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Monday, December 08, 2008

A grand tree


When we moved here, there was a row of ten-year-old conifers along the fence, across the narrow "front" yard, facing our living room windows. I say "front" because unlike most houses, ours doesn't face the street, but is turned sideways away from it. Approaching from the driveway, you come only to the garage, and as you come in through the garden gate, the first door you come to, along the walkway, left around the garage, is the "back" door. To get the "front" door, you must continue, around to the left, past the kitchen window and the terracotta sun which is pictured, in winter sunlight, as the logo of this blog, along the north side, then turn right past an ancient lilac, then right again, onto the front porch at last.

The living room has east-facing windows, and we like to hang fuchsias outside these, from the edge of the porch roof. Beyond the fuchsias are the evergreens.

Two of these are Douglas firs, one an Engelmann spruce. Another, until this past weekend, was a grand fir. They have all put on another fifteen years of growth, and around here, that can be substantial. The Douglas firs are now eighteen inches in diameter, that is, at four-and-a-half feet above the ground -- DBH, Diameter At Breast Height -- and are already over fifty feet tall. They interfere with hot sun in high summer, shield the poor neighbors from our strange goings-on, and one of them is Granddaughter's favorite climbing tree. The spruce sweeps the earth with a generous spread of touch-me-not needly branches, and is a great favorite with the ducks and hens, who regard it as hawk-proof.

We've added to this row a bigleaf maple, a blackcherry, and a scraggly Scotch pine that was a rather dubious Living Christmas Tree a couple of years back. The hens regard the Scotch pine as beneath them in the pecking order, and we've had to fence it off for its own protection. The maple is doing well, considering I once accidentally mowed it to the ground. The blackcherry has required too much watering. It's a shade-loving species, and though I put it right at the end of the line, to the north of the grand fir, it has gotten, or seemed to think it was getting, too much sun even there.

It seemed to me that the cherry and the grand fir were reaching height enough to compete with our garden and orchard; also the grand fir was beginning to get that pale, needle-necrosis-y look that I associate with rot.

It's a youngish tree for that, but that's how it looked to me.

"I think the grand fir is hollow." I said this to Beloved to introduce my "grand" design.

"Hollow? It's practically a teen-ager."

"Mm-hmm, but when I was a timber cruiser, a lot of the grand firs had the look it's getting. The Forest Circus taught me to walk around each one, and if I saw any conks I had to deduct half the board feet in the tree. The Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines, cedars, and larches didn't have those. I don't remember them on hemlocks either."

"Does it have conks?"

"No, but I think it's getting ready to. It sounded hollow when I thunked it with the maul this summer."

"So, you're thinking it should come down."

"It, and the cherry, too. If the grand gets any bigger, it will blow down too close to everything and take the cherry with it."

"Oooookay. I'm gone this weekend; do you need me working with you on this?"

"No'm; we've got it all covered." This is a standing joke; "we" in this context means me, the cat, the two geese, and all the chickens and ducks.

I procrastinated, come Saturday, by hauling all the remaining stored apples into the dining room, separating them into Eat Soon, Eat Later, Juice Now, and Feed to Chickens categories. All but Feed to Chickens got washed in a vinegar and salt solution and air dried, then the Eat Laters were individually wrapped in newspaper and stacked stem- up, newspaper-twist-side-up, in boxes and moved back to the cold room.

Then I brought out the electric chain saw, oiled the chain, and brought down the black cherry without any problems. Next I took a lunch break (beets, beet greens, kale, chard, and hard boiled duck eggs) and went after the grand fir.

Here I courted trouble. The base of the tree was indeed hollow, meaning there would be no hinge worth speaking of for dropping it in the right direction. And at fifteen inches DBH and over forty feet tall, it needed to drop in the right direction -- and was decidedly a leaner, favoring the poultry fence and the Italian plum tree.


I made as much of a wedge-cut and back-cut combo as I felt comfortable with, but could see the tree was still betting on the fence.

There is a solution for this sort of thing, not always shown in the how-to books, but known to most loggers. Trusting the hens not to come push the tree over in my absence (the Barred Rocks will try anything once), I went to the garage and found an iron bar and a hydraulic jack.

Fellow lady farmers (and y'all gentlemen farmers too), trust me: you can push over just about anything with a hydraulic jack.

Not that everyone who knows how to do this always guesses right. I've never smashed the cab of my own pickup truck, as a friend did who then had to walk ten sheepish miles home, but I have flattened my own gas can.

I tapped the bar into the downhill side of the backcut with the hammer side of the maul head, set the jack underneath the bar, and started cranking. After a couple of minutes, where there had been a trunk, branches, needles, living, flowing sap, lichens, spiders, mites -- a whole city of who knows what creatures aspiring to the sky, there was nothing but air. The grand fir lay atop the blackcherry, firewood-in-waiting, as the gods of firewooding intended, and right between the fences too. Some things you remember how to do. For awhile longer anyway.

Starting at the big ends, I firewooded the trees and branches -- we take anything down to one inch diameter -- and stacked, setting aside the slash for pea-brush. Behind me, the chickens, sensing it was now okay to investigate, surrounded the intriguing black hole in the new stump, and began picking off bugs from the interior, an activity that was to occupy them for the next two days.

I came to the end of the grand fir, and there, big as life, I found this year's Christmas tree -- just the right size and shape.

When Beloved got home, Sunday night, the tree was already in the corner of the living room, in its stand, watered, lit, baubled -- with Suzie Snowflake, the family heirloom angel made by my mom from scraps during the great railroad strike fifty-six years ago, on the tip of the leader that had been forty-five feet above ground the day before.

So the grand fir is still a grand tree in its way.


  1. Anonymous7:21 AM

    What a great story! I wish over here we had such know-how and energy. We second-guess ourselves about anything homestead-y, and for things like bringing down even a small tree we have to bring in a company and shell out a lot of bucks - which we don't have - so we don't and make our situation even more complicated... sigh. I love reading your stories, Risa!

  2. Ah, thankee, but the point of these always is, that you can learn to do these things -- that it's an accessible skill set, perhaps soon to become a necessary skill set. there are always local people who will teach the stuff, just as there are others who will charge for it and hold onto trade "secrets." Look for the givers.

    A much better explication of this view, oldie but goodie: Country women : a handbook for the new farmer.

  3. We're counting on YoungSon to stop by this spring and help us with a couple of nasty juniper in the back.

    I loved this story...I could just see you out there working your magic! :)

    PS. hope the state budget crisis isn't hurting too much out your way.

  4. We're using retirements-and-reassignments, many frozen unhired positions. The Governor may have us all take some unpaid vac days, which would lower our PERS rating for the rest of our lives. But it seems only fair! So many people with no work at all.

  5. Aren't you getting a lil old to do all the "we work"? Hmmm? Looks like you've been very active around the farm. I just bought a baby pine for our Christmas tree which I'm sure you will inherit after it outgrows indoors...

  6. Anonymous7:20 AM

    Very impressive account. I shall remember this tip if I ever acquire a hydraulic jack (not out of the question). We may lop the top off a spruce or fir tree we have that's a fair candidate for replacement with something more edible. It would save us paying for a christmas tree too.

  7. Hi, Risa,
    I followed your link from Sharon Astyk's site. I was reading your account of your timber felling prowess (I'm impressed) and noticed your method of storing apples. I recently became an apple grower. I have four 7' tall potted columnar apples which I purchased a couple of years ago from One Green World nursery in Molalla. I did considerable searching for the best method of keeping fresh apples at the home scale. I found a couple that suggested wrapping in newspaper similar to your system and more that said to forget the newspaper and store them in ventilated (holey) plastic bags in a cool place. None mentioned the vinegar & salt wash you use.

    Can you tell me where you learned of this and how its success rate compares to a simpler method like I just described? And what is the idea behind the vinegar & salt wash?

    Portland, Oregon

  8. I admit it's my very own idea, I was late getting the apples separated and some spoiled and molded rather spectacularly. So I'm attempting to fight mold spores.

    So far, none of the re-stored apples has gone bad. But this could be a case of "Wanna see my fast draw? [does nothing] Wanna see it again?"

    ;-) risa b

  9. And, re prowess ... don't forget the flat gas can!! We learn by doing, and I'm an OLD country lady now.

  10. Right, one those many methods of keeping the elephants away. But, please keep us posted on how successful you are against that mold. I intend to visit your site regularly. I loved that photo of the snow-dusted nearby mountain. I figured out that you're a fellow webfoot from the Bi-Mart reference. I shop there for some stuff. Lots of housewares and small appliances and good deals and selection of canning supplies. I just got a Carhart-style "chore jacket" there for $28.00. It's made in Asia, but most of Carhart stuff is, too, these days.

  11. Spot on; the mountain in question is actually kind of a canyon wall; the main stem of the Willamette runs at its feet, about a mile away.


Stony Run Farm: Life on One Acre

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