“Well, Lawd A’Mighty! If a man has an axe and a tree to play with, ain’t no reason to be bored on this planet!”
The quote is from Roy Underhill, who has been producing TV programmes in USA on woodworking with hand tools for 30-odd years. You can see some of his more recent programmes at The Woodwright Shop – click on “Watch Online”. I would also heartily recommend his TED talk, where you will discover why Europe has its mountains stuck on the wrong way!
In this case, however, most of the work was done with a chainsaw rather than an axe, apart from the splitting of some of these logs last weekend when Carol and Ian spent a day at the wood with us.
My sister Pam gave me the book, “Norwegian Wood” by Lars Mytting, for Christmas – thank you, Pam! It’s all about the Norwegian way in felling trees, cutting them up for firewood, splitting and stacking the logs to dry, and I found it a great read. This was one of the many ways in which Norwegians stack their logs – there are two poles that keep the bottom layer of logs off the ground, and a pole knocked into the ground at one end to support the stack. Nice and simple.
The surface of the stump exposed by felling the stem looked unusually brown for sycamore, and when I looked closer, I saw that sap was running from the cambium. I was surprised, as I had hoped and expected that I had felled the tree in time before the sap rose.
Further up the wood, however, I came across a young sycamore which was already coming into leaf.
The primroses, however, have been in flower for some time.
This is how our glade at the top end of the wood looks now. This is where we brew up, light bonfires, camp when the weather is warmer, mill logs and chop firewood.
It is at the end of the access path, up a steep slope. It was an unpleasant surprise when we first bought the wood and found that the landrover could only get twenty yards up the path before stopping with wheels spinning ineffectually. It’s a Landrover, dammit! Unfortunately, it still needs traction, and it didn’t have any – the ruts were full of soft mud as they are the drainage path for our small valley.
However, after filling the ruts with hardcore from the ruins of Jim’s 17th century mansion, the path is good to go (for a Landrover) all year round. I’ve always been able to drive up the path, even in this miserably wet winter.
I’ll finish with a little problem. Here are a few logs from the felled tree, tastefully arranged. Anyone know what could be the use of it?
A beautiful cold day, ideal for working in the wood. I wanted to fell a tree for both firewood for next winter, and milling for useful timber. It needed to be done soon, before the rising of the sap put more moisture into the wood, and I had decided to cut a stem with a slight lean which I hoped would guarantee the direction in which it would fall. However, I was due for a surprise.
It was difficult to see exactly what direction gravity would pull the stem, but I made the directional cut to point in a convenient direction which I expected gravity to agree with. However, as I made the felling cut, shortly before I expected the tree to topple on its hinge, there was a loud crack and the tree fell about 45 degrees leftwards, leaving about 6 feet of standing wood where the trunk had split.
Ah well, a bit less timber to mill, but a bit more firewood for next winter ..
In the bank behind the felled tree, primroses were flowering, and while I was preparing to fell the tree, I heard a woodpecker drumming for the first time this year. Later, as we sat eating our lunch, my eye was caught by a tiny movement near the ivy on a tree. I went over to see what it was, and there, basking in the sunshine falling on an ivy leaf, was a Red Admiral butterfly – and this on February 23rd!
I cut the branchwood from the sycamore felled last autumn into long logs, and stacked it under a tarpaulin to dry. It is now suitably dry for firewood, and recently I have brought three trailer loads home, the last one just before Christmas, and I expect that will keep us warm for the rest of the winter.
I had cut up some of the larger boughs into rings, and when I got home,I broke them up into chunks with my felling axe, which seemed to cope better with knotty rings than the maul. After swinging the axe for some time, I took a break, and looked at some of the pieces of newly split firewood. On a whim, I took a piece into the garage, gripped it in my vice and started planing a surface, just to see what it looked like.
As I flattened the surface, the grain revealed itself, showing the subtle swirls and dramatic knot structures that trees construct during their life. There were also areas where the surface of the wood shimmered as it was rotated in the light in a way which seems to be typical of sycamore.
When I visit the wood, whatever else I am doing, I go around the camera traps and replace the memory cards with empty ones, and at home in the evening, I go through the cards on the computer, seeing what the wildlife has been up to since my last visit.
I have set up one of the cameras to look along a massive oak log lying in the northern boundary hedge. It has probably been down for decades, mouldering away, as there is no sign of the remains of its upper branches, just the massive trunk. This is a hot spot for wildlife. During the day, it is visited by rabbits and squirrels, as well as many different birds, while at night, wood mice scamper over its surface, with the occasional shrew.
We have a fox which regularly patrols the wood by day as well as by night, which has appeared on my cameras in many locations around the wood. However, it appeared on the oak log in November for the first time, at night, but as I scanned the images after my last visit, I was delighted to find this daytime shot.
Usually, the camera traps produce images which are useful as a record of what is around, but no more. Very occasionally, they capture an image which is a gem pictorially, and this is one. In focus, in beautiful light, and a typical foxy pose, gazing down into the valley through the gap in the hedge, on the lookout for a possible lunch.
Dunedin is like an amphitheatre and Otago harbour its stage, stretching into the distance towards the Pacific Ocean. As I walk across the park from Sue’s house, a few red-billed gulls swoop above me, on the lookout for scraps, but the ground birds are all European – blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows. Crossing a road swooping down the amphitheatre towards downtown Dunedin, I walk along Queen’s Drive under the mainly native trees of the Town Belt, and I am greeted almost immediately by the instantly recognizable calls of the bellbird.
During this visit, I have been setting one of my camera traps in this woodland, and after moderate success by a stream and absolutely nothing on a windfall tree (no mice around), I have found a wonderful site which at first sight seemed to be just a puddle of water at the bottom of a dip in the woodland. In fact, a small stream just a few inches wide issued from the puddle and proceeded downhill, almost completely hidden by the ground cover. After setting up the camera to look at the little pool, I found that this tiny habitat was very attractive to small birds, producing over 150 video clips of birds coming down to drink in a day. Encouraged by the information from the camera trap, I spent time in person, over several sessions, sitting beside the pool without any camouflage, relying on the trusting nature of New Zealand native birds. Sure enough, I was rewarded with close encounters – within three yards.
The most common visitors were silvereye, who came down from twig to twig through the brush to the tiny stream which arose from the pool at the bottom of the hollow below the road. They usually arrived in small parties, bathed either singly or in groups up to four, and then went off about their business.
While the silvereye simply ignored me, I have been inspected on each occasion I have spent time there, and soon after my arrival. The inspectors are New Zealand’s most spectacular small bird, the fantail. I don’t know whether they are extremely curious or have a highly developed sense of territory, but they seem to turn the bird-watching order of things upside down. In most situations, we have to move around unobtrusively, to be quiet, to help our visual sense with binoculars or scopes. Here in New Zealand, if you take a walk in native bush, more often than not you are greeted by this small bird, fanning its long, brilliant white tail around to maximum visual effect, and whirring from perch to perch nearby while glaring at you with a proprietorial body language which clearly states “Git orff moi land!”
Despite their apparent accessibility, they are extremely difficult to photograph because they are continually on the move, and the tail is continually flashed open and shut. This makes it difficult to get both eye and tail critically sharp with the tail open, and as they are usually found in poorly lit woodland, it is impossible to get the shutter speed to stop movement blur and the small aperture to get the eye sharp and the tail reasonably so.
My purpose in setting up the camera trap in the Town Belt was not only to find suitable places to photograph these birds, but to see what wildlife was around at night. New Zealand”s attitude towards its wildlife is ambivalent – birds are good, but mammals are nearly all bad. This is because the land mammals are from elsewhere and have been brought in, deliberately but sometimes accidentally, by man. Mostly predators, they have had a baleful effect on much of the native wildlife, which are mostly birds, which has evolved in the absence of mammalian predators.
Every few days, I walked down to the wood and replaced the SD card in the camera with an empty one, and then walked back to see what had happened in that time. The first mammal to show up was a cat, and we can see from its behaviour in this video clip why it is such a danger to wildlife both here in New Zealand and in the UK.
I recorded cats at night six times on my camera during a period of five weeks. I also recorded possums six times – the brush-tailed possum originates in Australia, and has colonised New Zealand to the point where they are a focus of eradication campaigns involving trapping, ground baiting with poison, and even the aerial distribution of poisons.
It is a threat to the eggs and young of native birds, and also to growing shoots on native trees, but the main reason why possums attract such expensive attention is the fact that they are a threat to New Zealand’s agricultural industry, being a vector of bovine TB.
Despite all the effort, possums are doing well in Dunedin’s town belt. Another unwelcome mammal, a hedgehog, showed up once – unwelcome because they eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds. However, the most common mammal, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the rat, scoring 21 hits on video. Judging by its climbing ability, I think it may be the ship rat.
Towards the end of our stay in New Zealand, the camera turned up a daytime video clip of a stoat.
When I looked at the time when this clip was recorded, I was amazed to find that it was just seven minutes before I was standing at the camera, changing the memory card. This means that I was just entering the wood to the right when the stoat disappears stage left – apparently in response to my appearance. How many other occasions have there been, in an apparently barren and uninteresting habitat, when wildlife has tutted at my arrival on the scene and reluctantly made itself scarce?
We are in Dunedin, sharing Christmas and the New Zealand summer with Sue and Pete and the grandsons, Tarren and Bryn. In the garage back home is a stack of sycamore planks and beams, freshly milled from a tree felled in our wood, levelled and sticked to enable them to dry with minimum bend and twist. They are destined to become a garden bench for Carol and Ian, and a solid, heavy workbench for me – after a lifetime of DIY using a Black & Decker Workmate, I am going to have a proper workbench at last.
Having been researching bench fittings and accessories for a while, I have become sensitised to such things, and a few days ago, I noticed a newly interesting device attached to the ancient, mouldering workbench in the garage.
I say “newly interesting” because we have been visiting since 2002, and I haven’t noticed it before. I’m talking about that plank of wood attached to the bench by a threaded rod (not visible) and a tommy bar. Obviously a vice of some sort which had been very well used in the past (not recently though, eh Pete?) judging by the wear the wood had suffered.
Researching what kind of vice it could be, I got no help from Wikipedia, which listed a number of different vices, none of which could be the one in question. It was only when I delved into the world of woodworking forums (fora?) that I came across the staple of 18th century carpentry, the leg vice. Apparently, this device was ubiquitous at the time, and fell into disuse with the arrival of the mass produced iron face vice, but is now making a bit of a comeback – see this link to a modern manufacturer with some improvements to the original design. The leg vice had a guide attached to the bottom of the plank in order to keep it parallel to the leg, and I then noticed the rectangular hole near the bottom of the plank by which the guide would have been attached. And, conclusive confirmation, when I felt the leg supporting the bench, there was the hole that the guide would have passed through.
I was immediately captivated by the idea of incorporating the leg vice, with its long history and working life, into my new soon-to-be-built workbench. When I told Pete about my discovery and diffidently suggested that he might like to refurbish the leg vice, he pointed out that he would not use it, and immediately set about taking it apart. After overcoming a reluctant screw, we soon had the vice screw and the threaded socket in the bench leg removed.
The ironmongery is all I shall take home – hopefully, it will not send my luggage allowance over the limit – and the plank of wood, technically called the “chop”, will be replaced by a brand new piece of sycamore from our wood. Oh, and I’ve bought Pete a Workmate for Christmas. Perhaps Bryn might get some use from it …
So what was the leg vice used for? It is particularly good at holding large items such as doors or window frames. Sue tells me that all of the houses in her street were built by the same chap, and it seems possible that at least some of the fittings for the houses were prepared on it.
If you want to know more, an English improvement on the old leg vice is here, and the story of someone else who refurbished a leg vice family heirloom is here.