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July 27, 2005

Remember that old saw

Michael B. relates a saw-based story that reminded me of one of my Contra Costa Times columns. This one ran in June 2001. The yard described was at our last house in Richmond. (Still is, in fact.)

Faithful Old Tool on Cutting Edge

Forty or 50 years ago, someone planted a handful of Hollywood junipers in my neighborhood. A few are still there, waving ungainly limbs in the constant breeze.

One is in my yard.

I have had mixed feelings about this fact since we moved in to this place. On the one hand, the tree feeds and houses birds. It blunts the constant wind off the Bay, and it provides shade on the five or six afternoons a year when the wind stops and the sun beats down.

On the other hand, it's a 50-year-old Hollywood juniper. This is a plant best suited to regular, severe pruning - a picturesque specimen at an entryway, not allowed the slightest latitude. If you prune plants the way Barbara Woodhouse trained dogs, you can keep a Hollywood juniper in line. But if you slack off on that metaphorical choke chain, this tree goes bad fast. Left alone for a few years, it becomes a bizarre, sprawling thing, a trunk like a convention of anacondas, twisted branches heading in all directions, a profusion of points running on forever and heading nowhere, not unlike this sentence. Tim Burton might use old Hollywood junipers as movie set landscaping if he did yet another remake of Psycho.

Still, I didn't mind the ominous look of the thing, not even when I'd wake at 3:00 am and see it backlit against the gray fog through the bedroom window. What bothered me was the lowest branch, 5 1/2 feet above the patio: too low for a tire swing, yet too high to keep from hitting my head. One summer week, the branch must have clonked me on the head 15 times as I mowed the lawn, moved potted herbs back and forth, tended the barbecue grill. The 16th time, something snapped. Not the branch: that was as sturdy as ever. Something in me. Before I knew it, I was bathed in sweat and sawdust, and there was more than 15 feet of juniper limb on the ground.

The limb stayed there for a while. The little hand saw I'd amputated it with was fine for one cut, but this was a six-inch-thick branch: cutting it into 18-inch sections with a saw designed for pruning dwarf fruit trees would have been both difficult and tedious. I started shopping for chainsaws.

I'll confess I don't like chainsaws. As a former professional gardener, I've taken apart more than my share of trees, but I'd always been able to use one of my collection of exotic Japanese pruning saws. It was rather a point of pride. With my 14 inch Silky saw, I could take a quarter cord of wood off a plum tree before a chainsaw user could start his machine. And I did so without ear-splitting noise, choking fumes, or gouged epidermis.

Lest you think I'm bragging, I'll confess the tools get all the credit. There's just something about a Japanese pruning saw. Or several things. For instance, the saws cut on the pull stroke, rather than the push stroke. This is an important difference when you're pruning a tree from the inside, 20 feet up, precariously balanced as the wind picks up; pulling allows you to maintain your center of gravity. A pruning sensei might put it this way:

balance and power come from drawing inward.
Pushing outward is weakness;
a fall onto the agave follows.

There were benefits other than efficiency to my trusty Silky. Never mind that its wooden scabbard, hanging from my belt loop, made me feel slightly like an extra in an early Kurosawa film. Just using the saw, feeling its sharp teeth cut smoothly into the wood, seeing clean cuts and smelling sap as the hidden potential shape of the tree emerged, was what is commonly called a "centering experience." It was the one thing I regretted leaving behind when I quit my gardening business, and the Silky saw stayed in my truck. In 1997, as I drove a twisty mud road between Coalinga and Parkfield, I came upon a downed oak blocking the road and smiled. Out came the saw, and I was on my way again in five minutes.

If Japanese pruning saws have a drawback, it is that their creators sensibly make the things only as sturdily as they need to be if used properly. Try to cut on the push stroke, and the blade will bend. In 1999, I cut down a tree in a friend's back yard, then rested as she cut the trunk to fireplace length with my beloved saw. "I am too cutting on the pull stroke" she told me, a second before the blade snapped in two.

That's not the reason she and I aren't still friends, but it didn't help.

For some months, my smaller Japanese saws had sufficed, but this was too big a job. Looking through the chainsaw catalogs, I had trouble making a decision. Do I go with an 18-inch bar, too short for wood more than about 10 inches thick, or a 24, which means more chain to sharpen, not to mention the extra hundred simoleons? What kind of power source? Electric is quieter, but I might want to saw something more than a 100 feet from an outlet someday. Gas-powered saws do have the advantage of portability, but do I really want to burn gasoline so that I can burn wood later? Which power source do I want my saw hooked up to; an oil refinery or a nuclear power plant? I should get earplugs, and those Kevlar chaps look like a good idea. Maybe I could have my Kaiser number engraved on the saw, to save time.

Eventually I decided and bought the saw I'd chosen, and the branch became a neat stack of cordwood. It took hardly any time at all, and I cut up a few other things when I was done. It's a Silky Masaru 360, the best that Japanese handsaw technology has to offer. It's a bit longer than my old Silky was, with a plastic scabbard instead of a wood one. It feels good in my hand, and it cut through that juniper like a knife through angel food cake. And it possesses a feature the old saw lacked: you can replace the blade if it breaks. Why go through heartache if you can't learn from it?

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 27, 2005 04:35 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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When my husband and I were in our twenties and living in the South Pacific, one of the first things we noticed was that Asian workers cut on the pull stroke with their saws. We spent several conversations trying to figure why the cultural difference. You seem to think that it is a better way to cut. Any physics on this?

Posted by: Tabor at July 30, 2005 07:39 AM
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