Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Tao of Chainsawing

I live in the middle of a riparian forest, consisting of mostly saltcedar and coyote willow trees, right next to the Rio Grande. Since the water table is so high here, the trees can tap into unlimited moisture, and grow rapidly. During the summer, when the trees are in rampant growth mode, this spot is literally a jungle. After a few years of unchecked growth, the vegetation becomes so thick it’s impossible to walk through it. It would probably take a person an hour to crawl 100 feet through this impenetrable tangle.

I have always used these plentiful trees for firewood. Saltcedar is a heavy, dense wood that burns well and leaves long-lasting coals. I like to use this at night, for an all-night fire. It’s nice to wake up in the morning to a nice bed of coals that have been keeping the house warm all night. Willow burns fast and hot, and is best for a daytime fire when I can add wood more frequently.

In addition to cutting specifically for firewood, I have to cut back the native trees that are constantly encroaching on the perimeter of my ½ acre orchard.

I also have to cut down trees to reduce the fire hazard in selected locations. If I don’t pay attention, the biomass can reach dangerous levels within a few years.

I started out using a gasoline-powered chainsaw, but became allergic to the noxious exhaust fumes. (As usual, my body is smarter than I am.) So now I use an electric chainsaw, which is quieter, and releases its toxic fumes wherever the power plant is located. Out of sight, out of mind... it’s the American Way.

The first thing to remember about “clearin’ brush,” as our soon-to-be-ex-preznit likes to call it, is that cutting down a tree is only the beginning of a long process. The initial cutting down of a tree merely changes the configuration from vertical to horizontal. Most of the work still remains to be done, but at least the tree is a lot closer to the ground and more accessible to the ministrations of the chainsawer.

Before I cut down a tree, I cut off any branches within reach. I start by trimming off all the twigs along each branch. Next I cut off the brushy stems at the end of the branch. Finally, I saw the branch into firewood lengths. There is a logic at work here; I call it “Tao” in this article as a little wink to the Taoists in the audience.

After all the accessible branches are cut off, it’s time to cut down the tree. With most trees, it makes no difference where they land. But occasionally a tree will be leaning the wrong way, or needs to be pulled away from a shed or other improvement. In this case, I use an extension ladder and climb as high in the tree as possible, where I tie a rope. Then the rope technician (Laura) pulls the tree in the desired direction while I cut. This usually works quite well, but not always – trees are surprisingly heavy, and once gravity takes over, the momentum can be unstoppable. It’s important to pull as hard as possible during that critical moment when the tree is teetering. Once it starts to fall, its trajectory is set – much like the U.S. economy.

After the tree is cut down, I cut in the same sequence as before – twigs along the trunk first, then the brushy ends, then the cutting of the branches and trunk into firewood. I utilize any branch over 1” in diameter as firewood. Small firewood is useful as firestarter, and reduces the amount of brush to be hauled away. I cut the firewood about 16” long, which fits easily into my wood stove. All this firewood needs to be put into a wheelbarrow and trundled to its final destination, where it dries during the following summer. The remainder, the twiggy branch ends, is the true brush that must be disposed of somehow – we either burn it (which deserves its own article – “The Tao of Burning”) or pack it along the riverbank as “bank control” to reduce erosion. Ideally, the brush would be chipped into mulch by a wood chipper, but this is way too time-consuming when so many other jobs are always waiting.

Laura and I make a great team – I do the sawing, and she hauls the brush away. When I work alone, the brush quickly accumulates around me, and I have stop periodically and drag it out of the way. When Laura hauls the brush, I can cut uninterrupted, and can saw an impressive amount of wood in an hour. Once we get into our rhythm, we kick some serious ass.

There are a few things the chainsawer wants to avoid whenever possible:

* Hitting rocks, gravel, fence wire, steel fence posts, and other hard objects which will instantly dull the blade. It takes a full four seconds for the chain to stop moving after you remove your finger from the switch. During this time, the chain makes many revolutions, compounding the damage. So the chainsawer needs to be alert at all times. (One also wants to avoid soft objects, such as one’s leg.)

* Avoid situations that make the chain come off. Cutting through too many small twigs at once is a problematical situation, and the advice here is to cut slowly rather than fast.

* Avoid pinching the blade, which will trap the chainsaw. The leverage can amount to tons per square inch, I’m sure. I’ve had chainsaws trapped for the better part of an hour while I cut on either side with a bowsaw.

After a tree is cut down, cutting it up is a logical process, always keeping those three factors in mind. The easiest branches are the ones sticking out into the air. In this situation, gravity is our friend, and the chain will not bind. Cut them off first, and save the most difficult cuts till last. Often, after everything else is cut off, the heavy trunk will be lying on the ground at such an angle that the blade can easily become trapped with every cut. In this situation, I’ll make a series of cuts halfway through, then turn the trunk over and finish cutting from the other side. This prevents unnecessary binding.

Cutting firewood is a very satisfying activity. Laura and I accomplish several jobs at once: we provide for next winter’s firewood at very low cost, reduce the immediate fire hazard, open up land for other uses, and get beneficial exercise (as if we needed more). We enjoy our team effort, as long as we don’t overdo it ( a couple of hours at a time is plenty). And the trees grow back from the roots – within 10 to 20 years, they are ready to harvest again. Sustainable firewood has got to be the ultimate renewable resource, and we’re grateful to be part of the process.


Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

A delightfully informative guide
for all the Taoists out here studying your blog carefully and drawing from beyond the obvious, the hidden nuggets of wisdom.

Thanks for sharing that. I always appreciate your swings from the fantastic to the simply functional - from the unfettered liberty of the human imagination to the much-fettered bounds of the human survival process...

Keep up the great work and thanks from all the "Taoists" out here.

I'd like to comment on your "logic as Tao" way of seeing the process.

I imagine that only from the most expansive consciousness, the highest point of view can that link be recognized - that perspective of "Tao-Logic" acknowledged.

As Ralph Waldo declared:

"Prayer is the consideration of the facts from the highest point of view."

When one comes to grips with the paradoxes of the Tao, there is a supreme logic to be seen. Unfamiliar perhaps at first, but with time yes, Tao is "pure" logic.

"The best scientist lets go of all concepts and ideas and focuses on what is."

So within the simple woodcutting tutorial is hidden the seeds of universal consciousness.

That's probably what you were thinking when you wrote it huh?

Peace and gratitude to you -
you wiiild and craaazy


8:23 AM  
Blogger Gordon Solberg said...

Uh, yeah, something like that. As usual, Jacques, you've nailed the Tao right on its pointy little head! (Hammering the Tao.) Actually, I was just trying to seem cool, relevant, "with it." I could have just as well called the article, "A Few Chainsaw Techniques I Have Developed Through Trial and Error, Mostly Error" but Tao sounds so much more... taoistic.

BTW, every time I go to Taos I think "This must mean there's more than one Tao."

12:23 PM  

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