Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 158, October 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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The Year Of…

It might seem an odd time to reminisce, to try to think of the year that was, but here in this part of the country, we live for our couple of months of summer and everything else is simply winding down or gearing up for that short good part of the year. It's time to hunker down, bundle up, and try to survive the arctic conditions until next spring --- the year is effectively over.

This will be the year that I will remember as either "the year of the falling limbs" or "the year of the mosquito." It is tempting to award the honor (or dishonor) to the epic mosquito population this summer. Lots of rain, moderate temperatures, and unrelenting high humidity have provided the perfect breeding and re-breeding environment for the little pests. In past summers, the mosquitos seemed to come and go. Some days they would be prevalent, other days they were no problem at all. This year they have been unrelenting, daily, with no relief. But with the first frost coming soon, they will be gone and forgotten. The limbs, though, will not be forgotten and will surely be missed.

Figure 2 - This limb was laying halfway across the street, so I spent a frantic hour
cleaning up the smaller portions just so cars could get by safely... the rest had to
be done by professionals with big equipment

The first limb to fall was a monster from a gigantic weeping willow tree that has grown, likely for a hundred years or more, right by my driveway. A healthy, full-of-growth limb simply fell, cause unknown. It wasn't a storm or wind that brought it down, but down it came.

Chainsaw in hand, I scurried to clean up what I could. Some of the limb was in the street and I worried about cars trying to get through. But the main part of the limb was so large and so heavy and so precariously perched after it fell that professionals had to remove it.

Figure 3 - Imagine hearing a loud crash, running toward the sound,
rounding a curve in the trail and seeing this... the barn I worked so hard to build!
Next was a limb from an otherwise perfectly healthy and massive elm growing next to my new barn. It was a still, warm, humid afternoon. I had been working hard outside that day, and was taking a break sitting outside my shop sipping an iced tea, swatting away mosquitos, when I heard the rending crash. I ran back toward the barn, and the first sight caused my heart to skip a beat. The closer I got, the worse it looked. But, in the end, it turned out okay. The barn was relatively unscathed and my zero-turn mower, parked outside the barn, was missed by inches. Once again, the limb broke and fell partially, remaining precariously and dangerously perched. Professionals were again needed to take it down safely. With the talent and abilities of professional woodsmen and fearlessness of professional mountain climbers with outstanding chainsaw skills, they took the limb down without inflicting further damage and as experts in "tree stuff," they declared the elm otherwise healthy. As to why the limb would fall in the first place, they simply shrugged and said, "Stuff happens." Well, that's close to what they said.

With both these two "big limb" events, I could only afford, on a time and materials basis, to hire the pros to get the limbs down to ground level safely. Chopping up those limbs into smaller chunks and cleaning up was something I had to do. The big willow limb took me two full days to cut into manageable size chunks and move and stack them ready for the log splitter. I ran the smaller stuff through the chipper/shredder, and that took another two days. Then I spent a little extra time cleaning up the ground around, raking it smooth, replanting some grass, and trying to make things look as if "nothing had ever happened."

The big elm limb took even longer to clean up. Because there are a lot of other trees and a lot of undergrowth around my barn, and because my "time and materials" professionals left limb parts pretty much where they fell, it was difficult and time consuming to saw everything into "fireplace-size" chunks. Then there were some pieces that were too big to move by hand. I used a peavey to roll the pieces to the log splitter.

My back was still aching and I was still trying to "catch up" on other projects, when just two weeks later, another large limb fell from the big willow. I didn't even know it had fallen until I got a text from my neighbor, "As soon as I get home I will help you clean up that big limb that fell."

Figure 4 - At its thickest point, this limb was about 10" in diameter, but it was a clean break,
all the way down, lying on the ground. A simple clean-up, but time-consuming.
At first I thought it was an old text from before, but sure enough, another limb had fallen. This one was not as big and it fell completely, and best of all, it wasn't in the street, so I was able to saw it up with my chainsaw and clean up the mess myself. Still, another day was spent on largely unproductive work. Then, just two days later, a tremendous limb fell from an oak tree on my neighbor's property, narrowly missing the roof of his house. I offered to help him clean it up, but it is in an area of his property that he doesn't use, so I think he is going to leave it until winter when the mosquitos will be gone and the work will be cooler.

There have been numerous smaller limbs that fell, too. A neighbor to the south lost a couple, my neighbor to the north lost more. He also lost an entire tree in a wind storm. It fell across his driveway so there was no waiting until the mosquitos were gone to clean that up… it had to be done right away.

There are a lot of theories as to why so many seemingly healthy limbs decided to give up and fall away from trees this year. The only theory to which I am even partially subscribing is that the abundant spring rains fostered more leaf growth than the trees could handle, and the continuing intermittent rains and high humidity simply compounded the problem. Lots of large, heavy, wet leaves were simply more than many of the trees could hold. Who knows? Perhaps there were so many mosquitos sitting on the limbs that their weight brought them down. Ha!

One thing, though, is for sure… The sun and shade patterns have changed, and that will be the ongoing reminder that this was "the year of the falling limbs." In the late afternoon, the shady spot where I sit in front of my woodworking shop is not as shady as it was. And the barn, once a cool refuge even on the warmest of days, is now much warmer. In fact, on one side of the barn I had planted grass seed advertised to contain "deep shade" varieties. I had to replant that section with a "sun/shade" mixture of grass seed.

In a short "year" where sub-zero temps and abundant snow constitute the majority of days, this summer shortened by limb clean-up will be long remembered.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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