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Tackling the Country Life


If a Tree Falls: Tree-cutting Techniques

A photo of Steve DautNow that we’re supplementing our heat with wood, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time cutting and hauling wood. Not only have I been cleaning up the dead trees on our property, but last weekend a friend of mine and I made a deal with the place I work to clean up a couple of standing oaks that died two or three summers ago.

Until recently, I didn’t cut wood much and had only felled a handful of trees in my life. They always fell exactly where I wanted them to, so I felt pretty cocky about my skills until I was taking down a 30-foot pine tree about five years back. This was when I still lived in the City, and I had just gotten the tree to the point of no return, cutting-wise, when a sudden gust of wind came out of the wrong direction, the big crack happened that lets you know the tree is down, and it was fixing to fall on my neighbor’s fence, yard, and maybe even his house. Fortunately, the tree was right beside my garage and I had propped a ladder up to the roof, because, well, heck- I can’t even remember why. But at any rate, I was able to get up beside the tree with a rope, get Sue out to help, and brought it back upwind to fall where it was supposed to go in the first place. The experience taught me not to take anything for granted.

Since then, I’ve worked with a few tree cutters and it seems to me there are a couple of approaches on how to get gravity to work in the right direction. The first, I'll call the natural approach. I was with a professional tree harvester in the woods out at the farm. Sue’s mom Bee had hired him to thin out some of the canopy trees to let the newer growth get enough light. Once he found a tree he was going to take out, he’d study it to figure out which way it wanted to go. Then he’d make a tiny little notch on that side- maybe a quarter of the way in, at most. He’d finish with a horizontal cut from the other side, and would have it cut all the way through and out of the way before the tree started falling. At the time, I figured if you’re doing it for a living, you want to expend as little effort as possible getting the things down.

I had to modify that position recently. Our current neighbor to the south also clears out trees for a living, and he takes what I’ll call the shock and awe approach. I’ve had this dead tree hanging out over my pond. It had fallen so far over that the top branches were actually touching the pond. I mentioned it to the neighbor, assuming that the only option would be to wait until the pond froze and drop it on the ice. He said he had a cable and winch hookup that could put 40,000 pounds of torque on a tree and drop it wherever he wanted it to go, and I could imagine him ripping the thing out by the roots, sideways. I’ve had a close call or two with high tension cables, so I waited until the pond froze and dropped the tree on the ice.

Last weekend, my friend used an approach somewhere in between the two when we were taking down the first oak at the place where I work. It also was along a pond bank, but this was a big, mature oak. It wasn’t really clear if the ice would hold the thing, but there was only about a fifteen foot wide swath where we could drop the thing and avoid the ice, shed, and the fence that enclosed the pond, and to top it off, the tree seemed to be leaning in exactly the wrong direction. My friend took a big notch about waist high. It was more than a third of the trunk, with a horizontal cut at the bottom and a high angle on the top cut. The back cut was probably 30 degrees, coming down into the notch, and when he had two of inches of cut left, he put a couple of wedges into the back cut and drove them in with a maul. He cut it down until the tree was starting to wobble, pulled the saw out and finished the job by driving in the wedges. I swear he could have laid a dime on the ground where it was going to fall.

The interesting thing is that each of these guys knew just what they were doing and talked like their way was the best one they had found. I never would have guessed there were as many different approaches to taking down a tree, and I’m sure there are a quite a few more that I haven’t seen yet. I’d like to hear from anyone out there who has a different “best” way.

The Constancy of Change

Steve DautBefore sitting down to write this, I was looking out at our pond through the crisp bright morning sun here in Michigan, and it struck me how many faces the pond has presented to me in the short time we have lived in this house.

Late this summer, some days the water would be clear and deep, revealing the fish beds around the edge and the deep-growing weeds, other days it would run cloudy and seemed thick and substantial as a pool of dark cement. And the surface varied by week, by day, and by the hour. Some days it would shimmer with linear sparks of light flitting across the surface. Other times, it would lay flat and still as crystal. Sometimes the algae would spring up overnight, imparting a dayglow green sheen that made it look like a pool of melted crayons. Then the wind would come and compress the algae over to one side and the rest of the pond would thump against it as if to beat all the color out of it.

During the fall, it often turned dark and foreboding, almost black at its depths, as if to warn of the coming cold of winter. Surrounded by trees, many days it would bear a flotilla of multicolored leaves, a tiny navy fighting no battles, but with every unit destined for a watery grave. Then, for a time after the leaves finished falling, it sat and waited as if in anticipation of the storms to come. And they did come, not only the winter storms of December, but financial storms that rocked the world, and are sill rocking it today.

With the winter freeze, the pond turned glassy and green. Then the snow came and it merged with the shore in an expanse of white with no boundaries except a slight break in slope where the gently sloping black soils met the perfectly flat surface of the solid ice. On the occasional melts this winter, the pond would pull back from the shore briefly, but the center held. Today, with some melting from last week, the pond is the only thing that is solid white- the rest of the property is speckled with brown bits of vegetation breathing free after a long winter covered by the blanket of snow.

Ice is an amazing substance. Unlike the solid phase of other substances, ice is actually less dense than its liquid counterpart, water. This is why we can ice skate – increasing the pressure on it converts ice to water, the lubricant that lets us glide across the ice. This property is what makes glaciers possible, and is also critical to life. If ice sank in water, ponds and lakes and oceans would freeze from the bottom up, eventually becoming a solid mass. But it remains on top, where the sun can warm and melt it, and lets the fish exist below it, living through even the coldest of winters.

So life still exists, down there in the bottom of my pond. And it still exists in the economic engines of the United States and the world. And even though right now it feels as if spring will never come, it will, as certainly as it has every year. And when it does, life will surface. And the pond will continue to change, and in changing it will reassert its constancy.

Building the Garden

Steve DautI’m not sure whether she’s bragging or complaining, but Sue’s favorite expression has become, “Now even our projects have projects!”. Here we are in the dead of winter and we are in the midst of planning and preparing for our first garden together. Actually, we started planning it when we moved into the new house last summer, because despite the fact that the lot is 2 acres, it’s in the glacial terrain of Michigan, so there probably 20 feet of relief from the pond surface to the ridge along the back of the property. The lower areas are flat, but they are also in muck soil without much structural integrity, and riddled with moles and some pesky muskrats. The upper soils are very sandy without much organic material, and there’s not a flat spot to be found. And we have quite a few trees. 

After a few discussions and sessions of standing outside and staring around, we finally settled on a reasonably flat area northwest of the house. It works because it’s out back where we added a water spigot and it’s close to the house and the compost pile. Other than the slight slope and the sandy soil, there were only three problems with it. 

First problem: a mature tree smack dab in the middle on the south side of the plot. Second problem: the east edge of the garden area butts up against the woodpile which was cut into the hill. The current vertical, wooden retaining wall is falling down and will need to be rebuilt before we can expand the garden that far east. Third problem: Since we connect through forested land with the Waterloo Recreation area, which at 30,000 acres is the largest State recreation area in the Lower Peninsula, we get a lot of deer. Although we don’t see huge herds of them, they are a constant presence. The story goes that when the previous owner used to “feed” them, one winter day he counted 65 out on the frozen pond in the front yard. Since the nearest farm is half a mile down the road, our garden would quickly become the salad bar of choice for venison on the hoof. 

So at that point, the project sprouted four preparatory projects- cut down the tree, fix the retaining wall, build an electric fence and of course plan the garden itself. After I paced off the area, Sue got to work on the plot plan, which will result in some raised beds on the southwest corner of the area, and slowly expanding the garden to fill the whole area. I figure that gives me at least one summer, if not two, to get the retaining wall fixed. 

Then when we got a little break in the weather a week ago, I started on cutting the tree down. Well, I got part of the way done with that, noting that all 3 of my saw chains are dull as butter knives, when the chain started jumping off the saw. I’d put it back on and it would jump off again. As it turns out, the chain tightener and brake assembly was broken, so I had to order a new one. Since I had to wait until it got shipped in, I decided to go ahead and get the chains sharpened. That, of course, was project number 5. 

Finally, I got the chain saw fixed and went to work on it today. All I have to do is haul all the stacked wood down to the woodpile and project number 6 will be done. I plan to chip up the smaller limbs and branches and mix it in with a tiller to start building up the organic content in the soil. 

So project number 7 will be to rent a chipper.

No Power, No Problem

Living in the country carries with it at least the illusion of independence that extends to self-sufficiency when it comes to the basic necessities. In reality, most of us have become pretty dependent on the infrastructure that supports our lifestyle. Except for rare occasions, electricity courses through our wiring, gas flows into the furnace when it calls for heat, and water flows from the faucets when we turn the spigot. It’s only when we lose some of those things temporarily the we come to appreciate what we have in this country, but also to realize the things we have lost when we begin to take our lifestyle for granted.

Recently, when violent windstorms tore through the Midwest, we were one of the thousands of households that lost power. This being our first winter in the country home, we quickly discovered some differences from city living. Sure, we had thought about it before hand, but sometimes it takes the actual event to find out what you haven’t done to be prepared.

Water was the first issue. When the power went out, there was enough pressure to get a couple of pitchers of drinking water, and it turns out that Sue had thrown a couple of gallons of water into the freezer for just such an occasion. Apparently, a full freezer is more efficient, and the ice will help keep the food frozen longer. I wonder if they knew that back when they used to have ice chests to preserve food? And I always thought the pond was just an attractive amenity with fish, but that pond water sure came in handy for the occasional flush.

Heat, or course, was only critical for comfort, since we were only out of power for a day. If it had been longer, the threat of freezing pipes would have to be considered as well. This is where my lifelong desire for a wood burner finally came into perspective. By feeding the wood burner all day, we were able to keep the house at a very comfortable 65 degrees all day long. When we moved into the house we had swapped a gas stove for the existing electric one because of the better heat control, and when the power went out we found that the new-fangled energy efficient thing had and electric sparker instead of a pilot light. To cook we had to reach back into our ancient tribal knowledge to realize that we could actually light the stove with a match.

It wasn’t until later that the issue of light started to become important. I had in mind to use an old Colman lantern that throws a lot of light. OK, I know you’re not supposed to use it indoors because it gets very hot and it also throws off carbon monoxide, but I always assume that the really bad stuff can’t happen to me. Sue would have none of that kind of thinking, so we went out and bought a new Coleman that runs on batteries. As it turns out, with the new compact fluorescent bulbs, these lanterns are pretty darned efficient and are perfect for occasions of power loss.

We were just settling down to an evening of backgammon, reading, and basking in the warm glow of the fire when we began to realize that we were actually enjoying the feeling. It was calming and a little reassuring that we could spend some time cut off from the “outside” and just enjoy our own company for awhile.  Then all of these domestic noises started back up again. Although we both were a little disappointed that the power was back on, we couldn’t help ourselves. The lights went back on, we dropped a DVD in the player, and the backgammon game went back under the table for another time.

Olive Invasion

Autumn Olive or Russian OliveAutumn Olive, a.k.a. Russian Olive, is the classic invasive, and one we have had to deal with on our new country property. It was first cultivated in Germany and imported to the U.S. in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant, where it has spread to nearly all of the central and western states. At first glance, it is an attractive bush or small tree with characteristic bladelike silver-backed leaves. In the spring it blooms with bright yellow flowers which are replaced by silvery-yellow berries.

Birds love the berries; it is browsed by deer and barked by rabbits. The berries are tart but edible, and some people make jelly or even wine out of them. This apparent attractiveness is part of what makes it a problem. It spreads from birds distributing the seeds, and through its root system. And uncontrolled, it will grow almost anywhere, and will out-compete almost anything in its path.  I have seen it grow up and choke out even well-established pines in a forest where the soil is so acidic almost nothing will grow. Once you begin to recognize it, you will see it everywhere.

Because it is spread by bird droppings, it can spring up almost anywhere, even where it has been recently eradicated. One plant is all it takes to get going, so annual inspections are needed to make sure it doesn’t re-establish itself. But if you cut it down, it grows lusher than before, and if you pull it out, any remaining root fragments will send up more shoots in the spring. So how do you rid yourself of this stuff?

I did a lot of research trying to determine the most effective treatment for a very large and well established stand of this attractive nuisance. Although I realize that some people eschew the use of herbicides, there seems to be no other current solution to dealing with this problem. Obviously, all recommended safety precautions should be followed when using these chemicals, and you should always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. So far, the program has proven to be very successful in eradicating the problem with no regrowth.

The program involves a multi-step approach. The first step is n the spring when the plants are actively growing, using a strong basal bark application of a triclopyr-based herbicide such as Garlon, Release or Brush-B-Gone. The benefit of this foliar herbicide is that it leaves grasses and conifer unaffected. We used a 20% solution of Garlon 4, soaking about 1 inch of each plant all the way around the base. There was no special preparation- we sprayed it right on the bark. This was highly effective against even well-established plants. On the smaller sprouts, the entire leaf system was covered.

The second step is in the early fall, after the heat of summer has abated somewhat and the plant is not growing. Cut the plants off at the base, and immediately daub the cut stump with a full-strength application of a glyphosate herbicide such as Rodeo, Roundup, or Tumblweed. Since this is a non-selective herbicide, it will kill anything it touches so extreme care should be taken with the application.

After this, it’s best to revisit the area every spring to check for sprouts, and pull them out or treat them again with triclopyr. This approach is very aggressive, and may be impractical or cost prohibitive in very large applications, but it has worked well for us. If anyone else has had success with another less aggressive approach or one is less reliant on herbicides, I’d love to hear about it.

A Whiter Shade of Snow

This first winter out of the city, our relationship with snow has been changing. When we lived in town, snow was a short-lived thrill that soon became something that had to be moved around so that we could move around. The plows would come through and the snowblowers would crank up and before long, there were piles of chunky brown stuff where a soft white blanket used to be. Even the back yard, which wasn’t part of the crazy shuffle out front, got trashed as our hyperactive Aussie made circuit after circuit around the 50 x 50 foot area. Snow in the city meant half a day of cool white stuff and then a long wait until the dirty brown stuff melted. Snow was something to get out of the way.

We still need to get it out of the way, of course, but only to the extent that we can get the cars to move through it. We don’t have a sidewalk where we need to worry whether a neighbor will hit a patch of ice and go skidding down the street. We don’t need to worry about keeping up with the fussy next door neighbor who never had a speck of snow on his driveway (Sue and I used to swear he was in league with the Devil). We don’t have to be concerned that the City will send a crew out if we don’t get the snow off our walk in time, and charge us big bucks for the privilege.

All we have to do is make sure the plow guy shows up when there’s more than 3 inches or so. I’m counting my pennies so I can buy a pickup and plow it myself. And rather than perfectly shoveled sidewalks, all we need is a foot path to the front door, one to the woodpile, and another one to the compost pile.

I haven’t touched a shovel yet this year. When I do, it will be after the pond has developed enough ice that I can shovel off a skating pond. I suppose it would look a little silly to put a shanty on a half-acre pond, but I’m considering it.

The snow has also become a tool to understand what’s going on around us. I have developed a much better understanding of deer movement across our property, and the kinds of critter who are visiting our compost pile. Drifts and snow swirls are telling me what the winter wind patterns are doing. And if I were smart enough to understand it, I’m sure I’d be able to tell something about the types of birds that visit us by the myriad pattern of little spiky footprints around the feeders.

But mostly, the difference we notice on a daily basis is that the snow stays white; a beautiful, pristine blanket that shows an endless variation of colors as the shade and sunlight move across it during the day and that glows with spectral light when the moon comes out at night. As Sue has put it, “Looking out the window is like having a living Christmas Card.”

Living Lightly

Last weekend, Sue and I went to a workshop at the Michigan Friends Center near Chelsea, Michigan. It was called Living Lightly, and it fit us because have both been involved with sustainability efforts, and because I have wanted to get out to the Friends Center, having been born in Iowa and raised a Quaker. I’m not much of a singer myself, but one of the features of the day involves singing an old Shaker tune, written by Elder Joseph in 1848, entitled “Simple Gifts.” The lyrics go like this:

“Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘tis the gift to come down where you ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
We shall bow and bend, we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.”

The workshop was centered on the idea of sustainability and of the things that individuals can do to help reverse the long held idea that the economy, rather than the environment, is the driving force for society. And it touched on the elusive idea of spiritual life. As many of these things go, there was a keynote address, large group and small group discussions, and we wrote things on big pieces of newsprint that got stuck to the wall for everyone to see. Wisely, the organizers avoided the “facilitated session” trap of having us vote for our favorites. It was more internally focused, letting us come away with what each of us, personally gained from the day.

Like grains of sand forming a beach, a million little things are what will change the world. Nothing really “new” came out of this day, only an affirmation of many little things we already knew that are not only good for the environment, but can be personally satisfying:

  • Know where your food comes from by buying it locally or growing it yourself.
  • Conserve heating fuel, in the winter close off rooms that aren’t needed.
  • Use alternative energies like solar or wind, if at all possible.
  • Turn of or unplug things when you aren’t using them.
  • Minimize driving and don’t be in such a hurry.
  • Instead of buying all the stuff you need, share with neighbors.
  • If you focus on what it truly important to you, you can live simply and with satisfaction.

Now wait a minute! Simplicity, share with neighbors, close off unused rooms, use windmills? Is this starting sound familiar? It seems to me that this is how my family used to live when we weren’t expecting to have more and more every year. I know it’s how my grandma and grandpa lived, and how Sue’s mom, Bee, lives to this day. Many of the things in the list epitomize the country life, the community life that we have lost as things started turning faster and faster, and we started borrowing beyond our needs to have what we thought was the next best thing. It sounds a lot like the Quaker principles that sustain me even to this day, even though I have drifted away from the church itself.

The recent financial meltdown has forced many of us to re-evaluate, to turn back to knowledge we have buried for some time. We knew we had lost something, but perhaps we are finally realizing what it is we need to turn back to. Perhaps we are rediscovering what a gift it is to be simple, to be free. And could it be that by turning, turning, we will finally come round right?







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