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When a Giant Falls

The chainsaw burred, flinging sawdust behind itself as it chewed through the wood of the dead ash tree. Nearly 70 feet tall and 150 years old, the tree had been a giant among its peers. I watched the cut continuously as I ran the saw, looking for any sign of movement. I had already sliced out a wedge to help keep it from falling in an unexpected direction, but when dealing with that massive a tree, mistakes are bad and bad mistakes can be fatal.

In this area of the world, we have many beautiful trees

As I watched, the gap in the cut widened almost imperceptibly. I pulled the saw out and stepped back: the tree didn't move. Again, I carefully sawed, and within moments, felt a slight movement, the tree starting to lean the way I wanted it to fall. Suddenly, a sharp crack sounded. I shut off the saw and skittered away, a second crack and the inevitability of gravity took over. The fall picked up speed. The familiar whoosh of a tree coming down started to sound.

You sometimes see it on tv, a tree being felled in the woods. But as impressive as it is on screen, it does not come close to conveying how much force is expelled in the moment. The ground literally shakes, branches explode from compressive force and the other trees thrash and quiver as the giant's fall passes them--if they are lucky--or are shattered themselves if they are not. This was a good fall, no other trees were injured and the bole held together. I had added another log to the number that we could mill for our new project.

A log to be milled into lumber

As you may have heard, we are on the move here at Whippoorwill Creek Farm, planning, and soon building, a commercial kitchen that we are hoping will begin the process of creating a community around our farm.

The building will be a pole barn style with a metal roof, but neither Beth nor I like the steel siding that normally comes with the package. I wanted to side the new structure with wood, but the price of wood these days is astronomical.

Then it happened. We had a fairly large wind storm and a giant cottonwood tree on the neighbor's land came crashing to the ground. It was a truly huge, 4 feet in diameter at the base, 13 feet around and nearly 120 feet tall. I looked at the tree and immediately the wheels began to turn in my head; the one tree was big enough that we might be able to side our entire building with it. It had fallen partially into the field, so our neighbor would have to farm around it or bring in a dozer to push it out of the field.

I drove down to visit with them and offered another option--I would cut it up and haul it away for them. Luckily, they were happy to have me do it, so I called a friend who owns a portable mill and set up a day next week to begin milling the wood into board and baton siding. Ten inch wide boards, one inch thick with three inch wide batons covering the joints. It will be put up green (undried), drying in place as the summer progresses.

With that, I began to see the possibility of using wood from around the farm in our new building--both saving money and adding the value of a story to our new kitchen.

I truly love wood and since we have a mill coming, I went a little crazy collecting other trees so we can have extra wood already milled on the farm for projects like our pending kitchen.

I am happy to report I now have several nice ash trees (killed by the emerald ash borer), a couple of walnuts, a 200 year old shagbark hickory, some osage orange, a few black locust, a black cherry, a Norway spruce, white pines, two cedars and some oaks that died years ago. But I am perhaps most excited about a Kentucky coffee tree that I discovered on the far north east corner of the farm.

All of these trees (apart from the osage orange, which regrow when cut), were already dead, some standing and some fallen (no living trees died for this project!). We also always try to leave some standing dead trees for wildlife habitat, but having a mill available is not a regular occurrence, so I cut more trees down than we normally would to take advantage of the opportunity.

Our farm is covered with forest; it is the nature of our part of the state. Unfortunately, most of the best trees--oaks, hickories, walnuts and maples--were harvested by my great grandfather, Pete Hogeland, and he never bothered to replant anything, leaving our farm largely barren of these apex trees. My grandfather, Lloyd, planted some walnut trees late in his life, trees now just beginning to mature.

But since then it has been up to my sister Andrea, Beth and I to diversify and improve our forests with the oaks, hickories and hard maples that once were the dominant species hereabouts. We won't live to see these trees come to their mature splendor, but I hope that one day our grandchildren may be able enjoy a renewed woodlot. Maybe they will also be able harvest a tree or two; trees that lived and grew because we took only what we needed and replaced what we took tenfold.

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