I’m not sure when I first noticed that the tree was dead. I wasn’t even sure what kind of tree it was – a poplar or maybe a birch. Before this, my main concern about it had been that it was close to the garage, which stands separate from the house, in the corner of the garden. There were traces of cracks in the concrete around the base of the wall, where it looked like the roots might eventually undermine the foundations. Like so many things in life, I didn’t pay much attention to that tree until it became a problem. It was in a blind spot in my consciousness; there, but unnoticed. There was this thing towering over the back of the garden, at least as high as the house, and I hadn’t even looked at the leaves to see what type of tree it was.
I was certainly paying attention to it now.
It hadn’t reached maturity – the trunk was less than a foot in diameter at the base and it was about thirty feet tall. A thin, lanky adolescent, yet to find its bulky strength but already high enough to make an unwieldy corpse. I had noticed that the bark had started cracking and lifting away from the wood, no doubt due to a disease of some kind. With a baby, a toddler, a budding teenager and all the work I still had to do on the house, we had a lot of other things going on, having a disease in a tree treated was way down on my list of priorities. But soon the bark was peeling away in heavy leathery strips, exposing the pale bare wood of the trunk. Woodlice took up residence in busy clumps in the gaps and cracks of the sloughing skin. When the leaves didn’t come back in the spring, I knew we had a problem. A dead tree, big enough and close enough to damage the roof and even the wall of our garage if it fell.
This wasn’t the first tree to threaten our home. On the day we’d picked up the keys for our new house, we arrived to find a heavy bough had fallen from an ancient horse chestnut at the back of the garden, in the other corner – one of a line of gnarled and ancient trees that ran behind the row of houses and had been there long before anything had been built on the land. The branch had narrowly missed our neighbour’s garage and could have done thousands of euros worth of damage. There we were with a house in need of renovation, an empty shell, still waiting for a heating system, a kitchen, bathrooms and even doors – so much of our money was bound into this place for the next few years and now the first thing we had to do was pay six hundred euros to chop down a dead chestnut tree. Apart from the fact that I hated having to cut down such a beautiful old beast, it was money we simply couldn’t spare, but there was no avoiding it. If the tree fell, it could demolish our neighbour’s garage or crash through the back of our house.
That job took a full day, with three men, a cherry-picker and a tractor and trailer. The house was showered in sawdust that floated into the air in gritty clouds as the tree surgeons started high and worked their way down in a roar of chainsaws, lopping off a piece at a time and either dropping them or lowering them on ropes. That old chestnut ended up spread out across our garden in its component parts, as if waiting to be assembled again.
I watched as much as I could, trying to learn how they did it. I figured, I never knew when I might need to cut down a tree myself. They wouldn’t take the logs in part payment and I couldn’t keep them in the garden – they’d take up too much space and wreck our back lawn. Something else we wouldn’t have money to fix for a few years. I didn’t have the chainsaw, or the skills, to chop the huge logs into pieces I could burn. So I kept a few chunks, let a friend of mine take as much as his car could hold, and let the tree surgeons drive off with a large tractor trailer full of logs from our tree.
That was in 2010, just before we had the worst winter Ireland had seen in decades, when I ended up burning logs almost every day for about four months. Logs I had to buy. I was well bruised from kicking myself over that winter.
And then the other tree died. I could appreciate the irony. One of the things I’d looked forward to about finally owning my own property was planting a few trees with the kids. Instead, there would be two less trees in the world because of me. We were hit with several weeks of windy weather and I anchored the brittle mast of dead wood as best I could with a couple of ropes, worried that it would fall before I had a chance to control that fall. In the meantime, I started to do a bit of research online, learning how to cut down a tree. There were a number of helpful demo videos on YouTube – and many, many more that showed the accidents that could happen when idiots with no expertise or experience tried some DIY lumberjacking. Smashed roofs, walls, cars, cut and crush injuries . . . there seemed to be no end to the damage you could do with relatively little effort.
I also found out that it was impossible to hire a chainsaw in Ireland. Presumably because of the aforementioned idiots and the amputated limbs that resulted. But I was still confident. This wasn’t a huge tree and as long as I could get it to fall diagonally across the garden, it wouldn’t do any damage. I wouldn’t even need a chainsaw. I had a couple of bow saws I figured would do the job.
I love wood in all its forms. I love walking in forests, I love working with wood with my hands, I love the colours and textures, the feel of cutting and shaping it. I like to burn it too – I prefer a wood fire to a peat fire. There may be less heat and it does burn out faster – depending on how well the wood is seasoned – but it also burns out almost completely, leaving hardly any ash, compared with the mounds left over when you burn peat. I hate the powdery grey clouds that ash makes when you have to clear out the fireplace.
It’s better for the environment too. The managed forests replace trees as they’re felled. Young trees absorb carbon as they grow and hold onto it, so using wood as fuel is, theoretically, carbon neutral. As long as we’re replacing them, they’re not adding any new carbon to the atmosphere. Ireland’s peat bogs, on the other hand, would take hundreds, if not thousands of years to form again, if it was even possible. And in the meantime, we’re releasing all the carbon trapped for thousands of years in that peat. The oil, coal and gas we’ve based most of our civilization upon have taken even longer to form and there’s no question that they’ll eventually run out.
A wood fire sounds better than peat too. That whuff, the crackling is the sound of a comfortable home. Every couple of months we get sacks of logs delivered. They’re always too big for the fireplace, too chunky to get a fire going, and for someone who works at a desk a lot of the time, there’s no better stress relief than getting the axe out and spending an hour splitting logs and chopping some kindling.
The weather was getting cold again, there were new storms coming and the tree had been standing dead for too long. So one Saturday, I went out, and tied two new ropes to branches halfway up to help steer it as it fell. The other end of one rope was anchored to a heavy stake in the ground, the second tied to the trunk of another tree. The dog was safe in her dog-run, watching with pensive curiosity, the cat was off on a hunt somewhere. Our teenage son was too cool to be interested, but our two daughters, three and four-and-a-half years old, were fascinated. They were under strict instructions to wait inside out of the way, but they pressed their faces against the back window, waiting for Daddy to amuse them – which, of course, was my most important role in life.
The key thing was making sure the tree fell across the lawn, not towards the house, not onto the hedge and fence that bordered the back of the garden and definitely not onto the garage. And obviously I had to be careful not to be flattened by it too. A lot of the YouTube videos went through my mind as I started sawing. Climbing a stepladder, I cut off a couple of the bigger branches on the garage side, hoping the loss of weight on that side would help persuade it to fall the other way.
Then I started on the trunk. I cut two wedges out, one on the front and then one slightly higher up on the back, leaving it standing on a ‘hinge’ of wood just a couple of inches thick, which should, in theory, dictate the direction of the fall. The wood was taut, but lifeless and dry. I had assumed the tree was unstable, unbalanced and brittle, just waiting to topple at the first bite of the saw. Instead, it just stayed standing there after I cut out the second wedge, attached to its stump by no more than two inches of wood across the trunk. I gazed up into its branches, wary of its weight, but surprised and struck by a newfound respect for how well formed this thing was. Thirty feet high, with asymmetrical branches and yet so precisely balanced that it stayed upright on a base little thicker than the edge of my hand. It had taken decades to get to this size, through all manner of weather and even now that the life was gone from it, it was still stronger than I’d given it credit for.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my two little girls at the window, waiting. Putting a hand against the trunk, I pushed. And the tree came toppling down, hitting the marshy lawn with a soft crunching thump. I couldn’t hear my daughters from outside, but my wife later told me she’d never heard the girls laugh so loud.
Daddy pushed a tree down with one hand.
I untied the ropes, then set about cutting the tree up into logs and sticks. I left them along the wall of the garage to season for a while, stacking the thinner branches into a rack I’d made by the fence and tossing the bundles of twigs into a pile to be used as kindling.
We only light a fire in the evenings, so it might burn for three or four hours before we let it go out. That tree took over ten years to grow and we used up all the wood from it in about two weeks. I thought a lot about that – the whole idea of burning stuff for heat and energy. And that’s what we do; despite having other, limitless sources of energy at our disposal, we continue to burn in hours something that takes years, centuries or millennia to form.
As a species, we are setting fire to our house to keep warm. We are, ever so slowly, cremating the earth we live on. I love a good fire, but I miss the tree.