Tic, Tac, Toe: Trees in a Row

Along the west and the south boundaries of the hay and cattle ranch we took care of in northeastern Oregon, trees in dense stands of lodgepole pine had died when pine beatles bored through the bark and circled the trees with tunnels through the cambium. Some of the trees blew down in wind storms.

The rest of the dead trees needed to come down so they wouldn't continue to blow down on fences and in ditches that brought water through the edge of the timber onto the grass-growing meadows. I set to work clearing out the dead trees. I'd always cut firewood for our heating and cooking needs, and I sold firewood to anyone who would come and get it.

But I had no one to show me how to fell standing trees. I read instructions, added felling wedges and a heavy single-bit axe (to drive the wedges) to my tools, and approached the dead pine trees. It was, at first, a time of trembling. There is a great gap between instructions printed on the page and a tree tipping from its stump, falling with a rushing sound through the air, and slamming - with great noise of impact and breaking branches - to the ground.

At first, I chose trees clear of thickets, with a slight lean to them. I cut a notch about a third of the way through each tree, close to the ground, facing the way I wanted the tree to fall. Then I cut straight through toward the notch from the opposite side of the tree. Each tree started tipping before I'd cut all the way through, and the remaining hinge of uncut wood held the tree to the stump and helped to direct its fall. In a correctly cut tree, the hinge will break before the tree hits the ground.

A tree with no lean still falls into the notch. Felling wedges are for poor judgment -"I thought it would tip that direction, but it won't" - or for trees that must fall in an unnatural direction. The wedges opened the cut wider and wider as I drove them in, tilting the tree toward the face notch until the tree tipped far enough that its weight started the falling arc. I worked from the book, and everything worked exactly as it should, except....

Dead trees are unpredictable. The brittle wood breaks in unpredictable ways. Sometimes, the wood low on the tree rots, the predictability provided by a strong hinge disappears, and the tree falls wild. I tried to see everything that could happen, plan alternate escape routes, and watch everything until all motion ceased. Several times, brittle trees broke as they fell, and the tops came down behind the stump, where I had been standing.

I worked my way up the big ditch that ran down through the edge of the timber, felling dead trees, cutting them into firewood lengths, and piling the tops and limbs for later burning. On the high bank of the ditch, I aimed a big lodgepole straight across the ditch.

I walked away as it tipped, then stopped and watched. The brittle hinge broke too soon, and the tree turned a little from the path I had planned. It brushed another dead lodgepole on the opposite bank. That tree broke at the base and fell directly away from the first tree, hit and slid down a third dead tree, which also broke at the base. I watched the escalating action with a sense of wonder and walked rapidly down the bank so I stood in the clear when the top of the third tree shattered violently on the ground where I had been standing.

Hoo, ha! I put my saw down, flexed my arms, did a little dance above the ditch, and bowed this way and that to the trees and whatever other wildlife might be interested. I was a man of power, felling three trees with one cut. I thought of sewing it into my suspenders, "Three at one blow." Indeed, indeed. That brightened my day. Also made me aware of how careful I needed to be to stay in good shape through this dead-timber-clearing project.

I picked up my saw, walked up the ditch bank, and started reducing my trophies to mundane lengths of firewood.

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