Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Cottonwood Chainsaw Carnage

For many years, the thought of buying and using a chainsaw both attracted and repelled me.

Attracted, because we have two homes, one in the country, and the fool things can be useful. Repelled, because they sure look bloody dangerous – and demand a huge amount of respect even if one hasn’t been propagandized by silly horror movies, especially those containing the name of the State That Is Downriver and East From New Mexico. (Some of the locals around here and in Colorado ski country like to say, "If God had wanted T _ _ _ _ s to ski, He would have made b _ _ _ s _ _ _ white.") I didn't invent the quote; I'm just passing it along for whatever it might be worth. Note that, in general, the locals are quite friendly.

In the city, a couple of our trees had neared the end of their life, and the big cottonwood in our backyard really needed to be cut down. I had priced tree services, and the reputable ones with bonding and insurance and all that kind of stuff wanted quite a sum of money. So, the cottonwood cutting project drifted into the realm of a do-it-yourself project, even though it presented large challenges.

Height was the first challenge; some branches reached forty-five feet or more into the air. Not only did these sky-high branches need to be cut, but the cutting – or, more particularly, the falling – had to be controlled. We didn’t want stuff down below, such as our home, broken. Some branches could be reached from the ground or the roof of our storage shed with the help of an extendable pole saw, but others required that I play aerial acrobat. Soon our sixteen-foot extension ladder was joined by a twenty-four footer, then ultimately by the great big thirty-two-foot monster that could put me three stories up in the air. For safety, the ladders were lashed to the tree, and I harnessed myself in at the top when cutting branches. Also, sometimes branches would have guide lines tied to them before they were severed, so the direction of fall could be at least partially controlled. These guide lines were generally successful, but branches would still fall in places where they weren’t completely expected.

Cutting technique was a bit amateurish, slow, and hard work. Mostly I started out using big garden bow saws. However, as I got around to cutting larger, and more vertical, branches, the bow saws became much less effective. Still resistant to the idea of buying a chainsaw, I turned to the Woodpecker Technique. This consisted of running an electric cord up an extension ladder, connecting it to an electric drill with a large wood-boring bit, and drilling a large number of holes deep into a branch until it was mostly cut through. The process was loud and slow, but it did eventually work on a few branches that were around 9 to 12 inches in diameter. The whole business of aerial acrobatics and woodpeckering amused or worried the neighbors, according to inclination, but eventually got the tree down to a height of about twenty feet.

Now, however, the going was getting much tougher. Long gone were the smaller, easier-to-cut branches. Now I was in lumberjack country, with foot-and-a-half or thicker branches and a thirty-two-inch-diameter trunk staring at me and my pathetic tools, which could barely penetrate the horny bark.

So, I bought a chainsaw, despite some past misgivings. However, the misgivings were due very soon to return, and the chainsaw was soon to disappear.

Some years ago I’d bought a department-store-cheapie small gasoline-powered chainsaw. It was, to put it diplomatically, a slightly elevated assemblage of decomposing matter that might aid the growth of plants. Getting it to run or stay running was a huge challenge, and getting the chain to stay on or stay in adjustment was a lost cause.

This time I resolved to do better and got one of the bigger and better chainsaws at one of my favorite big-box mega home stores. It needed to be bigger because of the large size of the cottonwood tree, and better to improve on the performance of the cruddy saw of times past. So, back home with me came a two-hundred-dollar saw with a twenty-inch cutting bar and all sorts of safety features and upgrades and stuff; it even came with a fancy plastic case. Unfortunately, I ran into some problems at the “some assembly required” stage. After assembling the cutting chain and bar and positioning them correctly relative to the clutch (the round hub the spins the chain around) and adjustment bolts, I found out that the cover, which was part of the chain brake safety system, wouldn’t fit back onto the saw. It had a sort of a spring, which was designed to put friction on the clutch and thus help stop the chain in an emergency, and which was supposed to fit over the clutch. It was out of round and so it didn’t and wouldn’t fit, not with all the persuasion I could muster. Close to half an hour of waiting to get someone in tech support also didn’t help my mood. So, back went the saw into its box and back to the big-box store for a refund.

But now I’d smelled the bar-oil and was ready to vent my frustrations on the world. So I needed a chainsaw with which I could unleash a true cutting fury upon the unsuspecting world, and especially upon a certain cottonwood. Visits therefore shortly followed to a couple of lawn and garden specialty shops that sold more premium brands of saws, one to a Stihl dealer a couple of miles from our home and one to a Husqvarna dealer a couple of miles further. A sunny Friday morning saw me picking a saw off the rack at the neighborhood store and having the dealer test it, adjust its idle speed, and charge a few hundred bucks on one of my credit cards. Home it went for a true test, and big cuts appeared in the big tree and a bunch of already-cut branches were soon reduced to fireplace-size mini-logs. A minor learning experience occurred in Laguna Vista over the weekend, when a couple of nuts got loose and disappeared into a pile of bark and dirt, but that was soon put to rights.

Back in Albuquerque, the attack on the cottonwood resumed in great and deafening earnest (I wore hearing protection) and soon great big branches were raining down from the sky and piles of sawdust were mounting ever higher. By the Tuesday night before the Catalina Cruise, the tree was felled. By the Tuesday morning after the cruise, it had been cut into smaller sections. Soon these will be no more than firewood, and someday no more than ashes in the grate. Someday the stump will be cut down and ground up and a new tree will be planted nearby to take the old tree’s place. Life has its comings and goings. The chainsaw sure helped with the going part.


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