The Act of Harvesting Trees

On Sunday morning we were up before first light, something that happens a lot these days as we head into Autumn. I made the children a big breakfast; creamed chipped beef on toast, fried eggs, roasted potatoes and applesauce from the first harvest of the year. They drank milk from our neighbors farm poured out of half gallon mason jars and I enjoyed watching them fill their bellies with healthy food to start the day.

While they got dressed I got out the tools for the day; chain saws and files, a peavey and fuel cans, hammers and wedges, a maul, an ax, a coil of rope, earplugs and helmets, chains and a breaker bar. I hooked up a well worn pair of kevlar chaps and tossed some plastic bottles filled with water into a bucket. By the time I had finished the children had come outside and were heading out to the sugar orchard with the dogs to help me harvest firewood for the day.

During the busiest part of the Summer we rarely get up into the forested part of the property. As Fall approaches it begins to come back into focus as the site of our hardest work of the year. trees that have fallen or dropped limbs must be cut up into blocks and stacked for splitting. In many places we can make our way in with the tractor or the gator to load up the wood, but in other, like the one we were working on that day are too steep, too bouldered to be navigable by anything other than foot and here each piece must be carried out by hand. This is the kind of work where even the youngest can not only help out, but make a difference that counts.

I had selected two large rock maples for harvest, each one standing deadwood that had gone out of production in the past several years after a century and half of vigorous growth. Dropping a 100 foot tree in a densely wooded lot is a tricky proposition that requires a great deal of thought and planning. The act of harvesting trees of this size is something that takes two or more years of preparation if it’s done in a working sugar bush. The under story must be cleared and the brush pulled into bunny piles- beaver dam looking mounds of saplings and lower branches collected from the cut and placed in depressions to decompose. In the first couple of years they become home to numerous species of wildlife- rabbits, ground squirrels, field mice and nesting birds. As they decompose they fill in the low spots with a rich humus of decayed carbon that feeds the orchard. Smaller trees that are misshapen, too many of any given species in competition with the sugar maples like hemlocks and beech are felled for firewood or boards and removed in advance of the big cuts. If you scope out the proper lean of the tree to come out you can, if all goes according to plan, drop it precisely where you’d like it to fall without doing further damage to the younger trees coming up for replacement, or snapping off branches that get hung up in the canopy creating “widow makers”, dangerous deadwood waiting for stiff wind or time to bring it down with enough force to kill a man.

As the younger kids pulled brush onto the pile I set to work bringing down the maples. The first cuts remove a wedge from the side of the tree where you’d like it to fall, the second relief cut is made behind and above the wedge cut and allows the tree to topple to the forest floor. Even when done properly these kinds of cuts are extremely challenging and pose risks based on the grain of the wood, unseen hollows within the tree and a multitude of factors that simply cannot be accounted for with any degree of certainty. Everyone working in the area removes themselves to a safe difference and watches the top of the tree for signs of lean while I cut. It is one of the few times when I feel apprehension about what I am doing, but some times you have to either fish or cut bait. As they would say these days, the tree ain’t gonna cut itself. As the tree falls the sound builds; the soft snap at the butt where the grain breaks free, the movement of the leaves high up swishing like they would before a thunderstorm- then the crack of branches the displacement of air as the speed builds and the explosive report of 15 tons of carbon connecting with the earth in one final instant. The vacuum of sound that follows is immense. A few stray leaves flutter to the ground, everyone looks to each other as if to confirm that something that big just happened and then smiles break out spontaneously, five sets of white teeth sparkling in the gloamy green of the forest.

I cut the butt end into two eight foot sections for lumber, inch thick boards that will be milled and dried during the Winter for floorboards, cutting boards and chopping blocks. On a tree this size from a sugarbush the entire periphery is marked with tapping scars, dark indents where a hundred years of sap has been drained each Spring, one drop at a time. As the tree grows it not only expands in girth, but ascends upwards carrying the oldest spile marks upwards, sometimes as high as twenty feet. The boards made from these marked pieces are coveted by master furniture builders and craftsman and bring top dollar when they come to market. Above these butts we block the wood into 24″ pieces which my oldest son goes to work on with wedges and sledge hammer, splitting them into four pieces that weigh 150 pounds or more each. The younger children take a keel- a red wax crayon for marking timber- and a stout branch pre-cut to length to mark the trunk and leaders for cutting. I go to work and follow behind them, pushing the blade into the wood, a shower of creamy chips blowing into the leaves and loam.

By noon we have disassembled what took the Sun and the rain and the soil 150 years to make and begin the process of carrying it out of the woods one block at a time.

Our friends stop by later to visit- the younger children have lost interest and at this age its best to let them go- so the husband and my son and I finish up at the splitter and quickly crank out three cords or better before darkness pulls the plug on the day. The women and children are in the house, you can see the golden light of the kitchen spilling out across the granite slabs of the porch before fading away at the edge of the lawn. Inside food is being prepared, conversations run one on top of another in a pitch just under what my chain saw ears find audible and outdoors, exhausted, filthy, and gazing towards the last light in the west we stand together without a sound and regard the pile of split wood that marks our harvest.

When people visit the farm there are a couple of things they always say to us, the most frequently heard comment being, “It must be a lot of work.” I think that they mean it as a compliment and so I take it as one, but what it seems to mean underneath is that we are doing something very few people would ever want to do. We live in one of the most work averse eras in human history, as if rest and relaxation were the panacea of existence. Yes, it is hard work to provide for oneself, to seek out sustenance not in the grocery store but from the soil, to harness energy rather than tap into a source someone else maintains and provides, but it is fulfilling too in a way that no distraction or entertainment could ever approximate. It marks our place in the world as something other than a bystander or spectator, but rather as an integral part of something bigger, something older, something profound.

Later, after our friends had gone and the children were asleep in their beds, my wife and I spent some time as we always do when we’re together, talking about things. After all these years there is nothing as pleasing as to watch my wife smiling and laughing at something I have said, or telling me some story about something she did during her day and being close to each other in our own home with the dogs laying outside the door to the kitchen, fast asleep. By the time we wound things up we were both bone tired and we leaned against each other as we made our way upstairs to a rest that we had earned. I have said to my children that when I die I hope that they cremate me and spread my ashes on the fields, so that I can give back something to the land that has given so much to us. They think I am joking, but I am not. Everything is harvested in its time, energy becomes matter, matter returns to energy and the cycle continues until the end of days. I only hope that what we’ve done while we were here is as valuable as the trees we took down and that somehow we’ve grown as they have, rooted to the land.

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