Against the Grain: The Tale of a Fallen Maple

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Just after dawn on the beginning of a humid day, the copse below my hilltop home appeared out of order — something just not right. I crunched about 100 yards down my gravel driveway to investigate. The large maple, one of the bigger trees on my property, had toppled over, pulling up its roots when it fell.

We hadn’t had a recent windstorm so I couldn’t help but think that the tree had given up. I don’t normally anthropomorphize plants, but it’s hard not to when you know these life forms have been standing resolutely for over a century. In the middle of the night, did this giant tree mutter, “Oh, the hell with it. I’m going to lie down,” like an old man before he clicks off the TV and trudges to bed? Of course not. It fell over dead. It had been very wet and other trees had fallen in my neighborhood.

You might think the fallen tree was a problem for me. It wasn’t. When it fell, it didn’t block my driveway, nor did it get hung up and poise menacingly over my head. Its choice of landings was ideal — directly into an open field, completely down, with access on all sides. I was ecstatic. It was almost as if the tree was presenting its body to me. “Here — you might be able to use this.”

A year or so ago, I started milling wood on my property. I’ve been an amateur woodworker for a long time and visited many lumberyards searching for straight and flat boards. Most retail wood in our region is soft — mostly pine. Hardwood, like maple, or oak, or cherry is more difficult to find and much more expensive. I’ve always found working with hardwood bought from a lumberyard a little frightening — a small mistake might be enormously expensive.

When I moved from the city to my small farm seven years ago, I found several standing hardwoods that were dead (many likely from the ash borer beetle) and others recently fallen but not yet rotted. The free hardwood on my property was a gift I hadn’t anticipated. I just needed to turn the trunks into boards.

I bought an Alaskan sawmill. Its aluminum frame guided my chainsaw through the wood. Though this was rewarding, it was painfully slow and heavy. I started watching videos showing bigger sawmills slicing through huge trees to create perfect piles of lumber. I felt like a three-​year-​old who had to watch the video over and over. I wanted this. Badly.

So, I bought a band sawmill. I don’t buy expensive cars or boats or other toys. The sawmill was the most luxurious toy I’ve ever purchased. The machine included hydraulic lifts capable of moving enormous trunks into position to allow the blade to slice through the hardwood with precision and ease. Most people who buy sawmills intend to start a business selling lumber. I didn’t.

I look at trees much differently now. As I walk or drive, a long, large, straight trunk will stop me — I imagine the marvelous wood below. I visited the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx two summers back. Though the variety of plants was enormous, some spectacular in color and form, my most vivid memory was the long, straight, clean trunks of the sugar gum trees. As I lusted at them, I’ve wondered if they knew I was looking at them this way. Do they fear my gaze as I might fear that of a lion or alligator?

Stop for a moment and look around for wood — in kitchen cabinets, a coffee table, crown molding, the frame around your front door, a pencil. Wood is perhaps the most common substance in a home. Is this a source of pride for trees? Probably not. Do trees have a caste system, with mahogany looking down on pine? I could go on, but back to my fallen maple.

The trunk was long and wide, though not perfectly straight. I trimmed off the branches and dragged them to a nearby brush pile. Cutting up a large tree, you gain an appreciation of just how many branches are needed to supply the organism. After cutting 10-​foot lengths of the main trunk, I “skidded” them (using a log skidder hooked up to my tractor — er…yes, another toy) to my band sawmill. Over a few days, I sliced the maple’s core into the widest boards I’ve cut to date, some nearly 20 inches wide. I was ecstatic. As I was doing this work, other large trees surrounded me. I wondered if they viewed my effort as brutal.

I thought I might make a video of my milling the maple for my grandson but forgot — I was just too excited doing the work. The boards now are stacked precisely an inch apart on “stickers” of wood and covered with plywood and roofing paper to allow them the time to dry true and straight. In a year or so, I will fashion them into something — boxes, trays, or furniture, which I hope will be received fondly by friends, relatives and my wife. I pay more attention now to finished wood noting now how rarely you find furniture tops or sides that are single boards. Almost always, if you look hard enough, you’ll see some grain interruption and then, the glue line jumps out.

I walk the woods on my property often, especially in winter when underbrush is dormant, and the path a bit easier. Large trunks of trees that fell years ago are in various stages of decomposition, some crumbling as I step on them. My mind wanders on these walks and recently it stumbled into the second law of thermodynamics. Oversimplified, the law states that systems (like a farm, or an adolescent’s bedroom) tend to naturally gain disorder unless some work is done. So when the maple fell, it was doing what came naturally. I know that the boards I milled and the items I make from those boards will one day decompose into dust too. So, I’ve only delayed things a little. In the end, the second law of thermodynamics will rule. But, it gives me great pleasure to push back a little.

David Macpherson

David Macpherson is a recently retired physician living in Upper Burrell, Pennsylvania.

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