Rants from the Hill: The adventures of Sir Rantsalot in the dead tree forest

On the virtues of cutting and burning wood.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

A few months ago I offered a Rant celebrating a single juniper tree that stands alone in an open, windswept valley out here in the high desert. Why then am I, a confirmed desert rat, about to offer a paean to cutting trees—to cutting them first down and then up? The answer may be found in the intimate relationship between this desiccated, largely treeless arid landscape and the nearby Sierra Nevada, whose eastern slope is carpeted with conifer forests comprised of a variety of lovely tree species including white, red, and Douglas fir; incense cedar and western juniper; and, ponderosa, Jeffrey, lodgepole, and sugar pine. One of the many advantages of our proximity to the Sierra is that it makes it possible for us to augment the warmth produced by our highly-efficient passive solar home with heat generated by burning wood.

I’ve always loved to fell, limb, buck, split, haul, and stack wood, and I’ve been heating with wood most of my adult life. There’s something deeply satisfying about making a pilgrimage into the forest and returning with a fruit so precious that it flowers a year later in the gentle, lapping flames that warm my little daughters as they play or read by the hearth. Think of it as the thermal equivalent of preparing and eating vegetables that you’ve grown in your own garden. Of course that’s a pretty sentimental take on a backbreaking form of work that is done amid the roar of a chainsaw and the smell of diesel fuel and sawdust. But I truly love cutting, so much so that I do it not only to heat our home but also to avoid doing pretty much anything else that I really ought to be doing. The expansive woodpiles strewn along the half-mile-long driveway to the Ranting Hill provide clear evidence of how wonderfully I’ve succeeded in using cutting to evade the pesky, endless round of adult responsibilities.

In addition to offering an escape from the scurrying of grown-up life, woodcutting also has the advantage of being ridiculously gear-intensive. It isn’t just the pickup truck, dump trailer, chainsaws, bars, chains, gas, oil, screnches, wedges, and files that I’m talking about, but also the stylish safety apparel. To begin with, there’s the standard-issue head-to-toe Carhartt in the classic olive-drab green and monkey-poop brown. I’ve graduated from ordinary work gloves to gel-palmed saw gloves with wrap-around Velcro wrist straps; whenever I put them on I feel like I’m about to win the Indy 500. I’ve also traded in my steel-toed work boots for titanium-toed boots, which provide the same protection but are lighter and, more importantly, sound really cool. In fact, I’m considering “Titanium Toed” for my next band name.

In the area of eye protection, I’ve improved my look over time, from the boxy safety goggles of a high-school chemistry student to the reflector shades of an undercover cop to the tinted wraparounds of the professional bass fisherman. My final step has been to go for the full headgear: a bright orange hardhat with attached ear protection and stylish nylon mesh visor, which makes me look like an extremely orange medieval knight. Whenever I’m wearing this helmet I am transformed into Sir Rantsalot, the brave, saw-wielding knight-errant who can flip his visor up and deliver a cool, witty line every time. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget that I have it on and spit heartily without first raising the visor, a bush-league move that makes a guy hope the other knights weren’t looking.

Sir Rantsalot in full battle regalia.

Of course the pièce de résistance of any chainsawing getup is the chaps. You can’t help but feel studly as a bronc buster once you’ve strapped these bad boys on, and I speak from experience when I say that being wrapped in Kevlar is a good idea when wielding a tool with razor-sharp teeth that are moving inches from your body at 60 m.p.h. (around 90 feet per second). That valorization notwithstanding, chaps are essentially assless pants.

Several years ago on Christmas Eve, my wife Eryn let slip that Santa had brought me a new pair of chaps. (I had nicked the old ones, which, like a climbing rope that has sustained a fall, may have saved your life but should not be reused.) I was so excited that I snuck to the Christmas tree later that night—wearing only green, elf-themed boxer shorts—just to try on the new gear. The chaps fit so perfectly that I decided to treat myself to a celebratory nightcap. I was bent over, reaching into the fridge for an IPA, when I heard someone approaching behind me. I spun around to see my father-in-law, who was then visiting from California for the holidays. This guy is an ex-cop, and he has always seemed to me like he’s eight feet tall. There he stood, towering silently over me. I had to think fast, so I opened the beer, extended it toward him, and said, “Remember how you felled a tree in the wrong direction and knocked out power to half of Oakland during a Raiders game? I won’t mention that if you won’t mention this.” He took the beer and went back to bed with nothing more said, either then or since.

I do most of my woodcutting with my buddy Steve, who is so good that when we cut I call him “the good feller” and he just refers to me as “the other feller.” Steve will take on trees twice the size I’d be willing to wrangle, and he’ll do it even in rough terrain or in situations where the drop has to be perfect. Before Steve fells a tree he engages in a mysterious, elaborate ritual that appears entirely unscientific. He first breaks a branch, measures it against the length of his arm, and then backs away from the tree that is to be cut, holding the branch up in the air like a witchdoctor and squinting at it with his head cocked to one side. Then he stares around the canopy of the forest, as if searching for signs. After a period of inscrutable meditation, he sticks the branch into the ground and pronounces calmly that this is the exact spot where the tip of the tree’s crown will strike on the drop. This is a little like Babe Ruth pointing to the spot in the bleachers where he’ll smack the dinger, and about as difficult to make good on.

The good feller, Steve, atop a dead giant sequoia on the grounds of a monastery in town; although the tree was 80 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter, it was only 47 years old.

Once Steve begins to wedge the bole and then notch the hinge—which, on a big tree, he does using a massive Stihl with a 42” bar (take a moment to visualize this)—it is impossible not to admire the guy’s sheer gumption. But when he cuts the engine on his saw and begins driving wedges into the notch with the head of his field axe, that’s my cue to spring into action. First I coolly raise the visor on my helmet and holler “I’m here for you if you need anything, buddy!” Then I hastily retreat until I’m about a half mile from the tree, perfectly safe and of no possible use to anyone save my bartender, who cannot afford to lose me. Steve’s hammering echoes through the forest, and is followed by the slow-motion sound of the holding wood cracking, the tree crashing through the canopy, and then the resounding thud as it meets the earth—a heavy vibration that I feel in my boots, despite my cowardly distance from the site. Reapproaching, I inevitably find that the tree has been dropped on a dime, with Steve’s stick accurately marking the crown’s position on the ground.

Steve calculating the fall of a 116-foot-tall sugar pine; the author was a half mile away when this picture was taken.

In addition to tackling trees well over 100 feet tall, including dead giants that threaten to destroy buildings were they to become windfall or be felled imprecisely, Steve is capable of making beautiful things with them once they’re on the ground. Using his Alaska mill, a portable frame that guides a chainsaw, allowing its bar to move smoothly while cross-sectioning a length of log, he creates immense slabs, which he later crafts into a variety of lovely things. Our home on the Ranting Hill is graced by a gorgeous bench that Steve fashioned from part of an 85-foot-tall incense cedar that he felled. The bench is six feet long, but the entire piece is crafted from the same slab, so the grain wraps beautifully from the bench’s surface around to its legs.

The author with milled slabs from an eastern Sierra incense cedar.
The beautiful bench Steve fashioned from a cedar slab; note how the grain wraps from the bench’s surface to its legs.

I have been a dedicated environmentalist my whole life, but it is my experience that fellow enviros aren’t always warm to my passion for woodcutting. I understand why, intuitively, my hobby might appear to be the opposite of treehugging, especially to folks who hold the entirely reasonable belief that we humans should quit messing with nature and just let it do its thing. But the problem is that one of the many things nature does extremely well is burn stuff down, which has prompted massive fire suppression efforts in the Sierra—efforts which have led to forests that are unnaturally dense, combustible, and vulnerable to die-off caused by drought stress and beetle kill. When John Muir writes of walking through Sierra forests that are park-like and reminiscent of a cathedral, he’s describing an open, fire-scoured landscape that no longer exists in many parts of this range.

The trees I cut are already dead, and even then I’m careful not to fell all the standing dead trees in an area, leaving the number of habitat snags per acre recommended by wildlife conservation biologists. I also try to cut in a way that mimics the thinning effects of a low-intensity ground fire, removing ladder saplings, jack-strawed ground fuels, and trees that have fallen victim to beetle invasion. In doing so I’m not only trying to make a patch of forest a bit more like it would have been under a natural fire regime, I’m also trying to use the environmentalist tool of the chainsaw to help create a forest that is a little less likely to be incinerated by the kind of catastrophic, stand-replacing canopy fire that can occur in areas where fuel densities have become extreme.

Of course the dead and downed wood I cut will burn, but in our woodstove rather than in the forest, which raises the question of whether heating with wood is an environmentally responsible choice. As with most good questions, the answer to this one is that it depends. In many parts of the world the unsustainable overharvesting of fuelwood is decimating forests, but that is not the case in the eastern Sierra. In many instances wood is burned in stoves that are inefficient; however, we use a remarkably effective appliance that employs a catalytic converter and emits less than four grams of particulate per hour. Even this small amount of particulate means that woodburning is generally not a good choice in urban settings, a concern that doesn’t apply here in this remote area. In some circumstances wood is burned to heat houses that are thermally inefficient, but our passive solar home is so capable of capturing and holding heat that we burn approximately half the wood that would be needed in a conventionally designed home. If one burns sustainably harvested, well-seasoned wood in a properly sized, EPA-certified stove, this form of heating has a lot to recommend it.

Beetle-killed trees in a dense stand of white fir.

But doesn’t the gasoline burned in trucks and chainsaws mean that woodcutting depends upon fossil fuels and thus contributes to CO2 emissions? Yes, but each BTU of fossil fuel consumed to harvest wood produces 25 BTUs of heat, which is an impressive ratio. And, given that the trees I cut are already dead and that the carbon sequestered in them will be released into the atmosphere sooner or later (through controlled burn, wildfire, or rotting), the fact that the wood’s combustion occurs in my stove limits both greenhouse gas emissions and the open release of particulate pollutants, not to mention that it also warms my family.

The real question is not whether burning wood is perfectly carbon neutral and pollution-free, but whether it is better than the alternatives practically available to me. I could heat with oil or gas, whose extraction and combustion are major contributors to the global climate change crisis; or, I could instead choose electricity, knowing that half of the megawatts produced in the U.S. are generated by burning coal, which doesn’t seem much of an improvement. Once active solar is within our financial reach that will be our choice. In the meantime, I’d rather harvest the BTUs I need with my own hands from the beautiful tinderbox of a Sierra forest than to buy them from an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a fracking well in North Dakota, or mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia. 

The author bucking a 105-foot-tall, beetle-killed white fir.

But the greatest pleasure offered by my woodcutting occurs around the hearth, which is the center of our home up on the Ranting Hill. Here my family gathers together to enjoy each other’s company, and to savor that deeply satisfying, bone-warming radiant heat that is unique to wood. It is amazing how often, while adding fuel to the stove, I will recognize an individual log, and remember its small story: not only what species of tree, but precisely where it stood or fell, if it was snowing or shining the day I hauled it, whether it was bucked from the trunk of a tree surgically dropped by that good feller, Steve.

A Zen proverb offers this guidance: “Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” There is something nourishing and elemental in this harvest. And this Sierra wood has warmed me more than twice, for in addition to warming me through work and by fire it has kindled my imagination in a way that no turning of a thermostat dial ever could.