Sunday, November 30, 2008

36 Rings

That tree that Al and I felled last week has been a real challenge to buck. It's far, far too heavy to move -- even a segment of it ten feet long weighs too much for me to budge in the slightest. So it's impossible to get it up onto something to cut.

If you've never worked a chainsaw before, you probably don't realize that the hardest part of it is not felling a tree but bucking the felled tree -- that is, cutting it up into appropriate length pieces (usually 16" or so). That's exhausting for some simple reasons. First, felling a tree is three cuts, but bucking a 50' tree into 16" sections is about thirty-six cuts, minimum. Second, those cuts are all done with a pair of muscles you probably don't even know you have, running down your forearms on the pinky side all the way to your elbow. A couple of hours of bucking and I'm still feeling energetic and ready to do more, except those two muscles, which are sore and painful; I had to ice them afterwards, in fact (which worked wonderfully).

But bucking isn't just tiring, it's also challenging. Felling has its challenges, the main one being the efforts to ensure the tree falls in the direction you want it to fall, plus the safety considerations. But bucking is also challenging because the main trick to using a chainsaw is ensuring that as the wood bends through the cut, it doesn't bend down onto the blade, pinching it. You never just cut through the wood the way you want it to cut, the way you would if you had a lightsabre (boy, that would be convenient). You always have to cut in such a way that as the cut finishes and the two parts of the wood start to move apart, they don't do so in a way that pinches the blade. If they do, the chain gets caught, the whole saw is trapped, and it's very likely the chain will bend the retaining pin and require a repair on the saw... once you manage to get it free, which isn't easy.

Consider a log which is lying with both ends supported by something like other logs or a rise in the land, so that the log is like a bridge. How can you make a cut through it? If you start at the top and cut down, as you get near the end of the cut, the point where you're cutting will want to sink downward, which means both sides of the log are now pinching in on the blade. That will stop your cutting and ruin your saw. The proper method is to cut down only about a third of the way, then put the blade under the log and cut up, so that as the two halves start to fall away from each other, they're also falling away from the blade. This is remarkably hard; for one thing, cutting up is a lot more of a strain, and it's often very difficult to even get the chainsaw under the log in the first place. It's an unnatural way to work muscles and so it becomes even more exhausting. And you still run the risk of pinching if the log moves the wrong way; and a single pinch is disastrous, it ends your work and can end your saw.

To make matters worse, there are different patterns for how you're supposed to cut if the log is supported on one end, or neither end, and if the cut is happening before or after the support. The ideal situation is where one end of the log is on the ground, the other end is in the air, and it rests on a fulcrum midway along, and you cut off pieces from the end in the air, since they naturally fall away from the blade as you cut down from the top. But if the log is too heavy to get into this configuration in the first place, you may have to buck it into pieces light enough to roll onto something.

That's what I spent most of my time doing, and in about two hours, I only bucked half of the log that way. Finding myself unable to do the cut-from-the-bottom technique I instead did a time-consuming tedious process involving cutting a notch out of the log from the top, little by little, so that as it moved to pinch it always had room to do so without catching the blade.

On a soft wood this extra work wouldn't be too bad, but this tree is remarkably hard and dense. The chainsaw goes through it so slowly, and requires so much force to be applied, it's just exhausting. The chain was getting so hot it would sizzle when I set it down on the snow. I kept having to stop to let it cool off, making the process that much slower.

Put all this together, and in two hours I made only a couple of dozen 16" rounds of surpassing density, so heavy they're hard to lift even though they're so short. Half the tree still waits to be cut.

I tried to split these rounds, but there was no splitting them. Even cutting into the top with the chainsaw to make a groove for the wedge to get started in, I couldn't get it to bite, the wood was far too dense. I'll just leave the rounds out where they fell all winter and spring, and during the summer they'll dry out, and hopefully they'll be splittable by next autumn. Then I can split and stack them, and they'll be ready to burn not next winter but the following.

I took one of the rounds into the house to count the rings, and I make it 36. If the tree died this year, that would mean it was born in 1972 (the same year as my sister). However, I think the tree has been dead since at least before we moved in four years ago (or if not dead, weak enough that it's not adding rings -- it didn't have bark on most of its trunk, after all), so it's probably closer to being the same age as me.

It's going to be some beautiful burning wood when I can finally use it, and doing all this work on it is really putting me through the paces of learning the art of woodcutting. I suppose in the dry air of memory, as I write this, it could seem disappointing that after two weekends I'm not even halfway through the process (fell, limb, buck, split, stack, and season) of handling a single (albeit mighty) tree.

But when I'm out there doing it, I'm immensely pleased at the progress and the sense of satisfaction at the work. I bet if I had to do it for a living, four hours at a stretch then lunch and another four hours, I would hate it. (And those muscles in my arms would be amazingly strong.) And if I had to do it to survive, or know my family would freeze to death, and balance it with all the other things a pioneer family had to do, it would be even worse. But from the comfort of my modern life, I'm quite able to appreciate it.

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