How to blow up a tree

August 2, 2009

The elm had been full of health when we built the house, but the blight took it and left a huge and rotting cadaver.  I was afraid to cut it.  As elms often do, three trunks had grown from a common stump, then together, and apart again.  The disease had shorn the heavier limbs off it by the time I had worked up enough nerve to do something about it.

Over the previous years I had cut up and burned a number of large elms, so I wasn’t exactly a babe-in-the-woods when it came to felling large trees.  Still, this one gave me the willies.  Most trees lean, and can be tipped in that general direction with a large notch, some careful cutting, and a steel wedge.   But I couldn’t tell where, if anywhere, this one wanted to fall.

A colleague, Pat Quinn, got wind of my problem.  Pat is legendary for his explosive solutions to problems.  “Rod, why don’t you just blow the thing up?  I’ve got some dynamite the County let me have to clear beaver dams out of culverts, and it’s getting pretty old.  I should use it up because it’s starting to sweat.  Want me to come up on Saturday and take care of the tree?”  I nodded, a little nervously.  Like most of the rookies and all of the kids at Smiths Falls Collegiate, I was a bit scared of Pat.  I told him I’d be ready for him on Saturday morning, though.

That afternoon I tried to cut the tree.  Even with a huge notch and deep cuts all around, the tree would not tip.

Pat drove in Saturday morning.  “I was a little nervous over some of the bumps on Hwy. 15 with that dynamite in the trunk.  It’s sweating, and those drops on the outside of it are nitroglycerine.  Be sure when you’re handling it you wear heavy gloves.  Otherwise your heart will start to race like crazy from just a touch.  It absorbs through the skin.”

I didn’t know if he was doing a number on me or not, so I tried to appear relaxed. Pat looked the tree over and decided to tie three sticks to the side of the trunk just to see what happened.  He sent me to put in the electric cap fastened to the 200’ of wire.  We would set it off by shorting the contacts across the poles of a 12v car battery.

Dutifully I carried the cap and the wire over to the tree where Pat had made a show of tying the dynamite on with his hands encased in heavy gloves.  I looked back to ask him something.  No Pat.  That’s strange.  I followed the yellow wires over a rise and found him lying behind a boulder with eyes shut and fingers in his ears.

“All right, Pat, quit foolin’ around!  I’m going to hook them up now!”  Feeling none too eager to bring cap to nitro, I nevertheless stuffed the cap into the end of one of the sticks.  Then I did not run.  I walked back to Pat’s boulder, but he made me find my own.

He fired the shot.  It went “bang”.  A bit of bark fell off the trunk, but that was it.  A couple of Holsteins looked up, but soon lost interest.

Pat got serious.  This time he jammed three sticks into a crevasse between two of the trunks and shot that.  More bark flew, but the tree barely moved.

My turn.  “Okay, this is what we’ll do.  Over there on the other side of the house is a pile of clay.  Bring over a pail-full of it while I cut a mortise into the trunk to hold the next shot.”

I fired up the saw and made a plunge cut straight into the back of the trunk.  It went in all 30” of the bar’s length.  I pulled it out and made three more cuts into the punky wood, until I had created a 4” mortise straight into the heart of the tree, just at the level where I had cut the wedge before.  Then I hit it with the axe and wonder of all, the square plug of rotten elm popped right out.

Pat looked really apprehensive at this, but I pushed in three sticks of dynamite and a blasting cap.  Then I used half a pail of clay to seal the hole.

The shot wasn’t particularly loud.  It was more of a roar, but the hundred-foot tree seemed to lift slowly above the stump about four feet.  Then it stopped and turned horizontal in mid-air before it did a spectacular belly flop into the neighbour’s quarry.  It hit so hard most of the trunk broke up into chips.

When the dust had settled and the last few branches had found their way to earth, there really wasn’t anything to cut up and move, so Pat and I celebrated a job neatly done and he left with new respect for the power of dynamite sealed in a tree.

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