Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Dead Tree And Me. 2014

Green wood is a lot easier to cut than dry wood is, I say. Give me a green piece of tree to cut and I can pretty much tell you what’s going to happen when I put an axe to it. Dry or rotted wood tends to become brittle, or soft and a little rubbery, believe it or not. When I was trying to take this old dead tree down I thought it would be a lot easier than it was, but the dead wood gave me more of a fight than I bargained for.

To begin with, for reasons only a man can truly understand, I wanted to take the thing down by myself and with an axe. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do own a chainsaw and I do realize that I could have had the thing down in just a few minutes if I had gone that route but this was a Quest. It was something I had to do my own way. And it was a learning experience.

The first thing I learned is that it takes several years for the very core of a tree to become rotten. The outside layers fell away easily and I thought I would get done with the thing in less than an hour. Then I hit the hard stuff and realized I had to open the tree up even more, create a wider wedge, to get at the hard stuff at the right angle.

Lesson One:  The petrified center of a tree is not only harder than normal wood but it is a lot harder to get to.

The next thing to go wrong is that I couldn’t hack away at the backside of the tree because there are young Oaks there I want to grow up to be much larger Oaks. Without clear access to the total of the tree I was regulated to hacking away at just one part of it with part of  it safe from me. So I drove some wedges into the back side of it and hoped that would help.

Lesson Two: Rotten wood absorbs wedges without much damage to the structural integrity of the tree itself.

Lesson Two caused me some concern. Without wedges I had no real way to control which way the tree was going to fall. But I had carved out a huge cut on the South side of the tree and I was going to be shocked if it didn’t fall the way I planned. Better men than I have been shocked at how trees have fallen and I knew it. But the tree wasn’t falling. Because it was dead and the wood was so light, the cut I made, even though it was very large, wasn’t causing the tree as many problems as it should have.

Lesson Three: Dead wood doesn’t have the dead weight that a live tree does and this makes it stand up better when someone is trying to cut it down. In other words, there isn’t enough weight to cause the tree to fall.

It got weird. I tried dragging it down with my truck but it wouldn’t go. There was enough life in the core to be solid and the dead stuff had to break to give and it wasn’t giving. I had to do something different. In the meantime, something good finally happened; the top of the tree where it was most rotted, fell away.

Lesson Four: Watch out for falling objects.

As I said before, I had limited access to the tree because there are other trees north of it. I could swing a sledge hammer to drive in the wedges because that’s a different swing that with an axe. With an axe you have to be able to cut at various angles. With a sledge hammer you just pound away. So, with my swing limited I began to surgically remove the wedges with the axe. This took some time, yeah, but it was worth it because the wedges were working against me. And to make thing a little better, the opened up area where the wedges had been allowed for some wiggle. Wiggle a tooth and it will come out.

It took some half swings and a lot off them but I managed to get the north face opened up. After about a half hour there was some serious movement. One more swing and…

It fell.

Wow. That was a weird feeling. I cleaned up the area and went inside to have a beer. Tomorrow I would push the whole thing into the firepit and life would be good!

Not so fast.

I pushed on the tree and it rolled, maybe a quarter turn, forward then wanted to roll back. I pushed with both hands, dug my toes into the earth, pushed hard with everything I had, legs, back, arms, beard, and it rolled three inches. I pushed, strained, gave birth to triplets, and the log refused to yield. The smart thing to do would be to get the chainsaw out and end this thing.

Lesson Five: Men on a Quest will not do the smart thing, ever.

So I decided to cut the tree in two with an axe. Now, believe it or not, rotted wood doesn’t cut at all like living wood or even dry wood. This tree was a yellow Oak and the flesh of a yellow Oak tends to spiral out rather than to cut along a straight grain. After it is dead the wood tends to come out in chunks if it is cut straight on. The part of the tree I started on was much more dead than the part of the tree I had cut on to bring the tree down. I could cut straight down, shift over six inches, cut straight down again, and a chunk of wood two or three inches deep would pop right out. But this was really soft wood and it dulled the axe frequently.

Lesson Six: You never lose time when you take time to sharpen your tools.

Incredibly, it took about thirty minutes, minus sharpening time, to cut the log into two pieces. But the largest half, the half that wasn’t dead, Jim, still weighed more than it needed to weigh. I pushed again, made good progress, steered it the wrong way, nearly lost it, had to get a fence post to lever it around the right way, used an old gate to ramp it and then turn it, but finally, at last, got it into the burn pile.

The other piece? It took a minute, tops, to get it into the pit.

So next Saturday morning I’m making a fire. It should be interesting.

Take Care,



  1. The proper order is...
    Lesson 1,
    Lesson 2,
    Lesson 3,

    1. I thought about using fire, really, but it's too damn close to the house.