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The Simple Act of Felling a Tree

December 20, 2018

With idling chainsaw in hand, I step back and inspect my work: My escape route is open, face and plunge cuts well-formed, tree hinge shaped correctly, felling wedges in place - all looks good. My eyes sweep the work area for one last check to ensure all is clear. Satisfied, I saw through the “holding” wood, releasing the tree from the stump below. Nothing moves. I whack the largest felling wedge with a small sledge hammer. Still nothing. I wallop the wedge again and hear a soft “pop.” The moment of truth, I think. With my eyes locked on to a spot high up in the tree, I wait. Slowly, the tree leans forward, followed by a loud “crack” and then rapidly accelerates downward crashing into the ground in a thunderous, earth-shaking explosion.

 

About one hour earlier: I scan the steep hillside searching for the best way up through the maze of brambles, grape vines and fallen trees. Roughly one-third of a mile uphill through this tangled mess lies my project site. I will be removing large boxelders, Siberian elms, and other invasive trees and shrubs in an effort to bring life back to an oak savanna. Shouldering a heavy pack, chainsaw in one hand, and the other free to swat mosquitoes, I commit myself to a route up the hillside.

 

By the time I make it to my project site, I’m drenched with sweat, suffering from blood loss, and questioning my enthusiasm for this project. I find a grassy opening to “set up” operations, drop my pack and prepare to gas up the chainsaw. A sharp pain pierces through my hand, followed immediately by a stinging discomfort in my other hand. Yellow jackets are attacking! I’ve set up right on top of their ground nest! I grab my stuff and run.

 

Free of the yellow jackets now, but still inundated with mosquitoes, I fire up the chainsaw. The noise of the chainsaw immediately gives me some relief by scattering the blood-thirsty pests. I measure up my first target, a large open-grown boxelder tree with wide-reaching branches covering an area the size of a house. First, I think, I need to clear an escape route through the multiflora rose bushes and honeysuckle shrubs to get to the base of the tree.

 

With a path free of obstructions now in place to the tree, I notice the whole tree trunk is covered in poison ivy. Great, I frown, and use the chainsaw to carefully shave the ivy away around the circumference of the tree to give me an “ivy-free” work area.

 

I size up the tree’s natural lean and discover several bur oaks would be crushed if the tree falls in that direction. I’m going to have to use felling wedges to avoid the oaks, I mutter to myself. I inspect the tree base and realize that its diameter is the size of an SUV tire, much wider than the length of my chainsaw bar. It keeps getting better, I grumble. I’ll have to make a double-plunge cut.

 

I notch out a section of wood, called a face cut, from the tree’s base in the direction I want it to fall. Happy with the shape of the notch, I make a plunge cut behind the notch and carefully “set” the thickness of the hinge (the tree will rotate on this thin section of wood when it falls). I install a small felling wedge into the plunge cut directly behind the hinge and make another plunge cut from the opposite side of the tree meeting up with the first plunge cut and matching the hinge thickness. A second felling wedge is installed directly behind the hinge and a large “driving” wedge is installed into the plunge cut perpendicular and opposite to the face cut.

    

At this point, the cut profile looks something like this: Looking horizontally across the tree base, there’s the notch or face cut, followed by a thin segment of wood (the hinge) connecting the tree to the stump below. Next is a wide horizontal cut opening all the way through the tree trunk (the two plunge cuts from opposite directions essentially “hollows out” the center of the tree trunk), followed by a horizontal cut section of trunk that does not go all the way through the trunk leaving a section of “holding” wood and a spot for a third driving wedge to be installed. The two small wedges are used to support the massive weight of the tree so that is does not crush the hinge. The driving wedge is used to force the tree to fall in the direction of the notch once the holding wood is removed.

 

With the large boxelder lying on the ground and the nearby bur oak trees unharmed, I relax a little. I feel stiffness and swelling in both hands and can hear my throbbing pulse accentuated by my sweat-soaked ear plugs. This tree is massive, I think, the easy part is over, now I have to cut this beast up.

 

I flex all my fingers and thumbs several times in an attempt to work out the yellow jacket stinger venom, pick up the chainsaw, and get to work. 

 

 

 

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