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The Red Oak and the Sawyer

The saying goes that a mighty oak grows from a tiny acorn, but in my case a mighty pile of lumber grew from one mighty oak.

Four years ago in the fall, my dad told me that The Red Oak Tree, the only one on the farm at the time, was about to be taken down by Whippoorwill Creek. The past spring, during a flood, the creek changed course and eroded the bank some 25 feet, right to the base of the oak. Dad was sure that the next flood would fell it and sweep it away.

The idea of losing that beautiful tree down the creek in a flood, one that my dad had passed on his way to grade school in the 1930’s, was untenable. So I hatched a plan and with the help of a massive red head of a man called Dozer, we cut the tree down to salvage it for lumber.

Of course as things go, when cut, predictably the tree fell into the creek. At nearly 4 feet through and 11 feet long, the main trunk of the tree weighed more than 10,000 pounds.

Using an old Army deuce-and-a-half truck, elbow grease, blood and a lot of chain, we managed to get the log out of the creek, leaving all of its limbs in a pile just below where it had once so majestically stood. Funny thing is, all of those limbs there then changed the course of the creek again, shifting it away from where the stump now is, saving the it from the creek. There is a Greek tragedy somewhere in that story.

In the days that it took to drag that tree safely out of reach of the Whippoorwill, it was time for me to return to San Francisco. Finding a sawyer and milling the tree would have to wait for me to return in summer.

But that summer, it became clear that the emerald ash borer had reached our farm in its slow slog from the east coast. Many tall straight green and white ash on the farm were dying as the beetle’s larva bored through their living tissue. So I spent that the next trip felling ash trees to make into flooring for my one day home. Dozer, the guy who had helped me with the oak, couldn’t find anyone to haul the trees to the sawyer that I found, and so another opportunity passed. I returned to San Francisco.

I should pause for a moment to talk about the sawyer that I found, a man named Terry Dudley. Terry is a remarkable man, who was willing to teach me a huge amount about trees and milling. He kindly showed me his home that he had built with his own hands, using flooring he milled himself, each row of boards made from a different hardwood. It is an amazing place.

Harrison's mill

Last year, I called Terry to let him know when I was coming so we could make plans for the trees, only to find that Terry, now my friend, had contracted cancer. He would go on to survive the bout, but couldn’t mill any trees - he was just too weak. Instead on this, my third trip, I cut down a shagbark hickory that had died over the winter and also collected a few big Osage Orange that were too big for fence posts. My pile of logs for milling had grown to nearly 30 as the giant oak slowly aged.

The turning point in this saga came in April this, the fourth year since the Red Oak came down. While visiting the lumber yard for supplies for the tiny house on my forth visit, I had the good fortune to hear about a local sawyer named Harrison Carter. When I called him, he let me know that he was buying a new portable mill and would be available to mill my logs in about a month, give or take the time it took to get the mill ordered and delivered.

‘Oh boy,’ I thought. ‘I can finally get these trees turned into lumber this summer when I am here.’ Ah, what an optimistic fool I am. My last day in Iowa this summer was August 3rd. The new mill arrived two weeks later.

And so.

During the weekend of the lease signing this October, Harrison and I finally broke in his new Wood-mizer mill, creating 2,000 board feet of ash lumber. That’s right, we only got through the ash logs. The hickory, hedge, a mulberry and the giant oak still wait for for round two. For me it was a mad four day dash from the evening I landed in Des Moines to the morning that I left for San Francisco, packed full with milling logs, taking soil samples, signing the lease and breathing a sigh of relief that my dream had finally begun.

To his immense credit, Harrison tried his best to get the Red Oak log cut, a herculean task that we just didn’t have time to complete. But then again, soon I will be the full time.

Imagine how much I’ll be able to get done then.

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