Wisconsin Chainsaw Meditations

My daughter wanted to fence her backyard, but a big old bush blocked the way. 

She called. “Dad, can you bring your chainsaw?” 

Me with chainsaw. Katie Sommers photo.

Well, natch. What are dads for? I drove across town and performed an emergency bushectomy. No sweat.

But Your New Favorite Author wasn’t always a shrub shredding ace. Tons of tuition has been paid.

My first chainsaw, purchased more than thirty years ago, was a Poulan with a 20-inch bar. The bigger the better, right? It weighed 992 pounds on days of low humidity. 

A small tornado tore through one year and left our backyard filled with an 80-foot silver maple in prone position. Too big a job for me alone, even with my monster chainsaw. I called my friend Mikey, who lives Up Nort’, and he brought along his friend Rick. 

I noticed their chainsaws were small ones with 14-inch bars. They fired up their little machines, and I fired up my big one, and we went to work. After five minutes, Mikey said—with that tact for which he is justly famed—“Larry? Maybe you could stand over here and take it easy for a bit? Big trees like this can be tricky. Rick and I are concerned you could get hurt.” 

Two hours later, the tree had been sliced, diced, cubed, and quartered. It stood in neat little stacks all over my backyard. My friends, with their 14-inch chainsaws, had reduced a three-foot-thick trunk to silver maple briquettes. And I was all unscathed—except for my macerated self-image as a lumberjack.

Lesson One: It doesn’t take a huge machine, if you know what you’re doing.

I couldn’t get over how easily Mikey and Rick handled their little chainsaws, and what a chore it was for me just to lift mine. So I sold the monster and bought a 14-inch Stihl MS180C Mini-Boss, which is the saw I’ve used for the past fifteen or twenty years. 

I only hauled it out once or twice a year. At that frequency of use, one never quite masters the elements of the machine. I had trouble just getting it started. If it needed cleaning or a new chain, a major pageant ensued. Forget the simple steps breezily outlined in the owner’s manual. There’s no substitute for having enough experience to know how the thing works.

For various reasons, I used the chainsaw more often, several times per year. At last, I accumulated enough operator time to get acquainted with my machine. It’s impossible to overstate how proud I was of myself for finally figuring the beast out. 

Decimating the obstacle. Katie Sommers photo.

But need I tell you, Dear Reader, that pride goeth before a fall? Nay, you know that already. In fact, you could look it up. It’s in the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.

I did something quintessentially stupid. I tightened the chain at the end of a cutting session. As the machine cooled, the tight chain tightened further, pulled the bar out of line, bent the drive shaft, and scrambled the transmission parts inside the engine housing. 

You need to be an actual idiot to do something like that. 

Lesson Two: Don’t be an idiot.

I took the mangled machine to our local power center for an estimate. They called me later that week. “Gee,” the man said, “to re-seat all those parts, replace the bent and damaged ones, and get it all back together in good working order, would come to $138.49, plus tax.”

“Doesn’t really shock me,” I said.

But the voice on the other end of the line said, “The thing is, you could buy a new one for not much more.” 

Of course I could. But the new one wouldn’t be the same model, because they don’t make those any more. Even if the model number was the same, it would have been improved many times since I bought it. 

Half a lifetime of hard-won learning curve is built into the chainsaw I’ve already got. If I bought a new one, it would be ten years before I mastered the effortless starting feature. And I’m already in my seventies.

“It’s got sentimental value to me,” I said. “Go ahead and rebuild it.”

So they did, I paid the $138.49, plus tax, and now I have a good, dependable chainsaw that I know how to use and that I never, ever tighten at the end of its cycle. 

Even so, I would still call for outside help if I had a big tree come down.

Lesson Three: Sometimes it pays to rest on your laurels.

With all this history in mind, I loaded my 14-inch Stihl into the back of my SUV, threw in a can of gas-oil mixture, a jug of bar lubricant, a chainsaw multitool, a spare chain, and work gloves. And headed to my daughter’s house with well-earned confidence. 

I wonder if she has any inkling what a treasury of woodlore and mechanical know-how resides in that dinky little chainsaw.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Making Firewood

Hardships bring us back to the essentials.

Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall. 

A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.

The author at work by his woodstove. Lacey the spaniel as Sancho Panza.

That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.

But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.

Into the Trees

Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.

I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.

After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.

The essential tool.

The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.

Verse in the Vernal Heat

Robert Frost in 1941. Fred Palumbo photo. Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain.

Robert Frost waxes lyrical over chopping in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud-time”—

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.

Larry the logger levitates lumber. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.

Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.

Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.

Pride of Axemanship

Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore: 

Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”

Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.

A beautiful Danish woodpile. Photo by BKP, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.

But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.

The motley wood in my garage.

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The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake. 

Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer