Chainsaws are the indisputable kings of power tools. There’s not a man alive who doesn’t immediately devolve into Tim Allen ape grunting seconds after hearing the sputtered pops of a chainsaw being started. When the throttle is fully engaged and the screaming metal shrieks through a neighbourhood, like DIY meerkats, men turn their heads to see what’s going on.
Thankfully women, mainstays of sober second thought when it comes to power tools, rarely let their men use chainsaws. This is especially true, and imperative, when it comes to, you know, actually cutting down trees. Prune a few branches or cut some fire wood, sure, that’s relatively safe in the sense he is only going to hurt or damage himself. Cut down a forty foot spruce tree beside a house, umm, let’s maybe call in a professional for that, okay?
All of which explains why the first major project of our do it ourselves home renovation plan involved very little do it myself. If you’re starting a painting, the first thing you need is a fresh canvas situated in a clutter free workspace. My canvas is a forty-four year old home and even on the Prairies that means Nature has grown some clutter in the way. In our case, trees.
I’m a tree guy. I love trees. But I’m a decidedly deciduous tree guy. I fancy a thick, blue spruce covered in tinsel and lights at Christmas time and I stand in jaw agape awe whilst staring up into the heavens at the foot of a western red cedar, but beyond that the appeal of coniferous trees wanes significantly. They’re pretty, yes, but oh so damned messy and annoying. Maple, oak, elm, birch; those are the trees for me, thanks.
This arboreal bigotry is no doubt a function of my upbringing. Raised in Southern Ontario, I spent my youth climbing gloriously crowned maple trees, gathering chestnuts, and pilfering “paper” bark. Sugar bushes were part and parcel of every local farm creating colourful, life-sized works of art each fall and syrupy, sweet deliciousness each spring. And shade. Just sitting lazily in the shade, sheltered from the dogged sun, the slightest breeze a refreshing balm on hot, muggy summer days. There’s nothing better.
Life eventually took me West where poplar, birch, and elm (knock on wood) remain but the maples and oaks are gone. Mountain ash and crab apple make for pretty substitutes, but they are inevitably smaller. Mostly, though, spruce and pine spill down from the mountains to hold a far more prominent place in urban landscapes.
One needs only drive outside Calgary city limits to realize that trees shouldn’t be here at all. This is Prairie and aside from crooked willow shrubs and stunted aspen, nothing taller than unkempt grass should be growing here. So while I recognize the exceptionality of Calgary’s urban forest and the rare oasis of beauty it represents, I also curse the myopic home builders and landscapers who continue to plant trees as though they are utterly unaware these lifeforms will grow up, and out.
The result of their shortsightedness, dare I say ineptitude, can be found all over mature neighbourhoods in this and many other Prairie cities, where majestic spruce trees stand but ten feet from homes, their branches like prickly octopi enveloping the houses and dropping an endless rain of needles on them clogging eaves, killing grass, and stabbing feet and hands, not to mention the sticky sap that gets on everything and is remarkably resilient to soap. They are a scourge. So when it came time to initiate our renovation, the two spruce trees shrouding the front of our home had to go. As did the one in the back corner of the yard for good measure. And since I was on a roll, the overgrown lilac bush too, though that one I did myself because, CHAINSAW!
It would have been fun to play lumberjack with some of my buddies, but with house destruction a significant risk, we hired an arborist in the community to cut down our trees. I was very stressed about doing this. I love trees, yes, but more foreboding was the fact that I couldn’t change my mind after the deed was done. If you paint your house and decide the colour is awful, you can just repaint. If you cut down a half-century-old tree and decide your decision was misguided, you can’t just put it back up. You can plant a new one but that tree is only going to be enjoyed by the next owner of your house.
The day it happened, I was a pacing, nervous wreck. My son was bouncing off the walls with excitement because CHAINSAWS! And wood chippers. And stump grinders. The holy trinity of tree-related machinery. By day’s end, the workmen all finished and cleaned up, all three trees now a pile of slabbed firewood in my yard, I stood alone out front, my guts still churning with nerves, staring at my now fully exposed home wondering what the hell I had done. Moments later an older gentleman, presumably a neighbour from down the street, road past on his bike and shouted, “I love what you’ve done to the place. Can finally see your house.” Never have much needed words been spoken at such a perfect time as those. A wash of relief cascaded through my body and I smiled. Sad as it was to cut down such proud trees, it was the right thing to do. My canvas was now ready for painting.
And believe me, painting is very high on the to do list! I have loathed the colour of our house since the moment we first looked at it prior to purchasing. It’s brown, which isn’t terribly appealing at the best of times but has its place in residential architecture, I suppose. This, however, can only be described as a fecal brown, one readily familiar to any human who has ever peered inside a diaper. With two large trees obscuring the front of the house, this unfortunate colour scheme was at least partially disguised to passersby. Now it is exposed in all its awful ugliness and this winter can’t pass soon enough so I can begin the task of putting it out of its misery.
We had a terrific experience with our arborist. They were friendly, tidy, and efficient. To remove three large trees and grind four stumps, the fourth belonging to the horror show lilac I cut down myself, cost us a shade under $2500. That may seem like a lot but it’s far cheaper than replacing a roof or a car and, besides, I ended up with lots of excellent firewood.
You’d be excused for thinking this first renovation task was complete but you’d be woefully wrong. In fact, I had no idea the hell that awaited me. Moving chunks of green wood, some almost three feet in diameter was definitely a chore, but it ultimately paled in comparison to the torture that was root removal.
Here’s the thing folks, stump grinding does not eradicate all evidence of a tree’s former existence. Forty-four year old trees have extensive root systems just as impressive as the form seen above ground only with far less symmetry or reason. The grinding removed the large, thick core of the tree base but the spidery support structure remained intact a few inches below the surface. With landscaped enclosures built around each tree, these roots had actually grown above the surrounding ground level and now that we were hoping to revert the entire front lawn to its original grade, I had the unenviable task of removing the remaining root system that would potentially protrude above the forthcoming lawn. I … I had no clue how hellish this would be.
Thankfully the kids were ready to “help” and I did get to use my small, electric chainsaw but mostly it was hours of dirty, sweaty, manual labour the likes of which I really shouldn’t be doing and took far longer than I imagined possible. This cost us nothing, save for multiple years of my life, but I did get a couple trips to the dump out of it so win-win?
Six months have now passed since the trees were removed and most of my regret has vanished. I’m glad we got rid of them and I look forward to not having to remove gobs of rotten spruce needles and cones from my eaves several times a year. The elm trees we planted four years ago are now front and centre and will make for a stunning, shady front yard when they grow up, likely after I’m dead thanks to the root punishment I self-inflicted.
This wasn’t technically a DIY project, though I did do a lot of work on it. Still, it was a start and it felt terrific to actually be making progress on transforming our home. Like a manual transmission in a car with a busted starter, sometimes you just need to get things rolling to start. The journey takes off from there.