Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Rants from the Hill: The adventures of Sir Rantsalot in the dead tree forest

On the virtues of cutting and burning wood.

“Rants from the Hill” is cross-posted from High Country News

A few months ago I offered a Rant celebrating a single juniper tree that stands alone in an open, windswept valley out here in the high desert. Why then am I, a confirmed desert rat, about to offer a paean to cutting trees—to cutting them first down and then up? The answer may be found in the intimate relationship between this desiccated, largely treeless arid landscape and the nearby Sierra Nevada, whose eastern slope is carpeted with conifer forests comprised of a variety of lovely tree species including white, red, and Douglas fir; incense cedar and western juniper; and, ponderosa, Jeffrey, lodgepole, and sugar pine. One of the many advantages of our proximity to the Sierra is that it makes it possible for us to augment the warmth produced by our highly-efficient passive solar home with heat generated by burning wood.

I’ve always loved to fell, limb, buck, split, haul, and stack wood, and I’ve been heating with wood most of my adult life. There’s something deeply satisfying about making a pilgrimage into the forest and returning with a fruit so precious that it flowers a year later in the gentle, lapping flames that warm my little daughters as they play or read by the hearth. Think of it as the thermal equivalent of preparing and eating vegetables that you’ve grown in your own garden. Of course that’s a pretty sentimental take on a backbreaking form of work that is done amid the roar of a chainsaw and the smell of diesel fuel and sawdust. But I truly love cutting, so much so that I do it not only to heat our home but also to avoid doing pretty much anything else that I really ought to be doing. The expansive woodpiles strewn along the half-mile-long driveway to the Ranting Hill provide clear evidence of how wonderfully I’ve succeeded in using cutting to evade the pesky, endless round of adult responsibilities.

In addition to offering an escape from the scurrying of grown-up life, woodcutting also has the advantage of being ridiculously gear-intensive. It isn’t just the pickup truck, dump trailer, chainsaws, bars, chains, gas, oil, screnches, wedges, and files that I’m talking about, but also the stylish safety apparel. To begin with, there’s the standard-issue head-to-toe Carhartt in the classic olive-drab green and monkey-poop brown. I’ve graduated from ordinary work gloves to gel-palmed saw gloves with wrap-around Velcro wrist straps; whenever I put them on I feel like I’m about to win the Indy 500. I’ve also traded in my steel-toed work boots for titanium-toed boots, which provide the same protection but are lighter and, more importantly, sound really cool. In fact, I’m considering “Titanium Toed” for my next band name.

In the area of eye protection, I’ve improved my look over time, from the boxy safety goggles of a high-school chemistry student to the reflector shades of an undercover cop to the tinted wraparounds of the professional bass fisherman. My final step has been to go for the full headgear: a bright orange hardhat with attached ear protection and stylish nylon mesh visor, which makes me look like an extremely orange medieval knight. Whenever I’m wearing this helmet I am transformed into Sir Rantsalot, the brave, saw-wielding knight-errant who can flip his visor up and deliver a cool, witty line every time. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget that I have it on and spit heartily without first raising the visor, a bush-league move that makes a guy hope the other knights weren’t looking.

Sir Rantsalot in full battle regalia. 

Of course the pièce de résistance of any chainsawing getup is the chaps. You can’t help but feel studly as a bronc buster once you’ve strapped these bad boys on, and I speak from experience when I say that being wrapped in Kevlar is a good idea when wielding a tool with razor-sharp teeth that are moving inches from your body at 60 m.p.h. (around 90 feet per second). That valorization notwithstanding, chaps are essentially assless pants.

Several years ago on Christmas Eve, my wife Eryn let slip that Santa had brought me a new pair of chaps. (I had nicked the old ones, which, like a climbing rope that has sustained a fall, may have saved your life but should not be reused.) I was so excited that I snuck to the Christmas tree later that night—wearing only green, elf-themed boxer shorts—just to try on the new gear. The chaps fit so perfectly that I decided to treat myself to a celebratory nightcap. I was bent over, reaching into the fridge for an IPA, when I heard someone approaching behind me. I spun around to see my father-in-law, who was then visiting from California for the holidays. This guy is an ex-cop, and he has always seemed to me like he’s eight feet tall. There he stood, towering silently over me. I had to think fast, so I opened the beer, extended it toward him, and said, “Remember how you felled a tree in the wrong direction and knocked out power to half of Oakland during a Raiders game? I won’t mention that if you won’t mention this.” He took the beer and went back to bed with nothing more said, either then or since.

I do most of my woodcutting with my buddy Steve, who is so good that when we cut I call him “the good feller” and he just refers to me as “the other feller.” Steve will take on trees twice the size I’d be willing to wrangle, and he’ll do it even in rough terrain or in situations where the drop has to be perfect. Before Steve fells a tree he engages in a mysterious, elaborate ritual that appears entirely unscientific. He first breaks a branch, measures it against the length of his arm, and then backs away from the tree that is to be cut, holding the branch up in the air like a witchdoctor and squinting at it with his head cocked to one side. Then he stares around the canopy of the forest, as if searching for signs. After a period of inscrutable meditation, he sticks the branch into the ground and pronounces calmly that this is the exact spot where the tip of the tree’s crown will strike on the drop. This is a little like Babe Ruth pointing to the spot in the bleachers where he’ll smack the dinger, and about as difficult to make good on.

The good feller, Steve, atop a dead giant sequoia on the grounds of a monastery in town; although the tree was 80 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter, it was only 47 years old. 

Once Steve begins to wedge the bole and then notch the hinge—which, on a big tree, he does using a massive Stihl with a 42” bar (take a moment to visualize this)—it is impossible not to admire the guy’s sheer gumption. But when he cuts the engine on his saw and begins driving wedges into the notch with the head of his field axe, that’s my cue to spring into action. First I coolly raise the visor on my helmet and holler “I’m here for you if you need anything, buddy!” Then I hastily retreat until I’m about a half mile from the tree, perfectly safe and of no possible use to anyone save my bartender, who cannot afford to lose me. Steve’s hammering echoes through the forest, and is followed by the slow-motion sound of the holding wood cracking, the tree crashing through the canopy, and then the resounding thud as it meets the earth—a heavy vibration that I feel in my boots, despite my cowardly distance from the site. Reapproaching, I inevitably find that the tree has been dropped on a dime, with Steve’s stick accurately marking the crown’s position on the ground.

Read the rest at High Country News