Monday, September 08, 2008

smashing watermelons

I imagine you’ve heard of or even seen the picture of the guy who was out cutting fire wood and dropped a huge tree right on his brand new pick up truck.

Squishing the cab all the way down to the tires.

Well, this week I cut down a large tree, maybe not quite as large as the one in the picture, but still big, and the only thing I can say about what happened is “At least I didn’t drop the tree on my truck.”

Though some people might be more upset by where I did drop it than if it had.

The maple that fell was that big one right next to where we stack our vegetables after picking them each day.

This is a tree that died last winter and this summer, started dropping limbs. 

Occasionally dead limbs would blow off and land on the vegetables.

Sometimes they'd land on the van.

And sometimes they came close to landing on me (once while I was carrying a box of squash out of the field).

So it was my idea to finally bring out the chain saw and cut it down.

Since we have used wood to heat our house and water for over two decades now cutting down dead trees is something I spend a lot of time doing.

In the forest, you can pick out which direction you are going to drop a dead tree and mostly it will land there.

First, you cut a wedge out of the tree in the direction you want it to go.

Then you walk around to the back side of the tree and cutting flat across the trunk. And nine times out of ten, more or less, it drops right where you want it.

The operative phrase here is ‘more or less.’

Out in the forest the only real concern is that when its time for the tree to come crashing down you’ve made sure no one is standing under it.

And your second concern is having a place to run if the tree decides to fall in an unintended direction.

If it misses where you were aiming by ten or so yards, its no real big deal. It still came down in the forest.

The problem with the maple wasn’t quite as simple.

The maple had obstacles that had to be avoided.

On one side was a power line.

If the maple fell over the power line the electric company and everyone living back down the valley would get a little upset when their electricity abruptly went off.

On the west of the tree is that old Allis Chalmers tractor of mine. It hasn’t run in almost ten years but it has sort of been elevated to ‘field art’ status. I once had a picture of it with snow falling on our webpage. Recently someone offered a thousand dollars for it. I would sure hate to see it get flattened.

And to the south, besides being where we stack up the vegetables for loading is an old house we now use as a storehouse.

A tree on top of the days vegetables might prove interesting but I don’t think shareholders would appreciate a week without vegetables.

And while I intend at some future date to knock down the storehouse and build a brand new barn, today isn’t that day. A tree across the storehouse’s roof might very well cause the entire structure to come tumbling down.

Which leaves a narrow slot to the south, a spot along the driveway where the tree could safely be dropped.                                               

Tricky, but doable.

So what I did is I hooked a logging chain around the maple maybe eight feet up off the ground.

And I hooked that chain to another chain. And that one to another, and another and another.

Until I had almost 80 feet of chain running down the driveway to the south. And then I drove my pickup truck to the end of the chain, hooked it up to the back of the truck, put the truck into low range.

And gave it a little gas.

The maple wasn’t prepared to fall yet but it did shimmy a little and the limbs giving a little shake.  

I put the truck into park. Pulled the parking brake and went back to the tree.

That’s when I started up the chain saw and started cutting.

First I cut a wedge out of the south side of the tree.

Then I went around to the north side, sighted the tree so I would be cutting directly toward the pick up.

And cut into the tree several inches before stopping to look. The maple was about 30 inches across. My chain saw bar only 18. It’s really important that you don’t leave a hunk of wood to either side. Especially when the tree is wider than your saw. If, when the tree starts to fall, if it isn’t cut equally on both sides, if one side has more uncut wood than the other, then the tree will fall in that side's direction.

I looked and everything was just fine.

Another thing that will go wrong when cutting down a tree, (and did you know, along with commercial fishing and working oil rigs - both occupations I’ve done a little of at one time or another - dropping trees is one of the most dangerous jobs out there).

But what I was saying, another thing that can go wrong when dropping a tree, and one its hard to account for, is if there's a hollow space inside the tree. 

What if termites had been eating at the tree, or what if there had been a forest fire when the tree was younger. Both can cause hollow spaces. Rotten wood on the inside that you can’t see on the outside of the tree. And when you start cutting suddenly you hit rotten wood and the tree, without warning, starts toppling

It might suddenly come crashing down in any direction.

Maybe right where you are standing.

How many tons do you think an 80 foot tall maple with a trunk diameter of two and a half feet weighs?

When a tree that size falls it pretty much squishes whatever is in its path.

So I again started up the chain saw, cut into the tree a few more inches and stopped.

Usually when I’m cutting firewood up in the forest I don’t’ give it as much care. I look where I want it to fall. Cut a wedge. Aim again. And then start cutting on the far side. Most times it falls, more or less, right where I want it.

But this time I was being extra careful. There was too much around to make a small mistake into a major accident.

So I stopped cutting. Walked down to the pick up. Started the engine. Gave it a little more gas. Tightened the tension on the chain. Saw the tree shake just a little bit. Then put the truck in park, Tightened the parking brake.

And walked back to the tree.

Two more inches. I had to cut some on the left, then because the tree was so much wider than my bar, some more on the right. And that’s when, just as I was pulling the saw out to cut on the left again, it started cracking. This is the time they yell out  ‘Timber’ in the movies.

The tree stood there for a moment, shaking back and forth and then giving out a loud crack, the tree started to fall.

I ran back a dozen yards. You can never be too sure that the butt of a tree is not going to kick up and maybe catch you right on the jaw (that’s usually pretty fatal).

The tree stopping shaking and started crashing. Crashing down right towards the pick up truck.

And that’s when I saw my mistake.

And if you are still with me, still reading along, this seems like a good time to take a break and do the farm news.

1. the changing of the seasons. As you’ve probably noticed the days are getting shorter. Much shorter. And if us humans have noticed you can be sure all of those vegetables out in the fields that are pretty dependent on sunlight have taken notice and have started to change accordingly.

It’s now time for fall crops. The summer crops are coming to an end. Dispite what you might read in some food sections out there September around Washington DC is not tomato season. Those delicious summer tomatoes are just about gone. Tomato plants that were put in the ground back in May are dying. If they were determinates they are now mostly dead. Also, most and the indeterminate varieties have given up and have stopped producing much fruit (not all though, we have one heirloom indeterminate, which is showing an extra jump. Those little Siberian tomatoes that beat all of the others back in June). However, for most tomatoes the days are now too short and too chilly to produce fruit. (Note in Knox's Vegetable Handbook a sort of vegetable growers bible that tomatoes don't grow at temperatures below 60 degrees. From my experience this isn't quite true. There are varieties, like the Siberian, that set fruit at lower temperatures but generally Knox's is right, the majority of tomato varieties don't produce very well at the temperatures we get here in September).

Fortunately (for tomato lovers) this year we planted a later crop. We put about 500 chill tolerant tomato plants in the ground in late June and early July and hopefully they will start turning red soon.

2. There are a number of plants out there that like days that are constantly getting shorter. Fall crops like mustards, lettuces and radishes.

3. You will also see vegetables that take a long time to grow. Vegetables that have been out there slowly growing all summer long. Winter squash and sweet potatoes to name a couple. Even the peppers, which are actually a perennial in warmer climates, start producing more fruit about now.

Which I guess brings us back to that tree falling.

You know most of the time from when the tree starts to fall to when it strikes the ground is only a fraction of a second. Once the tree starts falling it drops. And when I saw that limb of that maple hanging out to the south it was too late.

The tree came down so fast there was nothing I could do.

The larger part of the tree crashed into the driveway between the stump and the truck (no, it didn’t hit the truck) but there was a limb that I didn’t calculate on. I guess from the ground I didn’t see how far out it would go. 

But it came down to. And landed right on a pile of watermelons.

20 watermelons.

I think the sound track to that part of the accident went something like this:

Thunk! Crash! Splash.

And it was over. At first I wasn’t sure of the damage. There were broken limbs everywhere.

But then we started pulling the mess away and I saw the black sticky seeds,the smashed bright red fruit and the broken rinds.

A soup of twenty watermelons to pick up and feed to the farm critters that don't mind eating less than perfect fruits and vegetables.

When I threw the broken watermelons over the fence into the chicken pasture close to 200 hens came sprinting over to be the first one to take part in the feast.


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