It was about an hour before sunset when I got to the park entrance, though the hills and the trees made it look even later, like the light would be gone in half that time.
It was quiet, just a few birds and the sound of water running through the creek.
As expected, my cellphone reception had gone from three vigorous bars just a couple of hundred yards up the road to one very weak bar. Texts weren’t coming in. Texts weren’t going out. And I was standing in a parking lot, waiting for a man I’d never met, who told me he’d be bringing a knife, an ax and a saw.
How did we get here?
Ideas for “One Month at a Time” come from all sorts of places. Generally, the topics are things I’m interested in. They’re always subjects I know very little about, even if it seems like I probably should, like everybody should.
I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I’m not crazy about the woods and have a love/hate relationship with the quiet country neighborhood where I live.
Seven years ago, I traded in the conveniences of city living for a small house on two-thirds of an acre near Elkview.
I love all the space and privacy but hate the yard work. Because the property is on the side of a hill, it can take up to six hours to cut with a push mower if I let the grass get a little ahead of me.
With all the rain we’ve been having, the grass has stayed ahead of me.
The land came with a bunch of trees, including two apple trees, two pear trees and a peach tree that produces the sweetest, juiciest peaches I’ve ever tasted.
On a good year, I get a solid six peaches from that tree — fewer if the deer get to them first.
One day, I hope to make a pie.
During the derecho in 2012, the wind knocked one of the apple trees down. It took all summer for me to slowly saw and hack that thing into firewood, and I’ve had nothing but trouble trying to replace it.
None of the trees I plant thrive. They just wither into sad sticks poking out of the earth.
Meanwhile, I worry about the five sweet gum trees on the property, which rain twigs and branches every time a good breeze passes through the valley.
They could probably use a good pruning, but I don’t know where to start.
Worst of all is an old tree out back that’s been dead for at least two years. I don’t know what kind of tree it was. It never bore fruit, nuts or flowers, which meant I cared nothing about it — until it died.
In death, I have come to care very much about that tree, because it sheds heavy branches and makes me wonder if it’s just going to come crashing down on me one of these times while I’m cutting grass.
I don’t even know what killed the tree. Was it old age, bugs or some weird wood disease? Should I blame squirrels, moles or Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick?
Something should be done
The most recommended thing would be to hire skilled professionals with power tools and good insurance. That would be safer, but people like that prefer to be paid in cash.
The other obvious thing would be to do the work myself, but I have no idea what I’m doing. Sure, YouTube has some great do-it-yourself videos. I used one of them to get through replacing the headlight on a 2011 Chevy Impala a couple of years ago.
I was proud of myself. I got the job done in a little over three hours, which included two trips to the auto parts store and lots of anguished swearing.
The headlight worked fine, but I knew if I screwed up the repair, I could have swallowed my pride and taken the car to a garage (during the day) and hired a licensed, experienced mechanic to make things right.
If I made a mistake pruning a tree or even taking one down — well, the stakes seemed a lot higher.
This month, with autumn underway and the leaves falling, I’m going to try to learn about having trees, like how to take better care of them, and maybe what it really takes to take one out.
The first person I got in contact with was Joe Adkins. Joe runs the Mountaineer Institute for Self-Reliance in Montgomery, which teaches classes on self-sufficiency and survival.
Joe, a former combat medic and a Certified Sigma III Survival Instructor, told me that there was a doomsday prepper element to what they taught, but it was really less about getting ready for the impending zombie apocalypse and more about being prepared for realistic disruptions of services and supply lines.
These tend to happen during natural disasters like freak windstorms and floods but could also happen because of industrial accidents or a terrorist attack.
“We also teach stuff that you can use when you go camping that adds to experiencing the great outdoors,” he said.
Things like knowing how to build and start a fire without using matches or a lighter, which sounded cool to me. I’ve been known to use the fireplace fire-starters to get the briquettes in my barbecue grill to catch.
Joe told me, “All we’re really doing is bringing back the knowledge that our grandparents and great-grandparents used. We need to keep the knowledge in circulation, so it doesn’t die out.”
Joe met with me at the entrance to Kanawha State Forest to show me about using axes, saws and knives for cutting wood. I hadn’t expected to get much out of it. I’ve carried a Swiss Army knife off and on since I was a teenager. I’ve used pruning saws to cut back the thicket of bamboo crowded around the woodshed on my property, but I didn’t know much about how to swing an ax.
I own an ax but hate using it.
First, we talked about safety.
“You can’t rush through things,” he said, and then told me everybody is guilty of that at one time or another. “I’ve done that, too. I’ve rushed through a safety demonstration on knives and cut my finger.”
Joe showed me two different grips for holding a knife. He called one the “heaven grip.” The other was the “earth grip.” Basically, they were the same hand hold. The grips referred to which direction the blade was pointed — up or down. Heaven was up. The earth was down.
When using a knife, Joe told me to be aware of what is called a “blood circle.” This was the area within arm’s reach around you. This was where if you had a knife in hand, you could draw blood if someone stepped inside the circle.
Generally, I tend to avoid waving knives around or getting close to people who do, I thought.
Then Joe showed me that it was better to cut or whittle from the side of your body and not directly in front, like in your lap.
“You got all this vascular stuff here,” he said motioning to his inner thighs. “You’ve got two carotid arteries and the family jewels; you cut into any of that and you’re in trouble.”
The same was true with the pruning saw.
Joe took a fallen branch and placed it in what he called a plumber’s grip. Kind of squatting, he wedged the branch under his knees, which stabilized it and let him saw the branch from the side, away from his spare hand.
“You are less likely to hurt yourself with something like a pruning saw,” Joe said. “But if you screw up, those jagged teeth will cut you good. It would be an ugly cut.”
I laughed about that.
After last week’s rains, a pile of branches had wound up in my driveway. They must have fallen from one of my trees into the yard and a neighbor had stacked them up where I could find them.
Out by the side of the row, I took a bow saw and did just about everything Joe said not to do.
When he finally brought out the ax, he told me that hatchets were for fingers and axes were for toes — a woodcutter’s joke. People lose their fingers swinging hatchets toward their free hands and they take off toes hacking away near their feet.
It was a good strategy to use a hatchet or a small ax while on your knees — and to maybe give your spare hand something to do, like hold a stick, anything to keep it out of the path of the blade.
For cutting logs and thick branches, he suggested a wide stance over a log, bracing it with our feet, if possible, or finding some way to keep it stationary.
On the swing, he told me to come in from a right angle and then the left, but to not force the swing.
I didn’t need to work that hard.
“The head of the ax is heavy enough,” he said. “Just guide it to where you want it to go and hew the wood.”
Going back and forth, the head of the ax would bite through the log. It might take longer than powering through, but it was safer, got the job done and didn’t wear you out.
We talked about felling trees, which Joe said was better done with a chainsaw. Using an ax to take down a fair-sized tree was a lot of work. A chainsaw was faster, though where you cut the tree was identical to using an ax.
“If it doesn’t matter where the tree has to go down, you look for the direction the tree is leaning. You make a hinge low on the tree, cut into it until you’re about a third of the way through,” Joe said.
Then on the other side of the tree, a little higher up the trunk, you were supposed to cut again and keep cutting toward the initial cut.
In a perfect world, this would bring a tree down. The tree would fall in the direction of the hinged cut.
Joe grinned and said, “But just because you think it’s supposed to go one way, that doesn’t mean it’s going to go that way.”
When the trees fall, they usually fall slowly, he said.
“But it feels a hell of a lot faster if you’re standing under one.”
To get the tree to fall the way you want it, Joe said some people use chains to apply pressure in the direction they want the tree to fall. That usually works.
“I’ve seen people try to move a falling tree with their hands,” he told me.
That never works and is wildly dangerous.
Our time came to an end. The light was beginning to fade.
End of Day 1, beginning of Day 2
In the morning, before work, I tried putting some of what Joe showed me to work. After the sun had come up, I went out into the front yard with my ax. I dragged a thick branch left over from the weekend to a flat place near the porch and started hacking into it.
It took me about 20 minutes to turn a thick, eight-foot long branch into four, unequal and jagged pieces.
That was some kind of start.