Keeping the Privy Up and Felling Dead Trees

May 21st, 2009

With the demands of spring outdoors, we also have the need for taking care of those things that make a house a home.  This week included replacing air filters in the ventilation system, and turning on the water valves inside the house to a couple of outdoor faucets that we finally need.   It’s time to set up the watering system for the garden again.  Also time to clean out a few more gutters, and clean up around the air conditioning systems.  The garage still needs cleaned and the weeds are going crazy now.  Of course the washing machine started leaking too, why not right?  We finally fixed that last night with a hose replacement and a sigh of relief that it wasn’t something else.

I also had the chainsaw out and some helpers last weekend, and finally decided to cut down a few dead trees that I’ve been watching for at least a year.  Warning!  If you’re a died-in-the-wool tree hugger (I am!) this may be difficult to read.  I love trees too, and I assure you that no living mature trees were harmed during the photography or production of this blog post.   Sometimes dead or hazardous trees simply have to come down, and for us they will serve a purpose in providing warmth for our family next winter.


It’s a little tricky, but after you figure out the “fall line” of the tree based on its growth form, the natural slope of the land and gravity, then you pick an axis that you want the tree to drop along, making sure of clearances to other trees or obstacles,  power lines, etc.  If I was doing this near a house or a neighbors house, I would call in a professional and maybe some tree climbers to cut from the top down.  And if the tree has been dead for a long time, it may be too dangerous to cut down without extensive cables or other safety devices.

We’re cutting on open, sloped land, and like saving money, so it was just a matter of using the chainsaw safely.  I first cut a large notch on the face side of the tree that opens along the fall line.  This notch is a little deeper than I wanted- about 40% into the tree instead of a third of the way, and not quite as open as I would have liked, trying for around 70 degrees.  But the corner is connected and it worked just fine.


After the notch cut, you come in behind on the back of the tree, and make a cut just at or above that notch angle corner, cutting slowly toward the notch and making sure to leave a hinge, or a strip of wood along the notch corner that connects the tree.  The tree should start to fall toward the planned fall line, and you can use a wedge to help start it falling if not.   Many things can  happen of course, and you can also slightly influence the fall by cutting one side toward the hinge a little more than the other.  Fortunately this tree fell right where it needed to, between the septic observation pipes.

Which brings up the real reason we were out with the chainsaw.  Yesterday I had the septic tank pumped out (woohoo!) and it’s now clean and refreshed, enzymatically speaking.  Which really is good news.  It had been three years since the last time and I wanted to make sure it was in good shape.   Nothing like making sure the toilet flushes like you want it to!  To go along with the the septic maintenance, we really needed to clear some vegetation surrounding our drainfield, and that’s what we started doing that day.

For those who have sewers or are not familiar, the septic drainfield is a system of underground pipes that help drain and distribute water filtrate / effluent that comes from the septic tank over a large ground area (you can see one drainfield line with those pvc pipes sticking up out of the ground in the picture below).   The septic tank holds the solids, and the liquid drains out slowly into pipes buried in long gravel channels and soil while becoming purified by good bacteria, plants, etc over time.  The septic tank and drainfield actually serve as a functional biological system- as long as it’s working properly.


Our drainfield is probably at least a hundred square yards in area.  The reason you have to monitor the tank and drainfield is not only so that your bathrooms function normally(!), but also because repairs and replacement are very expensive- to the tune of thousands of dollars.  We even monitor what goes into the septic tank in terms of chemicals and such to make sure we don’t hurt the system.   Thankfully the previous owners had the foresight to upgrade the drainfield and make it larger to support future demand.  Just to be sure it was working properly, I opened up one of the “distibution” boxes to see how things looked, and cleanish water was flowing slowly into the pipes like it should.  That was good news too.

But I realized that we had too many small  saplings that had grown up closer to the drainfield than they should, and we needed to clear them.  Left unchecked, those trees could develop very strong root systems that not only seek out water, but rich and fertile water coming from the drainfield.  You guessed it- those roots could take over the drainfield and pipes, eventually clogging the system and requiring replacement costing mucho dinero of new digging and pipe replacement.

So for some fun excitement last weekend it was time to cut down and clear the brush and saplings.  Yipee.  Fortunately it wasn’t too bad, at least after I got out the chainsaw, and we carried off the cuttings to the burn pile.  It was really great to get it done!


I spent the next day cutting more saplings all around the bordering woodlands and the drainfield itself, after I realized how large it really was.  In fact there’s more cutting and clearing to do just to make sure.  But for the trees already cut down I painted the little stumps with herbicide so they don’t grow back.   It really looks a lot more open now, and with a little luck our drainfield should last for at least 15-20 years.  I suppose keeping the brush and shrubs cleared will be something we need to do each year- the joys of rural living.

Then it was time to work on those large, dead oak trees that I’ve been wanting to cut down.  By the way- I use a lot of cordless electric power tools including hedge trimmers, weed wackers, pruners, saws and drills.  They’re quiet, simple, portable, they save on gas, and theoretically pollute less.  I even have a cordless chainsaw.  But to be perfectly clear- cordless tools are for small jobs that require short duration of power and strength.  If you’re going to cut firewood often, you need a strong, reliable gas-powered chainsaw- get the best you can afford.  I would even say a weak or underpowered chain saw is a safety hazard for the operator.  It’s important to know your needs.   For this acreage I use a host of tools- and make sure they’re appropriate to the job at hand.

The tree below was actually leaning out over the pond… it had already lost many large branches last year.   I didn’t really know how to get it to fall correctly, but tried notching it to the left side parallel to the shoreline, and gradually cutting into the lower side of the notch first to start it falling from that side and holding on more to the upper corner.


I was really surprised that it fell exactly where it was supposed to- right on the bank!  It rolled and settled, finally stopping before continuing into the pond. Hooray! I really didn’t want to have to drag it out of the water and leave a lot of branches in the pond.   If this was golf  I felt like it was a hole-in-one… small victories in the country.



I don’t cut down live trees on our property, at least the big ones.  These large oaks died over the past few years, hit especially hard during the drought seasons in 2006 and 2007.  We don’t cut them all down, and still have several large dead snags standing upright near the woodlands for the woodpeckers and such.  But these trees were safety hazards- too close to the areas we live and play in, with many large branches falling to the ground over the past year.

I was a little hesitant to fell three large oaks by myself…  not that I couldn’t do it, but if for some reason I ended up under a big ‘ole oak tree with my arms sticking out I wanted someone there to know about it!  :)

So the boy stood way back holding a dog or three and watching, ready to yell if the tree started falling the wrong way.  I’m not sure I would have heard anything over the chain saw, but you’ve got to have a plan.  If I saw the tree even waver in the wrong direction, I was running away at an angle.  Fortunately luck and a little experience helped win the day and the trees went where they needed to go.




This tree already had a nice lean close to the right direction, and dropped nicely toward a picnic table near the pond- it fell between two other oaks so it wouldn’t mess up their good branches.  I raced back a bit to stay out of the way…






Whump!  The tree hits the ground with an enormous thud you can feel in your feet.

With the tree down it was time for a break.  Being curious, I counted the rings on the stump- this tree was over 180 years old!  Hard to imagine, but there are much larger oaks around the property.  I just love thinking about history from the perspective of a tree.  It brings a little needed clarity to the context of our own life, and the pace of the seasons that took this tree so long to grow.

While I was daydreaming, the boy found a cool seat to imagine riding a Star Wars speeder bike (remember the Empire Strikes Back?) with his light saber in hand- it even bounces up and down a little bit!


Then the little shiba had to get in on the action too, the basset and yellow lab were having too much fun.  He’s the foxy looking guy that I use for the site’s browser icon.


So now the real work begins in cutting up, or bucking, the trees.  I’ve written about bucking a log before- it takes some time but is rewarding with the knowledge that the wood from those three trees above will help heat our home for at least one, and maybe two winters.  We try not to waste too much, and nearly all the branches will serve a purpose.  I know trees are a renewable resource, but I treasure the ones we have living on our little acreage.  They may be renewable, but it takes many human lifetimes to see an oak tree mature.

I hope we don’t have to cut down many more trees, but there are a few more oaks in decline around the property- I suspect we’ll have firewood for a good many years still.   To help make up the losses, I’ve planted many other trees over the past few years, including oaks. Whoever lives here in fifty years may get to see a red or white oak rising to the sky.

In more amusing news, it looks like Quackers the Duck still patrols the area.  Apparently he was seen on a neighbors pond, but he was roosting here again last night, and then paddling around this morning.  I think he decided to pose for this picture. Now I wouldn’t exactly call him pretty or handsome, but he certainly looks the picture of health and has a fine figure!


6 Responses to “Keeping the Privy Up and Felling Dead Trees”

  1. Looks like work–a 100 yard square drainfield? That’s a big one! I love that last photo, great shot.

  2. R. Sherman

    One of the things I always tell clients who are moving to the country and away from public sewers is “GET THE SEPTIC SYSTEM INSPECTED!!!!” I’ve probably at 15 lawsuits over the years concerning bad systems. People just don’t know how to maintain them properly and presto! ten grand of expense.

    BTW, nicely done on the trees.


  3. Pengalia

    Wonderful post!

    What great resources are at hand,
    To him who is stewart of the land.

  4. Pengalia

    Whoops, that should have been ‘d’…even tho the property you manage is your own :)

  5. That’s a lot of work felling and bucking trees. I need to mark ones to be removed here in winter… those with half-filled crowns or dead and hazardous. We also have far too much crowding, and I’ve seen the results of that… a whole stand will go into decline and get infested with oak borers.

    Nice work on felling without getting squished. It is nerve-wracking to do!

    I love the light-saber. :)


  6. Sage- It’s just spread out, and there’s a long stretch from the house. Somehow that duck seems to fit in around here :)
    R.- Wow, that’s good advice. Thanks!
    Pengalia- That’s cute… I think we are stewards too.
    Ron- I like your approach- we’ve got a few more with half-filled crowns too. Oak borers… maybe that’s what we’ve got? Yeah- it is a little nerve-wracking, and squish prevention is the focus! I thought you’d like the light saber… remembering a Star Wars post a while back :)

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