Sunday, July 06, 2014

Felling Trees

Weather: Rain twice this week while Douglas weakened off the western coast of México.

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, Dr Huey and hybrid roses, yellow potentilla, silver lace vine, lilies, daylily, hollyhock, datura, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, alfalfa, sweet pea, yellow yarrow.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, tumble mustard, velvetweed, purple mat flower, pink and white bindweed, showy milkweed, Hopi tea, goat’s beard, plains paper flowers.

In my yard, looking east: Maltese cross, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, Jupiter’s beard, baby’s breath, winecup mallow, sidalcea, coral bell.

Looking south: Betty Prior, Fairy and rugosa roses.

Looking west: Johnson’s Blue geranium, catmint, blue flax, white mullein, Shasta daisy.

Looking north: Coral beard tongue, butterfly milkweed, golden spur columbine, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis.

In the open, along the drive: California poppy, larkspur, white yarrow.

Bedding plants: Pansies, snapdragon, sweet alyssum, blue salvia, moss rose, French marigold.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, geckos, small birds, grasshoppers, small black ants, wasps.

Weekly update: Removing dead cottonwoods is difficult and necessary. The roots are shallow, and the trees prone to blow over, crushing whatever is in their path.

It’s also expensive. When I called a local tree cutting firm several years ago about removing a six-inch diameter black locust, the person answering the phone said the minimum cost was $500. Imagine the multiplier for a six-foot bole.

It was easier a hundred years ago.

Techniques haven’t changed much. When I was a child, I learned the basics, probably from a camp craft book. You made a notch on the side you wanted it to fall. You made another cut on the opposite side, and got out of the way.

It sounded easy. How-to videos tell you the same today. Chain saw advertisements reinforce the belief anyone can do it.

And, in the past, anyone could.

What has changed isn’t the tools or techniques, it’s the intimacy that comes from dependence. In the eons when people depended on wood for heat and cooking fuel, children learned the ways of trees. Picking the path and making the notch required some knowledge of the way trees behaved. It wasn’t simple geometry.

Then, people removed trees near their homes, then went farther afield for fire wood. There was little danger in felling trees, if one stayed out of their path.

Today, many large cottonwoods live in captivity. With changing land values, large tracts have been subdivided and newer houses built close to old trees. When you pass a commercial tree cutter, it has a man lift so men can remove branches from the top, then cut the trunk in small segments.

Recently, someone in the village has been cutting down a cottonwood. The road is narrow and the work hidden behind a fence. From what little I could see, I believe they hired a lift and tried to follow the same procedure.

I think a piece fell on a branch of an apple tree. It may only have been a branch, not a limb. The apple limb broke and rolled the cottonwood down its slope onto a coyote fence.

I don’t know if it reached into the road. By the time I saw it it had been cut back. Cascading objects follow the laws of physics.

The second problem when you fell a cottonwood is what do you do with it. The uses for wood are limited. Local builders use logs for vigas and decorative posts, small wood for latillas. They buy everything else.

A hundred years ago saw mills existed to convert stumps to boards. Commercial operations in Michigan, where I grew up, had three stages. In lumber camps, trees were cut and branches removed. Stripped logs were moved by small carts with high axils, big wheels, which were pulled by animals.

The processed logs were hauled to rail sidings where they were loaded onto cars that took them to a mill. Roy Dodge says one operation sent 20 loads an hour. The rail lines were temporary narrow gauge with engines built especially for the work in Lima, Ohio.

Sawmills were located near transportation. In Michigan, they were on one of the Great Lakes where ships would take boards to market cheaply. Elsewhere, rivers were used for the first journey, railroads for the second.

People who burn wood today are choosey. Even my neighbors, who depend of wood stoves, know, if worse comes to worse, they can use an electric space heater. Both men are in their late 70s, too old to go into the forest to fell trees on their own. They have wood delivered. One has it delivered to size, and his son and grandson stack it. The other buys small logs which he splits with an axe as he needs them.

A hundred years ago, men followed a multi-year cycle. They cut wood, then let it dry for several years before they burned it. Each year they created a new pile, and used the oldest.

Now, the labor involved in converting a large cottonwood into fire wood is greater than the price one can charge. Many have heard the wood burns hot and fast, and, if it’s not cured properly, smells. Santa Fé buyers are snobs who skim the surface of local folk life. They want the image without the inconvenience. They only want the best.

Commercial tree cutters simply shred whatever they cut. When I had a cherry taken down, I asked if they were able to sell the wood. The answer was no. A few years ago they could sell some to a woodworker who made spoons, but it hadn’t heard from him in a while. The cherry went the way of all other trees, turned into mulch.

I assume there is a limit to the capacity of portable chippers. Men tend to leave the large boles. Without the top wood, they’re no longer as likely to blow over. If they do, they’re shorter. I have no idea why anyone would want the standing remains, unless the price was prohibitive or the tree cutter simply refused to remove it because it was too large to chip.

One stumbles on the remains everywhere.

Things were different a hundred years ago. Logging has always been dangerous, but then there was the respect that arises from a worthy challenger. Men had themselves photographed with their largest trees. The pictures are a bit like those of fishermen. At one level, they show humans conquering nature. However, the fish or tree, not the humans is in the foreground. Man is always dwarfed.

Dodge, R. L. Michigan Ghost Towns, 3 volumes (1970, 1971, 1973).

US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, 65 died in the logging industry; the injury rate was 4.3 per hundred employees. The rates were much higher a hundred years ago, especially in the mills. Fire was also a more serious hazard then.

Photographs: Historic photographs from The Disston Crucible, February 1917; Disston manufactured the band saw blades used in mills.

1. Dead cottonwood in a stand by the Rio Grande; everything useful has been stripped, and the large bole left to decay. 13 February 2012.

2. Cottonwood branch fell across a wire fence near the road last fall. The original house is set far back from the road where large cottonwoods grow. The road frontage was platted and houses built. The land in back was kept for possible farm use. This looks like the remains of a dead tree left uncut. 2 November 2013.

3. Damaged apple tree. You can see the branch in front that’s been cut and the one farther back that’s been ripped from the trunk. 5 July 2014.

4. Cottonwood branch on the coyote fence at the edge of the village road. 15 June 2014.

5. The cottonwood log was 10' long and 6' across at the small end. The Baker Lumber Company of Turrell, Arkansas, cut 3,300 board feet.

6. Cottonwood trunk left along an acequia, 26 March 2014.

7. Cottonwood trunk left near the river, 22 May 2012.

8. One reason people climbed onto big trees for photographs was to show the scale.

9. Cottonwood base left along the river, Cundiyo, 14 February 1912. Anything useful has been removed.

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