You’ve heard me say before that I was born with a chainsaw in my hands. I’m using that “third appendage” right now out in our post-sugarin’, pre-bug woods workin’ up a few yellow birch trees into next year’s firewood.
That’s just a “warmup” for things to come though: A new sap storage building is in the plans down at the sugarhouse and we’ll be providing our own materials from start to finish. We’ll need a few big hemlock and spruce trees to be sawed into 12 by 12 posts and beams rugged enough to support 20 tons of sap next spring. That’ll take some big trees. Reminds me of the time I trailered a load of logs over to our neighbor Carroll Badger’s sawmill. I pointed toward one with a nine-inch diameter on the top end and told Carroll that I wanted it sawed into an eight by eight.
“Askin’ an awful lot a’that air aren’t’cha Burr?” What he meant, of course, is that after you “square up” a 9-inch log by taking the slabs off, you certainly can’t end up with an eight by eight. I’ll never forget that quick lesson in common sense and will be more savvy this year when my brother Tick cranks out our timbers with his “Wood Miser” sawmill.
I learned lots over the years hauling logs into the Badger mill and fresh white lumber away from it but the woods was a different story. Some things came as easy as learning to talk or rolling off a log, like knowing the kinds of trees, and feeling a deep love for the woods, but other things required a skilled teacher.
Enter Grandpa Morse.
Sidney Morse was born with a good sharp ax and a yen to use it. He and I started going to the woods when I was a mere “shoot.” Yes, I knew my trees, but he taught me their quirks and what they could best be made into, using words like “tension wood” and “bully spruce.” To this day, spruce is my favorite tree because of a long ago stop at the base of one; we were out in the July woods when Grandpa hesitated and got out his pocket knife.
“See that up there, Burr?” he said. I looked up as Grandpa detached a pimply blob from the spruce and proceeded to pare off the ugly part with his knife.
“Here, pop that into your mouth,” he said, and unquestioning, I did. At first, it was pungent like a mouthful of sawdust, but as I chewed it became the most pleasant gum I’d ever had. That chunk of spruce gum stayed with me for hours, and to this day I love spruce trees most of all, from the strong timbers they make right down to the flavor of an occasional chew.
In spite of the spruce tree’s superior qualities, the rascals can also “turn” on you. I found that out one day when my father Harry, Grandpa Morse, and I were up in the woods north of here logging. We were in an area where spruces grow tall and straight, good “sticks” as Grandpa would say. I was doing the “felling” with the chainsaw, my dad was on the tractor skidding, and Grandpa, ax in hand, acted as general overseer. I’ve felled a lot of trees in my time so I know something about turning them in certain directions and avoiding disasters. I also know too well that accidents can happen as quickly as the blink of an eye or a puff of air, and it was the latter that almost cost my father his life that day long ago.
One particular spruce went the wrong way when I made the final cut and lodged in another one. Due to the angle of its lean and the firm way it lodged, the three of us agreed that it would “stay put” and started working on other trees close by. I had just dropped a big one and was limbing it when, even above the chainsaw’s high-pitched whine, I heard the most blood-curdling scream I’ve ever heard in my life. I looked up and that “lodged” spruce was heading right for my dad on the tractor! Things went into stop time like in a picture. Grandpa, hands cupped like a megaphone, screaming at the top of his lungs. Dad, unsuspecting human “bull’s eye.” Me, a horrified and helpless boy a distance away. At the last minute, Dad performed the most wonderful acrobatic miracle: he did a backward somersault and landed behind the tractor just as the tree made a final “whoosh,” crushing the seat, fenders and steering wheel. After the “dust settled,” the three of us, accomplices in stupidity, surmised that on that perfectly calm day, a breeze way up high had caught the spruce’s “sail-like” top and worked it loose from the other tree.
As a maple sugarmaker and all-around woodsman, I’ve learned that trees are wonderful gifts and are there for our use. Like everything else from the earth, however, the gift brings responsibilities: respect ‘em but watch your back because they’ll turn on you. We’ll be careful out there cutting logs this summer because we want to be around for more years of sugarin’, logging, or maybe just stopping in a cool shaded spot for an occasional chew.
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.
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