Slow burn

Smoking elmSlow burn

At the most recent Coot-Together, the twice-a-month gathering of The Over the Hill Gang at a local bar and grill, five of us were telling our best tree-felling stories. You know how those yarns work: we try to claim bragging rights in the honorable (to guys) achievement of “I’ve come closer to killing myself than you have” status while engaged in the North Country chore of cutting firewood.

The stories were as varied as they were revealing. We Coots will resort to all sorts of ingenious schemes to invite several tons of oak or elm to come crashing down upon us in a woodland tangle where this no escape path and slim chance of survival if we are struck. It’s not that we get an adrenaline rush from these near-death experiences (well, okay, maybe there is an element of that), but the main driver is our stubborn determination to carry out our well-conceived but ultimately flawed plan for outwitting a tree and it’s malevolent ally, the force of gravity. Every now and then things go wrong, and a mundane chore transmutes into an adventure tale.

Many of these tales end with dismissive anticlimaxes: “I had to replace the bar and chain, but otherwise the saw was fine, and my shoulder healed up in a month or two.”

All of us, save one, admitted resorting to “shotgun pruning,” the use of a tightly choked shotgun to shoot off the upper branches of a tree than has fallen part way before entangling its limbs with an adjacent tree, becoming a “widow-maker.” The trick is to get close enough to the teetering bole of the ensnared tree that the power and the pattern size of the shot will break the problematic branches, but not so close that a good-sized limb will smite you to the ground when the tree breaks free (always unexpectedly) and comes hurtling toward you. No matter how carefully you execute this procedure the sudden descent of the tree always happens when you least expect it, usually while you are reloading.

I confessed I had recently shotgun-pruned a boxelder that was hugging a large, dead red elm that I had felled across the sharp curve at the top of my driveway.

“How many shots did it take?” asked Pheasant Dave.

“Six,” I said, “using one-ounce loads in 12 gauge. Number five shot.”

“Tree hit you on the way down?” asked Click.

“No, but the base of the elm kicked off the stump and crushed my jug of bar-and-chain oil.”

“Should have moved it before you started pruning.”

“I did, but the damned tree didn’t come down exactly where I predicted.”

Often, the tree does not fall where predicted. We discussed our attempts to control the direction of a tree’s fall by the use of several techniques: notching, cabling, pulling with a pickup, pushing with a tractor, waiting for a day with a strong wind in our favor. All of these work to some degree, none perfectly. Though we make our best effort to look at the targeted tree from a dozen angles to judge its shape and weight distribution, the slope of the hill, and the prevailing wind, each tree has a mind of its own. And we each have our karma.

Many of these perverse party crashers are not “firewood trees” – the highly valued oak and red elm – but the less desirable trees that must be removed because they lean precariously over houses, barns, outbuildings, dog kennels, driveways, and sections of fence, waiting with the surety of Murphy’s Law for the worst possible moment to fall. We regard them as “junk” species these white elm, ironwood, basswood, boxelder, and borer-infested ash trees (if they were sentient these trees might have much the same evaluation of us). Certain junk trees have especially bad reputations. The direction a large, many-limbed white elm will fall is impossible to predict; just assume that it will catch in at least one adjacent tree and become a widow-maker of the first stripe.

At the Coot-Together I bemoaned the fact that I had to deal with a a huge white elm near the top of my driveway. Now dead for several years, it was in its day a magnificent tree, eighty feet high with a crown that spread more than a hundred feet. Like many huge elms it was a pair of trunks that had grown together. It divided into four trunks about six feet above ground level, and each of those four trunks again divided into two about twenty feet above the ground. The eight main limbs were each more than two feet in diameter, and at its double-trunk base the elm measured more than eight feet in girth. It was a glorious tree, showing exceptional natural resistance to Dutch elm disease (ophiostoma ulmi), the fungus spread by bark beetles that eventually kills every elm. May this giant elm’s progeny be as robust and long-lived.

But the Dutch killed it at last and the skeleton of the elm loomed over the driveway, a twenty-ton, Siamese-twin troll waiting patiently to drop a crushing arm on an unwary passer-by. Every few months a secondary branch fell and blocked the drive until I was able to cut it into mangageable pieces with the chainsaw and push the chunks over the edge of the bluff. The once-magnificent elm had become a magnificent nuisance and danger, but cutting it down was impossible. And suicidal.

“Did you ever try burning one down?” The Senator asked.

No, I had not, but I was immediately intrigued by the suggestion. Lightning had struck a big boxelder at the edge of our hayfield many years ago, and I watched the resulting fire flicker and sputter as it burned the tree down to a pile of ash the size of a pitcher’s mound. “Burn it down,” I muttered to The Senator, my eyes glazing over like Mr. Toad’s when he first saw a motorcar. “Burn it. Yes.”

Two days later I stood at the base of the giant elm, a gallon container of gasoline in one hand and a butane lighter in the other. I sprinkled the tree liberally, dribbled a gasoline line fuse about twenty feet along the gravel drive, and touched the lighter to the fuse. Flames roared high, engulfed the base of the tree about five minutes, then subsided, leaving scorched bark and several smoking woodpecker holes as the only evidence that fire had touched the troll. I shrugged, vowed to try again later, and walked back to the garage to fetch the lawn mower for an assault on grass and weeds rather than trees.

It was a hot, humid, sultry day, and when I took a sweaty break from mowing an hour later I smelled smoke. Wood smoke. The elm tree was smoldering. Thin, erratic puffs of smoke. Certain to go out. Hours later, as I put the dogs in their kennel runs for the night, the drifts of smoke had increased, but not much.

About 10 p.m. a thunderstorm dropped a deluge on the farm. The rain gauge recorded 2.5 inches. In the early morning light I walked down the driveway to make sure the rain had extinguished the fire. Astoundingly, the elm smoldered on. One of the eight main limbs had burned through at its base and fallen, and I broke it into three pieces and pushed the still-fuming chunks against the trunk. Flames crackled to life and soon dwindled down to red embers. Light rain continued to fall, but the fire, now deeply embedded in the trunk and boughs, did not care. Occasionally a tongue of flame would erupt from a knot hole but for the most part the burning was a slow, tenacious, inexorable, insatiable worm devouring the wood inch-by-inch.

A second limb broke free and fell onto the hillside. Another, standing upright, burned completely to ash, its rotting wood turned into a shower of warm snowflakes. Lower down, the double trunk took the fire in and hollowed out. Shelf mushrooms blackened, cracked, and fell away. The bark peeled and tumbled in heaps. A marvelous, stately, slow-motion passing of the giant.

This slow-burn may go on for days. In a woodland soggy from two months of record rainfalls there seems little danger the fire can spread past the jumble of branches and limbs that have fallen in a thirty-foot ring around the elm. Every couple hours I walk down the driveway to monitor the progress of the fire. It goes at its own deliberate pace, not to be hurried.

For a tree that grew sedately though a century to become the biggest living thing on the farm, this slow “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” return to the soil seems a fitting end. The gap in the canopy of the woods, once the domain of the giant elm, is a window to the sky, exposing the understory to sunlight that will spur the growth of a dozen elm trees on the side of the bluff, born of the seed dropped by this grand old tree and nourished by the humus and ash it left behind. In seventy or eighty years one of them may spread a hundred-foot-wide crown high over this part of the farm.

The cycle of life in the North Country goes at its own deliberate pace, not to be hurried. Like a smoldering fire, it is slow but resolute.


More stories about life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays and two novels, all available through at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
This entry was posted in Conservation, Country Life, Land Ethic, Tree Felling, Woodlands and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Slow burn

  1. bbuckel says:

    I remember Jerry telling door-knocking missionaries in Andrews, Texas that he already had a religion — he was a Druid. By way of explanation, he would note that he worshipped trees and had moved to Andrews to get away from them. The last part, he usually said to their backs as they beat a swift retreat from his door. Love the tree stories!

  2. It was not easy being a druid in a treeless land.

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