hot Hell in a cage! Now apple tree limbs will heat you out of the house. Some years I can get a pick-up load from the orchard down the road. I save them carefully for the darkest, coldest winter nights. Once the stove is packed full, soon the glass crawls with flame. Apple limbs afire bring out the Jim Beam from the cupboard; time now for a shot, for this fire will last awhile. The house creaks from the bitter norther. Ten below and dropping. I stare into the efficient and well made fire, and I salute it from my easy chair with my naked toes. The soles of the feet are the best way by far to drug up heat inside.

So do I cut down my tops? By the time I finish with this old gray birch, there will be nothing left but a few rounds a quarter inch or less. My pile of discard will look like a convoy of grasshoppers basking in a warm evening. And in two years after tramping down the pile once a month, these little sticks will join the earth. Nothing left of one tree! But nature grows on.

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