G Gibson Photo Art Gallery | Farm Stories • Life Among The Trees, Wood Cutting 101 & Master Of The Plantation - Part 1

Farm Stories • Life Among The Trees, Wood Cutting 101 & Master Of The Plantation - Part 1

April 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Emotional Bonds, Wind Breaks, Tree Profiling, Wood God Sighting, & My First Chain Saw

"Farm Stories Series Lumberjack Glenn Gould Hill Farm Hanover Virginia"Farm Stories - Lumber JackFarm Stories - Lumber Jack

From The First Day….

Surely it was a deep attachment, a bond if you would, that I felt for them inside of me what with the vast expanse of trees visible in every direction on that first day of self exile from the city. Rural naivety aside, as noted in my Self Discovery & How I Came To Live On An Old Farm Without A Chainsaw narrative, it seemed an innate reaction on my part to the wonders of nature along with a new rural lifestyle that had led me to those feelings years ago.

In retrospect I now freely admit  that when first living on the farm I was faced with the reality that wood, cut and gathered by my own labor, was to be the only source of warmth to sustain me through the Fall and Winter months of each year which surely had much to do with that early infatuation with trees of mine. Yet by the end of my tenure on the farm I had indeed bonded with the trees for more than simply practical reasons.

It can also be said that in the years that followed after having taken up my rural lifestyle, seemingly on a whim at the time, I came face to face with the economic reality that there are those who come to work the land in order to cultivate it for profit and at times do so in a way less respectful of nature and the environment than I had ever imagined. Eventually my novice like observations of their actions found me questioning the wisdom of certain agricultural management practices including those that depict trees as more of a nuisance rather then the role that they serve in protecting and preserving the land.

Over time I became jaded about not only those who profited from the land, while appearing so indifferent as to their own impact on it, but also of those charged with preserving it. A naive idealistic perception of them as stewards of the land was nothing more than an urban fantasy of mine I came to learn.

What follows are the origins of my Homeric like epiphany that led to a time in my life spent living in harmony with nature’s sentinels of one historic farm’s forests and the land that they protected.


Farm Stories Road Through The Front Fields To The Western Tree LineFarm Stories Road Through The Front Fields To The Western Tree LineFarm Stories Road Through The Front Fields To The Western Tree Line

Time Was Short But I Had A Support Group

There was so much to learn and very little time in which to do so in was one feeling I harbored after taking up residence on the farm. I began to also realize even then that there was a dichotomy between my sense of wonderment over the scenic vistas that the farm afforded me and the need to stay warm throughout the Winter. You see even though it was late summer the sight of the wood stove in my basement apartment each day served to remind me that those green leaves, visible in the distant forest, would be gone in a matter of months and that the temperatures would turn cold. It seemed like such a primitive feeling to have, one that up to that time I had never experienced before in my life.

I was fortunate at the beginning of my rural exile to have a heat with wood support group so too speak made up of friends who from time to time offered me sage advice on things such as caring for the wood stove, flue maintenance and how to plan for next year’s wood supply. To this day I still remember Nancy’s recommendation that one should never harvest more than a cord of wood from a one acre lot each year in order to not over cut the trees on it. While this may seem like a silly thing for me to remember today it planted the seed of land renewal in my mind, something that I have never forgotten.


A County Guy Named Joey

Joey came by the house on the first Saturday that I lived on the farm offering to show me around. So after a moment of formal introductions we set off to the barnyard where our conversation soon turned to trees and firewood.

Joey and his wife lived in the old farm managers house down the road from me. He was a short lean country looking kind of guy in his twenties who had resided on the farm for years. As a matter of fact he lived in the main house where I was then a resident, before the State Trooper did, and was very familiar with just about everything on the farm — buildings, land, wildlife, and its history. Joey was employed as a power tool repair person at a shop in the City and I came to learn that he was a regular Mr Fix-it. Good with his hands and possessed a rich mechanical aptitude.

In future Farm Stories Joey’s name will come up from time to time and this seems like a good point to share a couple of more things about him. First of all Joey’s hobby, or outlet, from his working and family life was that of an amateur archeologist, or a relic hunter as he would often refer to himself as. While the area around the farm was known for being the sight of a few Civil War encounters Joey was not at all interested in “relics” from that period. No Joey’s interest was in the colonial era and he had conducted numerous digs or excavations during his years of living on the farm coming across a number of fascinating items from the 18th century. Finally Joey also heated exclusively with wood cut from the farm and I came to appreciate him helping me get my own start in the wood cutting profession and so much more over the years.

Those Trees Are Only But A Memory

A shame that you moved in this year instead of two years ago Joey said to me in passing as we approached the barnyard, there used to be a good amount of wood over behind that hay barn he began to point out to me that was set off in the distance, but now its mostly rotted. Joey then began to tell me about what had happened two years ago that led to those visible heaps of rotted wood behind the hay barn.

Yep a couple of years ago the guy who leases the fields here brought in a bulldozer and plowed down all of the big trees that lined the main road of the farm Joey told me. I remember asking Joey something to the effect of, what there used to be big trees all along both sides of the road over there — as I pointed to the main road. Yes he replied, and then went on to describe the big Oak and Maple trees that lined both sides of it running from the hard surface state road where the mailboxes were located up for about a half a mile to the main house where I was then living.

Why were they taken down I asked? Joey’s response was that the farmer wanted more tillable land for planting so between the size of the trees themselves and their large roots being taken out he picked up another five acres of land to grow crops on. Joey shared all of this with me in such a matter of fact manner that indicated the farmer’s actions made perfect sense to him as well. Continuing on with the farmer’s rationale for doing so he told me how those trees competed for moisture from the soil adjacent, as well as beneath, the planted crops and that they also kept sections of the front fields in the shade for 3 or 4 hours each day hindering access to the sunlight.

I stopped walking in order to look back at the now treeless road attempting to imagine what it must have looked like with all of those big trees set on either side of it. In Autumn it surely must have made for quite a picturesque scene that’s for sure I thought. By the time I turned back around Joey was already standing in the barnyard waiting for me so I hurried to catch up with him.

Wind Breaks & Yes I Don’t Have A Chain Saw

Over on that wind break, Joey began to tell me, is a good place to find damaged trees. With my farm naivety making its first public appearance I remember asking Joey “what the hell is a wind break?” Out there, that thin line of trees running from the far back road over to that large grove of trees he told me. In time I came to know a lot more about that particular wind break Joey had pointed out to me that day. The break itself separated one hundred acre planted field from a similarly sized one set behind it that bordered Ms. Newton’s farm.

While there is no need to go into much detail about why there are wind breaks between farmer fields I can say from a bit of experience that trees in a break are more susceptible to damage from the wind over time than those clustered together as a group. While they provide a good opportunity for a wood cutter looking to take out damaged trees but by doing so this contributes to the thinning of the overall treeline itself until over time the remaining trees will die as well. How smashing I thought to myself for I will be doing the job of the bulldozer by opening up the land even more for that farmer I thought to myself. No, I remember thinking, this city boy isn’t going to be doing anything like that. I’m no one’s surrogate beaver.

We set out down the road leading to the wind break which meandered through the upper fields for a good distance when Joey asked me about what kind of chainsaw I had, to which I replied none. He quickly glanced over at me and said in a very discernible country kind of way well no need to go buy one there’s a spare in the tractor shed that no one is using right now. Great I thought now I just have to learn how to use it without maiming myself. Do you have a round rat tail file I remember Joey asking me to which I replied no not yet. Well you will be needing a couple of them for this season and a quart or two of bar oil as well. I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about but somehow knew that I would quickly learn this wood cutting lingo one way or the other.

Arriving at the wind break we turned down a narrow dirt path set between the trees of the wind break and the planted field. Okay, I remember Joey instructing me, its only the damaged Oak and Hickory trees that I should be culling out of the break this season. He also told me not to worry about gathering any kindling wood from it because he had plenty of it for the both of us this year. That was reassuring to hear I must have thought but at that time I simply had no idea of what kindling wood even was.

Know Thou Trees

Joey pointed to a tree set directly in front of where we were standing at the time and said okay this one is ready to come down and it might even have a bit of seasoning in it already so you can burn it this year. The tree Joey had pointed to I remember stood over 35' and was devoid of any leaves but was still perfectly upright. He then asked me if I knew what kind of tree that it was. When I told him I didn’t know he quickly said that it was a Hickory. He assured me that it was one by its lattice like bark pattern that looks like a pie top. Sure enough I could see that crisscrossing pie top pattern on the bark of the tree. It burns better than red oak but doesn’t last as long as white oak plus it gets heavy when its wet. What there are different types of Oak trees too I must of thought at the time. Subspecies of trees? I must have slept through high school science class it seemed

Tree profiling school lasted for about two hours as we walked that wind break and then into the nearby forest looking for damaged trees. It was during this “nature hike” that I came to learn about most of the attributes of White, Red and Pin Oaks as well as Hickory and Maple trees. I also learned that Poplar trees were good for kindling and how Pines trees were absolutely no good — burn too fast and leave a lot of creosote in the wood stove pipe and thimble as well as the chimney. Elm trees were not the best choice for firewood because they can get so cracked and twisted. Chestnut and Sycamore trees were too stringy when they split as well as drying out too much losing their mass so stay away from them as well Joey added. Never pick a Gum tree which are impervious to splitting and will ruin the chain on your saw in a matter of minutes if you try to cut one. I remember thinking that I was well on my way to becoming proficient at recognizing all the different trees on the farm thanks to Joey’s lecture.

Gum Trees Were A Slave’s Holiday Salvation

After my tree lecture Joey placed a wad of chewing tobacco in one of his cheeks and began to share the first, of many to come, anecdotal stories about the early years on the farm with me. Yep, Joey began, back years ago, which I determined he meant 150 — 200 of them, when there were slaves on the farm they would cut a Gum tree down by the river in the Spring and get four good size fireplace length sections out of it. They left these sections in the river until late Summer and then hauled all of them up to the main house where they would be set up to dry out over the remainder of the Summer and all of the Fall. A Gum tree won’t dry out for a long time after being cut because there’s so much sap inside of it Joey went on to say with a bit of a grin on his face, that’s what makes them so tough along with the tightness of the wood rings. You see late on Christmas Eve, Joey continued, the slaves would carry each piece of those cut Gum tree sections into the house and place them in the already burning fireplaces of each room. Then according to Joey, along with a few others who have regaled me with similar holiday tree stories over the years, they would proceed to bank them down real good with pieces of Oak and Hickory so that those large sections of Gum would eventually catch fire and go on to burn all of Christmas Day. Of course I was thinking that was a smart way to get Christmas off but their benefit package really sucked.

In The Presence Of The Farm God

With Joey’s holiday story over he told me that once I have cleared the damaged trees out of this wind break then I could find my own wood lot in one of the back lower fields to start next year’s cutting. For next year I thought to myself, cutting wood is going to be a lot of hard work.

As I was pondering about how I already need to be cutting wood for next year is when I saw a cloud of dust making its way up the main road of the farm at a pretty good speed. Soon I could make out that it was a white SUV with that faux wood paneling along it’s sides causing it.

Well there he is Joey remarked, he’s probably coming to see what we are up to today. Who is it I remember asking? Oh that’s our landlord Joey replied kind of anyway. Kind of I replied? Yes he is married to one of the daughters of the guy who owned this farm for years who then left it to his two daughters when he died. The old man and his family used to live on the farm in the house your in right now back some twenty years ago or so. Joey went on to say that it was the wife of the guy in that SUV who’s father bought Marilyn for her when they all lived on the farm. I wanted to ask who Marilyn was but figured that I had asked too many questions already today. In time I would meet Marilyn on my own and in a future Farm Story you will as well.

In spite of my then hesitation about asking who Marilyn was I managed to blurt out a question to Joey. Does he also cut wood on the farm? Nope Joey told me but he burns a fair amount of it each year and you will be learning about where he gets it from in about three or four months. I was puzzled by his answer to my question but he turned out to be right. By late Fall I actually would find out just where my new landlord got his wood.

It was getting well on into the afternoon and I felt a bit overwhelmed by everything that I been absorbing throughout the day from Joey. We both began to head back to the distant barnyard talking along the way about the history of the farm and a couple of the digs that he had conducted in the fields that we were passing by at the moment.

With A Chainsaw And Maul Your Good To Go

Upon arriving back at the barnyard Joey led me into what I was later told was the tractor shed. Inside I could see a good size Ford farm tractor parked in the center, certainly bigger that any riding lawn mower that I had ever seen before, and hundreds of things seemingly everywhere just tossed about or randomly hung up on the wall. Along each of the long walls flanking the tractor were two deep wooden plank waist high shelves. Joey picked up the chainsaw set on one of the shelves and with a couple of tugs on its rope starter brought it to life. Boy was it loud as Joey pulled on its trigger making the chain spin faster and faster. After a minute or so he turned it off. Okay she seems fine, its all yours. It has an 18" bar and you should use those Oregon replacement chains on it Joey instructed me. Okay I am ready to be a lumberjack now I must of thought then — not even close.

We both went outside the tractor shed into the late afternoon sunshine and closed the heavy wooden doors of it behind us. Joey had a few more words to impart on me that day. He started off by saying if you haven’t already seen it there’s an old Chevy pickup truck parked over there in the stable for hauling smaller loads of wood but if you need to bring back a big load the trailer for the tractor is on the other side of the dairy barn. The truck I could handle I thought to myself but driving that tractor with a wagon on it? That I wasn’t so sure about.

Do you have a maul Joey asked? No what type do you think I should get? He kind of smiled once again and said hold on. He opened up one of the tractor shed doors where I watched him reach for something inside next to the door. Here this one will work and you’ll never have to replace the handle either he kind of snickered. Joey had handed me a 30" piece of 2" round galvanized pipe with treads on one end sporting a bulky metal combination head on it. One side of the head had a broad thick axe or wedge on it while the other side looked like a big sledge hammer. It was clear that the head had been welded on to the galvanized pipe handle years ago. Yep its heavy to swing but it will get the job done and will never break on you I remember Joey saying as he closed the tractor shed door.

Equipped To Cut Wood Yet Feeling A Bit Uneasy

Joey said he had to get home for supper and added to just come see him if I needed anything. I thanked him for his time and told him to feel free to let me know if there was ever anything that I could help him with.

As he walked off I found myself reflecting back on the day’s rural boot camp experience and in one respect was glad that I had been imparted with so much tree wisdom so too speak. Yet in another respect I felt a bit uneasy as I looked down at the chainsaw and that gladiator like maul at my feet. I wondered what future disasters lay ahead for me with those two things.

G J Gibson


Content Note: this is the first of a three part narrative titled Life Among The Trees • Wood Cutting For Urbanites • Master Of The Plantation in the Farm Stories Photo Art Galley Journal Collection

Collection Note: as I wrote in the prologue narrative for the Farm Stories series I began writing of my experiences of life on the farm after coming across a group of photographs and journals buried away in one of my cabinets. Even I was surprised upon reading through those old journals recently by not only the frequency that I wrote in them back then but also by the amount of details that they contained. These journals have served to flesh out my recollections from those days on the farm years ago while providing numerous details and allowing me to recount them as if it was yesterday.

This article was first published on Medium

Gallery Note: currently the photographs featured on this post are not on display in the main gallery

Images and Article Copyright ©2014 G J Gibson Photography LLC


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