Last year I met a maple that tried to kill me. It insulted me and managed to get entangled in everything in sight. I thought very carefully about every move and eventually prevailed. The tree became firewood. Yay team Curmudgeon! (Just for the record, cutting firewood is a perfectly reasonable hobby but it can make you dead. This is how it differs from other recreational activities; like bowling.)
Recently a friend called with another tree of malevolent nature. A tree top had blown out and the remainder of the tree was leaning ominously. Would I come over and administer the coup de grace? I, being the stupid macho idiot I am, thought “what’s the worst that can happen” and cruised over with my truck and trailer (which is now known as the Pony Trailer). Free firewood, huzzah!
When I got there my heart sank. The tree was not a small one. By “not small” I mean big and ugly. Yeah I know, everyone has a story about how they dropped a Sequoia using a penknife. In fact I’ve felled bigger trees too. I’m not looking to get into a pissing match. I’m just saying there was a lot more kinetic energy than I’d expected and none of it was lined up for an easy job.
Big doesn’t necessarily mean bad ass but this tree was just plain messed up. It was close enough to a house to hit it and big enough that it could crush through the roof and keep going until it hit the foundation. Just for fun there was a garage in the opposite direction and an outbuilding blocking another felling route. Did I mention the power lines? All in all I decided I had about 40 degrees out of 360 where it was safe to land and about 25 of those degrees were pretty risky.
Not only was the top blown out but it had been blown out in the past; possibly twice. Each time the tree had regrown and had put up chunks of its big heavy crown in ways that were both off center and unpredictable. Plus, and this filled me with foreboding, the tree was split. One split went about 1/3 the tree’s length starting at the top. Another older split went much farther, possibly most of the way to the ground.
For those of you who don’t know how felling a tree is done, let me explain that the sawyer (that’s me) uses the tree structure to control the tree’s own descent. Just like an evil banker, we remove solid support until the whole thing is irreparably out of balance and it comes crashing down; exactly where we want it to go. If we do it right we get to feel smug and superior; also like an evil banker.
Directional felling starts when the sawyer cuts some of the tree to put it off balance. That’s the wedge that gets removed first. Then he cuts the opposite side of the tree. That’s called the back cut. If he’s doing everything right the back of the tree is under immense tension because it’s holding up much of the tree’s mass. Once the back cut is deep enough the whole tree starts easing over. The sawyer, being both awesome and skilled, gets of out Dodge along his predetermined escape route and makes it look like a sashay in the park instead of a pell mell retreat from disaster. Traditionalist like me yell “timber” because it’s fun.
It can be done wrong. If the wedge is miscalculated the tree will sit back on the back cut and pinch the bar. The technical term for this is “screwed”. Sometimes the sawyer miscalculates the lean of the tree and mass overpowers the effect of the directional cut. The technical term for this is “royally screwed” or sometimes “dead”.
The important part is that the sawyer tries very hard to NOT sever all the wood because that’s his control surface. It becomes the “hinge wood” between the wedge that makes the tree want to fall over and the back cut that lets it go. If a sawyer severs ALL of the hinge wood he’s created a twenty ton, sixty foot high, reverse pinata. It’s going to hit something somewhere but without the hinge to guide the speed and direction of the fall… it’s a shot in the dark.
Which brings me back to those splits up and down the trunk. In effect the hinge wood was already severed so my control may or may not be hindered to a greater or lesser extent and I didn’t know how much and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. This tree was a grenade with the pin already pulled.
I sized it up for a long time. I had a 15 degree target zone. The tree was leaning in the general vicinity of the target zone but the top was so mangled and so far up that I couldn’t deduce where the weight really was pulling it. Just to turn a Rubics Cube into the Enigma Code about 1/4 of the top was blown out and leaning on the ground. It was large, heavy, reaching to and touching the ground, and still physically hooked to the the tree a little over 40 feet above my head.
Suppose I cut the tree and it started going precisely into the 15 degree “landing window”. Would it drag along the blown top? I doubted it. I thought the massive weight of the blown top would “hold it back”. If it did I’d be hosed. If a tree (or anything) starts falling in a certain direction and you hold it back (but not enough to keep it upright) strange things happen. It will necessarily swing to an unknown but often very significant degree. Thus, altering it’s decent either to the left or to the right in mid fall following whatever rule of physics happens to be in charge as momentum, inertia, mass, and bad luck all roll the dice.
In this case a shift “to the left” meant a crushed garage and “to the right” meant a kitchen shoved into the subbasement. A wise man thinks before he does something unwise; that’s how you know they’re wise. Duh!
I got back in my truck and left.