Today I burned up my accumulated spiritual energy tackling FEMA, formally filing the claim for the flooded mowers. That was a mixed experience- the invitations to do it all on the web uniformly ended in "failed to load page" - or something similar. Eventually with great trepidation I resorted to the phone- and met Lydia; who was a delightful and competent person. Whew. The end result of all the filing and filling in of blanks is that the NEXT set of forms to fill should arrive in "from 7 to 14 days" - if they can figure out why my zipcode is not the one the computer insisted on automatically putting in. Lydia assured me she'd tell "them" about the zipcode glitch. One can hope. At any rate- our claim is now "in the system"; we have a number. Whew.
The process of getting in a pickup-load of wood, (we bought a replacement for the stolen truck; had to) with a dicey back, reminded me forcefully of the tremendous amount of art involved in firewood. And, I will arrogantly admit, I am an artist where firewood is concerned. I love the whole process; from finding the tree, to the whiffs of smoke; and even the spreading of the ashes back in the forest. And the warmth; the hot coffee, pot roast, soup, new bread, and warmed hands. At every step- there is a great deal to know; right ways, wrong ways, easy paths, and hard ones.
My being out of shape with the iffy back enforced the practice of the art: artfully done is easy; and effective; carelessly done is hard work, inefficient, and dangerous.
First- the tree. I'd been watching this tree for at least 5 years, with firewood in mind. It was dying 5 years ago; dead 3 years ago; and drying out since then. Ready, now. This was a 60' tall red elm (Ulmus rubra); also called slippery elm; one of my favorite trees, for many reasons. Killed most likely by the "Dutch elm disease", which is still very active here; red elms die much more slowly than American elms, though; and some don't die at all.
Elm has a bad reputation as firewood- because of American elm, and some of the other species. Mostly elms make good fuel; if you can get it into the fire before it rots. Most elms are treacherous to fell; they can be huge, but riddled with rot only a year after they die, making the top into what loggers call a "widowmaker" - while the tree is falling to the north, a huge chunk of the top may break off under the stress- and fall south; on you. Red elms don't do this; they can stand dead for 10 years, and never rot at all. Elm in general is one of the rare woods that actually dries out while standing in the woods; an oak can be dead for 6 years and will be wetter than the day it died, red elm is as dry as if put through a kiln, all but the bottom 5 feet, 2-3 years after it dies. Most elms are renowned for being "unsplittable" (unless you've got a heavy hydraulic splitter) - the fibers intertwine; but red elm usually splits like oak, straight and straightforward. (Ok, I said usually. Yeah, I've run into some that were hard to split- but I've now learned to identify those before felling; you can see it in the skin of the tree.) And, finally, elm is supposed to stink when burned; the farmers' name for American elm around here is "piss-elm", for that reason. Red elm, though, smells like incense; and the freshly split wood to me smells just like a shop-full of Japanese wood carvings; something I remember acutely from my childhood.
No one disputes the fuel value of elm; it's good hot wood regardless of species. I'll burn American elm if I have to; and rock elm any time I can find a small one dead for exactly one year. But those trees are essentially unforgiving; 10 things have to be exactly right, or you're wasting your time. Red elm is my friend.
These days, much of our firewood comes from trees we planted ourselves; that's a different process, a different art; and includes drying wood already cut. But we got 15 inches of rain in August. All our cut, stacked new wood is now soaking wet, no matter how dry it was in July. So it's back to the Big Woods, where the red elms are dry, no matter what; the standing trees have no end-grain exposed to absorb the rain, so it just runs off.
Second- felling. Don't guess; don't hope. You really need to KNOW where it's going to fall when you cut it. Sure, I learned a lot of that the hard way, including fun experiences like dropping a pine right on a pickup truck (not my fault, but I was there!) and having trees tangled in neighboring trees so it took 4 years for them to come all the way down. Those things are ALWAYS avoidable; caused by just a little carelessness, and often by being in a hurry. Don't hurry. Really.
This tree was leaning a little the wrong way; oh, about 7°. Solution; a rope, and some people pulling on it. Sometimes just one person pulling will be all you need; just a little insurance. In this case, we needed more- it was a heavy tree, headed right for a 4-year tangle if it went where it was leaning; 3 people. 60 foot tree- 100 foot rope, so your pullers are out of the reach of flying branches. 1" polypropylene rope. NOT nylon rope, it stretches, most of the force you apply just gets lost in the stretch. Natural ropes like sisal are not bad; but they rot in time; I've had this same polypropylene rope for 30 years; it's the same one I built the house with, and probably still has 90% of its original strength; no sign of wearing out. Made a slip-noose with a bowline knot; the forces you're dealing with here are very large, it's easy to wind up with a knot jammed so tight after the tree falls that you can't untie it; bowlines never slip, and are always easy to untie.
I ran the chain saw, Spice, Middle Child and MC's spouse were on the rope. Smidgen was in the truck, watching from well away.
It didn't go as smoothly as I'd like. I prefer a deep notch, more than 50% of the trunk, for a leaner like this. When I started the felling cut from the back, I yelled "PULL" - but when the tree finally started to shift- it sat down on the chainsaw blade; falling the wrong way. Not moving, but not good. "PULL HARDER!" And, luckily, 3 people pulling harder was enough to move it off the saw, and get it falling the right way. Whew. But not quite as planned; it was supposed to drop on the road, but because I miscalculated the cut a tad, it dropped just to the side- slightly hung up in a small hop hornbeam tree. But workable. Hey, the top of the 60' tree wound up 15' west of where I wanted it to be; so sue me. In retrospect- yeah, I was a little hurried on the cut. Don't hurry. I knew that, of course, which is seldom enough for us humans. Ah, well, I gave Middle Child an opportunity to smirk at me a little; since he's a perfectly competent man with a chainsaw himself. That's a good thing; I figure I owe my children plenty of amusement, since they've amused me so often.
Third- disassembly. Once you cut the tree down, you cut it up, a source of perpetual humor for me. Now, I was alone; not the preferred policy for safety purposes, but reality for any farmer; sometimes you have no real choice. So when you have to work alone; you get really really careful. And slow. And these days, with a two-way radio in your pocket. Chainsaws are fantastically powerful tools- which means they can kill you in a second if you do something stupid. Slow down. The crummy back meant going slow, too- don't overdo. Who could ask for better meditation? Chainsaw Tai Chi.
No, really. Cut exactly here; the right size for the stove; cutting here will not make the remaining trunk suddenly shift and kill me; it avoids that knot, which will dull the chain, and leaves 2 more adequate pieces before that fork, which will have to be cut apart differently...
Thoughtless cutting will quadruple the work- the piece won't fit in the stove- etc. Slow, think ahead- pays huge dividends.
My back is complaining- change the footing, so the angle of the weight of the saw is eased. Rest. Must not push the back too far.
Much of the trunk must be split to go in the stove. Swinging the ten-pound splitting maul is another art; you can let the maul, and gravity, do the work; or try to force it through the chunk with all your muscle. I'm lazy; I'd SO much rather do it the easy way. Swing-toss it up in the air; tug it down in the right direction- and DON'T think about aiming it. This part gets seriously zennish. If I'm paying no attention to aiming the maul- I'll hit the chunk dead center. I mean exactly dead center, I'll stick the blade of the maul right into the center ring of the tree. Every time. Until I start paying attention. And if two strikes are necessary to split it; I'll stick the maul smack in the crack from the first split; every time; unless I'm paying attention.
It's absolutely fascinating for a biologist; how is it that the mere act of focus results in such consistently poor performance; where paying no conscious attention results if absolute precision from truly daunting variables? This chunk is not the same as the last; it's not the same shape or size, not in the same place, the ground under it is tilted; my footing is different: and with no "higher" processing, I hit it exactly right; over and over. It's a joyful thing, when the chunk splits effortlessly; and funny, when I start noticing, and start missing; and joy again when I successfully manage to NOT pay attention once more. It IS art, and the result of years of splitting; I started splitting firewood when I was 14 or so.
Fourth- tossing the pieces into the truck. Again- it can be easy; or hard. I toss two or three or four at a time, depending on size; swinging the weight of the wood like pendulum weights; releasing so it goes into the box, not over, not short, and not through the glass on the truck cab... Bend over; stand up- swing; release (not throw); use the arm momentum to get back down for the next pieces. More Tai Chi, sort of; rhythmic, steady, purposeful.
Fifth- getting the wood from the truck into the shed, out of reach of rain or snow. This involves my macho wheelbarrow; a 10 cubic footer, with TWO wheels, and a trip of 100 feet, very slightly downhill. Load the barrow; don't smash the fingers (gloves!), wheeling, guiding; don't tip it! Balancing; don't let it run away; dump into the shed; toss again, into the final pile.
Done. No rain, yet. Back, arms, hands tired- but not hurt.
Satisfaction. And some cramping in my hands, while falling asleep. :-)