This past summer, in the midst of a midnight thunderstorm, a tree fell on our house.The tree didn’t so much fall as it slumped over, as if it had grown weary of holding itself upright. The ancient ash tried to minimize the damage to itself by using our house to cushion its fall.
The next morning, I laddered up to the roof to inspect the damage. My wife was worried — and for good reason. The sight of a middle-aged guy strolling around a rooftop with a roaring chainsaw in his paws is enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most hardened emergency room physician.
I was pleased to discover that the damage to our roof was limited to only a few scuffed shingles. But I was displeased at the prospect of turning that majestic old ash tree into cordwood.
Cutting up a leaning tree is a study in physics. You learn to estimate the path a falling branch might take and to position yourself accordingly. An incorrect guess can result in some painful lessons.
You also discover that the tree has spent vast amounts of time patiently storing up large amounts of mass. Gravity makes you acutely aware of this when your chainsaw chews through a suspended branch that’s as thick as your waist. A thudding “whump” that can be felt through your feet makes you glad your positioning estimations were correct.
The chainsaw and I gradually reduced the mossy trunk into splittable sections. It looked as though my lawn was littered with dozens of stunted beer kegs.
I flipped over the bottom-most section and counted its rings. I found 130, which brought home an undeniable fact: That tree had been planted by my great-grandfather Charley Sveen.
Charley was born in Norway and immigrated to Dakota Territory as a young man. In 1887, he homesteaded the farm where my wife and I now live. After trekking for miles and miles across the barren prairie, Charley, for some reason, chose this particular site to begin his new life.
“Good enough,” he must have thought. “I’ll settle for this.” Maybe this is another reason why pioneers came to be known as “settlers.”
Charley built a house and planted a grove, which included the ash tree that recently took a dive. It’s sad to think that a person can only get a century and a quarter out of a tree nowadays. They just don’t make things like they used to.
My grandpa Nelson married Charley’s daughter Elida. Grandpa later purchased his father-in-law’s farm, so my dad and his siblings grew up on this place.
Dad often spoke of how cold and drafty Charley’s old house had been. On subzero winter mornings, the bucket of water that sat beside their cookstove would sometimes be sheened with a skin of ice. I think this was Dad’s way of telling us kids that we had it good, as the interior of our house always remained well above freezing.
Dad said they burned coal in their cookstove when they could afford it. Corn cobs, dried cow pies, and anything else that would burn were fed to the stove when coal was beyond their budgetary means. If fuel ran short, Dad and his brothers would search the grove for a deceased tree. The tree would be cut down and dragged onto the farmstead with a team of horses. A two-man bucksaw would reduce the tree into splittable chunks.
It took two guys, a team of horses, and a river of blood, sweat, and tears to process the same amount of firewood as I probably did with my chainsaw and a log splitter.
By the time I was born, some things had changed. My parents still used a wood-burning cookstove, albeit one that had a stovetop and an oven fired with LP (liquefied petroleum) gas. I got the feeling Dad thought the addition of the LP option was an effete affectation.
When I was a youngster, the approach of autumn meant scrounging up a supply of firewood for the coming winter. This began with harvesting dead trees from our farm’s grove. We kids were tasked with gathering small branches that could be used for kindling. Nothing was wasted on our farm.
On a crisp fall morning, my uncle Coke would drive his Farmall H onto our farmstead. He had bolted a buzz saw onto the tractor, transforming it into a scary conglomeration of iron brackets, spinning shafts, and whizzing belts. The rig’s most prominent feature was the menacing, unshielded circular saw blade that sat out front. My siblings and I were deeply fascinated with this medieval-looking device.
We would watch, enraptured, as Dad and Coke muscled logs up onto the buzz saw’s cradle. A singing, squealing sound filled the air whenever the insatiable saw blade sank its curved steel teeth into a log. It was as if the tree, which had been dead for some time, were crying out in postmortem agony.
While my siblings and I superintended from a safe distance, Coke and Dad turned a small pile of logs into a large stack of firewood. The spectacle of the men working in such close proximity to such an obvious hazard was thrilling. We kids wanted it to continue, so we offered Coke and Dad some of the small branches we had gathered. The twigs could have easily been broken up by hand, but the men obliged us. The saw blade emitted a quick, sharp “ying” as it bit through the sticks.
Because of a midsummer thunderstorm, there’s now a stack of cordwood sitting near our house. Once it’s properly seasoned, I’ll haul the firewood down into our basement and feed it to our high-efficiency woodstove. We have a central heating system, but for some reason depending on our LP furnace strikes me as an effete affectation.
And as I watch the flames flicker, I’ll give Charley a silent thanks for planting that tree in such a convenient site.
Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, live on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. They have two grown sons. He enjoys gardening, traveling, and putting around on his 1949 John Deere A. Jerry’s new book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.