Notes from the forest (a gift of sky)

7. A Gift of Sky

Our friend from Montana, J, came over for a few days, to take a look at our troublesome trees. He arrived one sunny afternoon when we are out, and we were astonished to find a Harley outside on the lane when we came home. Had he not brought his big chainsaw then? But he had – along with a queen-sized blowup mattress, 3 feather pillows, sundry tools and clothes, a toothbrush. I saw him load up the bike when he was leaving, the chainsaw like a broadsword strapped to the side of a war horse. These hogs surely are beasts of burden.

The beast and the broadsword

He is an imposing figure, maybe six foot four, with a thick black beard and a pirate’s nose; add motorcycle leathers and people look at him a little carefully. But he has very charming manners with older folk and waitresses. I’ve heard tell of wild days in youth, but I’ve only ever seen him self possessed and thoughtful. The twinkle in his eyes suggests he thinks more than he says.

He was thoughtful the next morning when he examined the trees. Our two most dangerous candidates, Big Leaf maples leering over the main cabin and the mother-in-law’s cabin, he refused. They would want to fall right where we didn’t want them, he said, and were too dangerous to saw. These would have to be brought down by professionals with ropes and pulleys, limb by limb.

But here was a man with a big chainsaw and the will to use it, so we turned our attention to other trees that did not entirely please us. That big twisty fir, growing messily up and blocking the afternoon sun – that seemed an easy target. “It wants to fall towards the house,” said the Montana tree man. “No… it wants to fall this way, doesn’t it, over the grass?” T pointed hopefully. “I think it will fall this way,” said J, pointing in a long line towards the cabin. “How far is that? Seventy, eighty feet?” Out came the logging tape and they paced out the distance from tree to cabin. Eighty-four feet. J continued to look doubtful but T urged him to cut it down.

The chainsaw snarled into life. We stood on the porch, listening alertly to the protracted roar, interspersed by knocks and ominous creaks. Then the right orientation of the world as I knew it changed, the tree stopped pointing at the sky and screamed to earth instead. I didn’t see the whole fall, as I was running inside the cabin, shepherded by T as it became clear that J’s prediction was the correct one. The tree was about 90 foot long and missed the corner of the cabin by 3 feet. “It would have messed up my day if we’d got the hummingbird feeder,” said J thoughtfully, nodding at a red plastic device hanging from a front beam, which had cost about $3. But T was optimistic as always, and yelled with approval. “That was perfect!”

A close shave

The thundering fall and sudden appearance of a tree carcass obliterating the yard was a shock that stayed with me, even though the area took on a strangely festive feel, with soft fluffy fir branches everywhere, very Christmassy, and the air was filled with fragrance.

J and T went to work “bucking up” the trunk, cutting it into useful firewood lengths, slicing off the boughs, dragging the debris into piles of “slash”, stacking up the logs. The wood was a deep honey gold colour with rose heartwood (this is why Doug fir is sometimes called Red fir).

This first fir was a light stroke compared to the screaming avalanches of sound that the Big Leaf maples made when plummeting to the ground: the biggest ones may have weighed up to 15 tons. When this much solid wood hits the earth, it moves.

Although our most dangerous trees were declared untouchable, there were many others that attracted the cold calculating glance of the men with chainsaws. A maple in the roadside gully was found guilty of blocking the morning sun and came down, and a couple of alders near it. A big maple by the north side of the cabin with long trailing boughs was put to the saw, allowing a lot of light in suddenly, to warm the west side of the little mother-in-law’s cabin. Hmm, sunlight in the glade at last! Once that maple was down, a couple more big maples were debated… I thought was wrong to cut them, as they posed no danger to our buildings, but they did block up a lot of sky. J, whose Montana ranch has a long and lovely vista of a valley and mountains, wanted to give us a view – he knew the sea was only half a mile away, and beyond that, the low line of Whidbey Island and then the high craggy peaks of the Olympic Mountains. This view is not possible in reality, as there are too many big trees on the property below us. But more sky and sunshine – T knew better than anyone how dark and gloomy the forest could be during the long wet winters of the Pacific Northwest. His will prevailed and two more giant maples came crashing down, tearing off branches from nearby trees and sending thousands of leaves fluttering downwards.

Bucking up
The sawyer in motion
Inspecting a cut

Though some of the alders and a couple of the stunted furs came down fairly quickly, none were tackled carelessly. I watch J’s methodical preparation, and observed that he always marked an escape route, and usually ran along it, as the tree began to fall. He wore his motorcycle helmet too. The whole operation was never casual, and each stroke was cautiously made. In between the tree sawing, he delicately filed the points of the chainsaw’s blade with a slender file.

How to persuade a tree where to fall

J had brought with him some orange wedges of hard plastic material, and supplemented these with old iron ones that T had found, hammering them into the cuts he made, to gain leverage. On one occasion these weren’t enough, so he and T went into town to buy a 12 ton jack to help persuade a big tree to fall harmlessly downhill. The penultimate sound was always a heartrending crack, as the tree lost its grip on the Earth, and then the lasting, scattered crash.

Over the next two days, twelve trees met their doom.

Maple falling

(click lower right hand corner arrows for full screen mode)

In between the falls was steady strenuous work for everyone: reducing and moving the wood, which took hours: we toiled like ants among the collapsed giants. The chainsaws look smooth and steady in action, but it takes some strength to hold and guide them. J let me try his once, on a small bough that had become embedded into the ground. I was glad to give it back to him.

In the evenings the sawyers were tired and quiet, ruefully noting how much harder it was these days, compared to when they were young, and had worked all day on mountain slopes. I felt a bit quiet too, horrified by the devastation to living things we had wrought. Was it right to do this? The alders and maples in the gully below us seem to lean away from us in horror, and all around us was disorder and brokenness. Would the forest forgive us?

Slain dragons

But in the morning after J’s visit, T awakened me at dawn, and pointed quietly out into the yard. At the bottom of the cleared area stood a deer, a big fine doe, looking around with interest at the fallen trees. T told me later that deer like logging sites, as cleared space brought fresh new growth. In the weeks after, new grass grew in front of the cabin and the small trees on the edge of the clearing seemed to grow more strongly, taking strength from the increased light and sunshine. We all did – how heartening to feel warmth from the sun, and to see the patterns of the season against our new patch of sky! “Enjoy it while you can,” said T, “In a few years the other maples will spread out and try to fill in that space.”