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Letter From Skunk Hollow: A bad storm, a good neighbor and a firewood bonus

Photo by Sallie Anderson
In two hours, give or take, Brian was packing up his saw and heading back home. In Minneapolis, I might have still been phoning around to hire help.

I dawdled my way through Saturday morning, I admit, luxuriating in that fresh, cool clarity that trails a potent summer storm like the howler that rolled over our region last Friday night, sweeping the climate clean.

Sallie and I were getting ready for two days of sailing on Lake Pepin, and over breakfast she mentioned that the wind woke her at 2 a.m. The lightning was so close and frequent that she read for a while by the flashes through our bedroom skylight. Had I even noticed the gale?

Of course not. I have the enviable though sometimes annoying gift of being able to sleep unawares through storms that sound like the proverbial freight train rolling by the house.

Even more luckily, in sailing season, I sleep soundly through the thunder and horns of actual freight trains passing within a block of our slip at Pepin Marina, a scone’s throw (sorry) across the tracks from the Harbor View Café.

As I finished loading the car, I thought to check the straw-bale garden to see if high winds had done any harm. But everything remained staked and tied and I made a mental note that a meal centered on Swiss chard, Japanese eggplant and two kinds of basil could be on the menu when we got back.

We buckled up and ran through the departure checklist, tick tick tick, as I started the engine, turned the car around … and saw for the first time the huge oak tree lying shattered in our path.

Bigger around than I am, and formerly more than 50 feet tall, it lay but a few strides beyond the garden –  invisible until now.

“Um … Sallie?”

“What? What? Oh my god!

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Sallie surveyed the fallen tree and concluded we wouldn’t be going sailing for a while.

The joys of the semi-rural life

When the question “What do you miss about city life?” comes up, my answer is easy and always the same: Walking seven blocks for an iced coffee, dinner fixings, a library book.

But sometimes the question instead is, “What do you like about living in the woods?” And there I am likely to be at a loss because the truthful answer is: Pretty much everything. Seriously.

Nearly every aspect of our semi-rural life is different in some fundamental way, mostly though not always for the better.

It’s not so much that life is simpler (though usually it is) or easier (fairly often it is not). It’s just more interesting, year in and year out, and also instructive, in ways well illustrated by Saturday’s tree across the driveway.

Were I were still living in southwest Minneapolis – where I experienced a few tree-felling windstorms over the years – the blockage would have been, in some ways, less of an obstacle. I could walk to the store, bike or bus to work, until somebody came and cleared it.

But who would that somebody be? Was this the city’s problem to solve, or mine? How do you find the proper tradespeople for this job? How do you reach them on the weekend? How long will it take? How much should it cost? And so forth.

In Skunk Hollow, the big question for me was: What shape was the chainsaw in when I put it up last fall? And for Sallie: Can we find a neighbor to come over with a second saw?

A neighbor with a chainsaw

Fifteen minutes later, Brian was rolling up the driveway on his ATV with an 18-inch Stihl borrowed from his brother-in-law Jon.

Jon and his wife, Kim, are our next-door neighbors to the north. Brian and his wife Kelli, who is Kim’s sister, live one house beyond them. Despite the proximity and all the comings and goings we rarely see one another, even at a distance, and on the street in Hudson or Stillwater, Brian and I might have passed as strangers: he hadn’t seen me in my beard, and I hadn’t seen him since he took to shaving his head.

Brian is a cheerful, energetic guy by nature and in a flash he was climbing around in the branches as I surveyed the wreckage along the ground.

Exploring together, we found that what had fallen was a limb amounting to the second trunk of an oak tree measuring about 30 inches thick toward the base. Starting about 10 feet up, it had been ripped down and away almost to the root, twisting as it fell.

Already I was counting the complications.

It’s more than possible to get killed doing this kind of work – there was a notable, sad example hereabouts a few years ago – and impossible, at least to someone of my thin experience, to anticipate all the ways it can go suddenly wrong.

So as we discussed alternative approaches, I was equally impressed by (a) the force required to tear so much timber loose, and (b) the residual force that might still be stored in its incomplete twists and splits, waiting to be set free by a pair of amateur loggers.

Then there were the portions suspended high in the air by other trees, from a stately birch to clumps of springy buckthorn.

An entirely pleasant task

As Brian prepared his saw, I topped our 16-incher up with gas and bar oil and pulled the cord. It started right up, but when I put it to wood it produced a trickle of fine sawdust instead of the spray of fat chips that tell you your cutters are sharp.

Happily, I had two backups still in their bags from last fall’s sharpening service.

I cut a few big limbs to take weight off the trunk, then started on a split in the main section. Without the usual warning tremor, the wood shifted and trapped the bar. Damn damn damn.

But Brian’s saw was humming now, also with a new chain, and I backed him up here and there with wedges and a peavey. Our goal was only to get the driveway clear, not to cut the stuff to splitting length, and though the work was sweaty and dirty it was also entirely pleasant.

Photo by Sallie Anderson
Setting wedges in a cut.

Brian plays in rock bands, among many other pursuits, and when the saws were still our conversation ranged all over, from classic Fender guitars and basses, to their restoration with automotive finishes, to sailing and fishing and home brewing and the whiskeys of Islay, the continuously variable transmission, how he and Kelli are driving two new subcompacts for car payments less than what they’d been spending on gas for two SUVs.

At one point I was amused to note that Brian, the musician, wore hearing protection while he was on the saw, while Ron, the writer, wore safety glasses. Together, I suppose, we added up to one safety-conscious chainsaw operator.

But no fingers were lost nor blood spilled in the course of our adventure, and in two hours, give or take, Brian was packing up his saw and heading back home. Two hours after that, including a break for lunch, Sallie and I were at the slip and getting ready to sail into the sunset.

In Minneapolis, I might have still been phoning around to hire help.

More work to come

The bucking and splitting work remains, of course, but it can wait.

Brian brought me Jon’s offer to lend his hydraulic splitter, should I tire of the old-fashioned approach with wedge and maul.

I mentioned to Brian that I’d been meaning to call Jon about another fallen oak near our property line, to see if it was mine to cut up; he laughed and said Jon had been wondering the same thing. So there’s likely another woodcutting project in store for two or all three of us, sharing in the proceeds.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Is this stain caused by iron deposits?

Meanwhile, I got curious about a strange, blue-black stain I noticed Wednesday in the place where our oak had split apart.

It reminded me of the blue stain visited on pines in the West by beetle-born fungus. But in oak trees, I gather, it’s typically a result of iron deposits, often from some kind of hardware placed in a growing tree. Further (and cautious) investigation with a chainsaw may solve that mystery. Or not.

As for the home heating dividend of Saturday’s windfall, I found an online calculator, took some quick measurements and derived an estimate in the vicinity of 92 cubic feet, or about the typical volume of firewood in a full cord!

Not a bad payoff – and it carries, too, the prospect of pleasantly reliving Saturday’s neighborly adventure in country living, fire by fire, through the cold months ahead.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/24/2015 - 02:16 pm.

    $75 an hour (plus friends roots growth)

    “It’s not so much that life is simpler (though usually it is) or easier (fairly often it is not). It’s just more interesting, year in and year out, and also instructive, in ways well illustrated by Saturday’s tree across the driveway.”

    I grew up in Minneapolis but “made it out to the country” a long time ago. Can’t count the number of times I’ve been doing one of the (myriad) kind of things you’re talking about and turned to whoever I’ve been doing them with and said, “Well… You just can’t do this kind of thing in Los Angeles.”

    In the “more interesting year in and out” department, my friend, Rod, and I were talking the other day about how we’ve each (finally) figured out how to “run our houses.” It’s been hot and humid lately, so in this case we were talking about keeping the house cool without air conditioning.

    I told him about how, a couple years ago, I found an old thermometer laying around and, just for the heck of it, took it downstairs and set it on top of the (stack) washer/dryer that sits about three feet from the wood stove that heats my place in the winter, and how, out of curiosity, I got to checking it on cold nights, and then checking the temp in the bedroom just across the hall (where the pillows on the bed are about 12 feet from the wood stove), and then checking the thermometer upstairs in the living area, and how “the stats” always boggle my mind:

    Temp outside = 10 or 15 below;

    Temp on top of the dryer = 100 to 105;

    Temp in the bedroom, 10 or 12 feet from the stove = 66 to 68;

    Temp upstairs = 72 on the nose.

    And all that happening in a 1,200 square-foot house with no fans or duct work, just an open staircase.

    And when it comes to the “interesting factor,” even though I’m right there, and the person “running the house,” my reaction to that is almost always, “Wow. How is that POSSible? How does that work!?”

    The key to the bedroom is however open the door is: A “four finger” gap usually translates to 68 degrees, while two to three will cool it down to 66 or 67 (depending on a person’s preferred sleep number). After (or before) that it’s the mix of wood in the stove, and where the stove’s air flow is set.

    I’ve got a pretty good handle on those things, but how it all blends together to produce that “perfect” 72 degrees upstairs (when it’s cold as it gets outside) is still way beyond me. All I know is there is nothing like wood heat on a cold night, and that the wood stove is one of the most fantastic machines ever invented: affordable; long lasting; no breakdowns; always starts; just two or three moving parts; always works as advertised; automatic shut-off; simple, non-life threatening waste storage and disposal; and, no small thing, makes it possible to have a fire hot enough to just about melt glass burning in the middle of the place you live.

    And, as with that big branch across the road, every once in a while a friend calls to say, “Hey… Wanna give me a hand fixing my main sewer pipe? It’s busted.”

    “Sure. Nothing I’d rather do on the hottest day of the year.”

    The spot we needed to dig and work was, of course, shadeless and sun-blasted, but we got it done before dark without dying, and all was well again.

    And did I mention the way the well has of freezing every once in while and how it’s no big deal because we know the drill (and always have a gallon or two of water on hand to make sure we have coffee while we wait for it to thaw after we’ve climbed down into the well and switched on the heater we SHOULD have before the arctic blast sneaked up on us but forgot to again)?

    Just a few items from the long list of things you just can’t experience in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or anyplace else the thermostat’s right over there on the wall and the water’s (almost) always on, which your article reminded me of:

    ” ‘What do you like about living in the woods?’ And there I am likely to be at a loss because the truthful answer is: Pretty much everything. Seriously.”

    Seriously, is right.

    Or, as John Prine put it:

    She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol
    And I was just a soldier on my way to Montreal
    Well she pressed her chest against me
    About the time the juke box broke
    Yeah, she gave me a peck on the back of the neck
    And these are the words she spoke

    Blow up your TV – throw away your paper
    Move to the country, build you a home
    Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
    Try an find Jesus on your own

    And speaking of little gardens, your articles, and things in the “You never know what might happen” category, Ward Johnson’s comment about what the people at are doing actually got me to doing a couple hours of weeding and clearing a nice little spot to plant the two packs of free seeds they’re offering that I ordered.

    What a great “non-profit business model”! Do it, everyone! It’s easy as can be and only takes five minutes. If we all pitch in (the seeds will grow anywhere there’s dirt and a little sun) we could all help Minnesota win the “Best State To Be A Pollinator” award (which would go well with our recent Best State for Business and Best State to Raise Kids awards).

    That would just leave the “Worst Place In the World To Try To Open A Copper-nickel Mine” award which may be a little tougher to win, but well worth the effort, I’d say.

    Anyway… I did a quick Craigslist firewood check, and according to what seems to be about the average price (“up north”), you and your neighbor’s work translates to somewhere around $75 per hour (or $37.50 each). You still have to cut and split it of course, but that’ll be even more fun, I’m sure. Especially if all three of you get together on that “property line” tree and the few others you’ll find laying around in the brush when the leaves fall, no doubt.


    “4x4x8 16 inch split dry oak firewood – $150”

    • Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 07/24/2015 - 03:43 pm.

      I enjoyed reading your comment…

      …as much as I enjoyed reading Ron’s piece. Even thought I’m a city girl through and through.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/24/2015 - 04:18 pm.

    Learn Before You Burn

    As it turns out, I just finished work on a site with tips on burning firewood:–outdoor-air/learn-before-you-burn.html

  3. Submitted by Andrew Jenks on 07/25/2015 - 01:18 pm.

    Enjoyed your article

    Have fun with the firewood.

    The blue stain is most likely blue staining fungus (sapsstain). Looks like you oak had some previous decay and or breaks/splits prior to your driveway mess.

    See article about decay and stains.
    “Causes and Control of Wood Decay, Degradation & Stain”. It seems the blue is only on the sapwood.

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