Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Me and My Chainsaw

Because this blog is now exclusively about cutting and gathering wood, apparently.

The other day I worked the split shift and thought I'd save some gas by hanging around at mom's place (closer to work) through the middle of the day. I planned to cut and split some swamp maple that fell during Hurricane Sandy. My sister is minding the place while the folks are gallivanting down in Florida for the winter. I brought my chainsaw and a change of clothes but forgot to take working shoes. Carrying the saw to the car in the morning, I got a drop of dirty bar oil on my new Bucks and so will likely be looking at a black circle on my toe for the next 18 months, unless this pair wears out quicker than the last one.

I found a pair of The Captain's boots in the basement, only four sizes too big, and used those to tromp around the yard. The physical discomfort was nothing compared to the irony of being literally unable to fill my stepfather's shoes.

Looking around the place I found the two huge pines that had fallen from our yard across the neighbor's path during blizzard Irene. I know the folks don't get along with those neighbors too well; they're unhappy with the barking dogs and the two 30' + boats parked in the yard, and they complained when The Captain built a shed 15' from their property line. This led him to hoist the shed up on some logs and roll it across to the other side of the house, pulling it behind his truck. He's pretty spry for a man in his 70s, and he'll be helping us with our roof in a few weeks. It didn't seem right to leave him with this extra task when he got home if I didn't have to.

My sister was nervous about the fact that the neighbors had made some early attempts to trim off some branches so they could duck under the tree and make it to the pond. She was convinced they'd come pounding on the door, doing their best to make her uncomfortable. "But don't go cutting it up," she said. "You'll wear yourself out."

Sounded like a challenge to me.

After my sister left for work, the oil-delivery man came. He watched me studying the tree. "I'm trying to decide if these are safe enough for us to tackle or if they need a professional," I told him.

"You can do that," he said. "It's pine, so it'll cut easy." But his eyebrows went up when he saw me bringing round an electric chainsaw. Electric powered chainsaws are for lightweights, apparently. "Oh I get it. It's for conservation," he said, referring to the fact that agents of the conservation commission tend to come running when they hear a gas-powered chainsaw running anywhere close to wetlands.

There's a real cloak-and-dagger aspect to yard maintenance around here.

I brought The Captain's big stepladder over from beneath his boat, trying to decide if I could cut it from above without it knocking me over. But as I thought about it, it started to feel like too much extra work and danger. So I ended up starting at the base. The bigger trunk was over 20" across, quite a bit longer than my saw blade, so I went at it from one side and then the other, stopping when I heard the weight start to pull it apart. I was lucky the stump didn't spring up and hit me in the face. Eventually the trunk fell and landed across the stone-wall, at a height I could cut at from the ground.

But it's dangerous cutting at a tree from the base, with all that weight bearing down on you from above. Better to chop up a tree, even a fallen one, from the top down. But there was a lot to that top, extending far into the neighbor's swamp, and I knew I wouldn't have the time or the energy to take care of all of it. I just wanted to clear the path and do my part for neighborly relations. So I made the best judgments I could, at first alarmed when I felt the bar of the saw start to bind in the wood, then approaching more carefully when I realized what was happening, and the forces of all that weight bearing down.

The whole process had the element of danger to it, which made it all the more satisfying--like a Sudoku puzzle that could crush you if you put in the wrong number. I love tasks that are safe when you think about them, but deadly if you get stupid, like sailing and flying. If I ever get more than a little money set aside I'll be doing both of those again.

At one point the tree collapsed into my cut. Thousands of pounds pinched together, bringing the saw to an instant stop. There was no way I was going to get it out. So I fetched mom's smaller saw from the garage, an even lighter-weight model, really just meant for limbs and brush. I tried to take care of some of the branches that were holding up the top of the tree. The middle was lying across another tree-stump, and I hoped that if I could make the top of the tree fall away by taking out its support, the halves would separate apart and free my saw. But then the weight of one of those branches collapsed onto that saw, and I was left scratching my head and looking at two trapped chainsaws. Rehearsing my phone-call. "Yeah, mom, I was trying to do you a favor but..."

Then I found a hatchet in the garage and went to work with that.

Hacking at a tree with a small axe is hard work, but at least an axe isn't likely to get trapped in the wood the way a saw-blade will. Eventually I was able to knock the branch off of the smaller saw, and then there was a good hour of further consideration and cutting before I got the main trunk of the tree to fall and free mine. It took another hour after that before I could get it into big pieces that would roll free of the stone-wall and that stump. Cutting big vee-shaped wedges from the top and bottom seemed to help. I did the bottom cuts first, so that I didn't have to be underneath the tree when it finally let go. And now that I understood the forces I was dealing with, I was always quick to back out of any cut as soon as I felt the pressure of the tree threatening to trap the saw again.

After that it was a matter of cutting the trunks into sections light enough to lug over the stone wall to our own yard. "Light enough" is, of course, a matter of perspective. I got most of them out of there, leaving just two segments that were too thick to cut through, at least with the energy I had left at the time.

A sensible man would have taken a nap after that, but I was mentally fired up and so I brought my equipment around the house to the wood-pile of maple I had actually planned on tackling when I woke up that day, and set to work cutting it up into lengths suitable for our tiny wood-stove. I wheeled the electric wood-splitter out of the shed. Mom's had that Craftsman splitter through 30 years and three partners, and fortunately The Captain has done a nice job of keeping it well greased up.

Good thing, too. There's no way I'd have the arm-strength left to swing a maul at that point.

It's just as much fun to use that splitter now as it was when I was a kid. You put logs on one end against a stationary wedge. Throw a lever and an iron pusher bar forces the log against the wedge until it splits. When it's half-way across you can put a log against the wedge on the other end, and when the bar's all the way across you throw the lever in the other direction. What a satisfying gadget! I worked straight through my nap-time, and got through three quarters of the pile before it was time to wash up and head back to work.

It had been a high-drama day at the office, apparently. Mis-communications trickling down through all levels, fowled projects, grumpy customers and low morale. Fortunately I was too tired to give a crap. I felt like the guy in Fight Club, who goes into work all beat up and discovers that the volume of the usual bullsh*t around him has dropped to near inaudibility.

It's a perfect state to let people vent it and forget it.

Maybe someday I can buy a little wood-lot somewhere, and treat it as my personal fight club. Or I'll get a truck and advertise a small-scale wood-clearing service. It's good therapy.

Clearing and gathering firewood is like going to a gym that pays you.


  1. You gonna be changing the name of the blog to "The Pipe And Maul" soon? :D

    Seriously though, that's way too big a tree to be tackling with an electric saw. You need to invest in a vintage Honda or something. That kind of manliness needs to be powered by internal combustion.

  2. Jeg elsker denne bloggen så mye!