Cutting wood is doubly satisfying for me. Not only am I keeping my house warm, but I’m cleaning up. Here on the farm trees fall down and drop branches all the time. When I moved back to the farm in 1999, I had a wood stove and a teacher’s salary. As children growing up in a big drafty house we all carried the wood my father cut, but we never even carried the chainsaw. Time for a change.
If you are interested in learning to cut wood for yourself, make sure you have a good familiarity with handling and maintaining your chainsaw. Here is my last post on that.
Cutting up downed trees is easy, but you just need to understand how the wood will fall or shift as you cut it. Where is the tension; do you need to cut from the top or the bottom? Where should you stand? Really think about it, or you will at the very least pinch your chainsaw and there it will stick in the tree until you get other tools or another chainsaw to get it out.. At the worst, you will get hurt. Seriously, here is a scary story, required reading:
My mother wanted a satellite dish. The installer said that a certain branch was blocking her reception. My father said fine, you can use my ladder and my chainsaw. The clever young man declined, but offered to hold the ladder while my 70 year old father ascended about 30 feet into a poplar tree to do it himself (needless to say had my mother or I been on the farm we would have dissuaded him). The branch he cut swung down and knocked the ladder out from under him, and he fell to the ground, breaking his pelvis in two places, tearing several tendons in his ankle, cracking his skull, and lacerating his scalp. He had to be airlifted to Baltimore. Thank God he wasn’t hurt worse.
This asymmetrical dead cedar will be easy to cut up, except for the cat briers.
OK, back to work. Let’s start with this old cedar tree that blew down. It had been leaning on another tree for a while, and there is a reason they call those widowmakers. I wasn’t going near it. But now it is down and you can see that because it grew close to another tree all its branches grew off to one side. This will make it easy to get the main trunk away, and if I want since it is in a hedgerow I can just leave the brush there. However there is a lot of complicated tension in the branches, and I will need to watch it not to get my saw blade pinched in a cut.
I made small cuts from either side until I saw where it was going
Cut side branches off flush from main trunk. If this tree had been lying differently I might have first cut the branches off at the smallest usable thickness and worked my way in so as to keep from cutting small branches on the ground and dulling my saw in the dirt. The disadvantage of doing it that way is that if the branches are flexible they can shake around and pull the chain off the bar if you have carelessly allowed it to get loose. This picture shows how a heavy branch can slide when you cut it, rather than bend up or down. I was lucky not to pinch it. I had my feet well clear and I made small cuts from both directions until I saw what was going to happen.
Here you can see how easily this trunk came away. When you are cutting up a big trunk like this, think about how you will be splitting the “rounds.” Cedar is super easy to split, unless there are knots in the wood, and there often are. “Bucking” a log is marking out how you will cut it by making small nicks in the trunk with your saw. I know how deep my woodstove is, but I also know a hard-to-split mess when I see it, so I try to really gnarly logs a lot shorter, either in hopes of splitting them anyway, or sliding them in the stove as a disc, or just throwing them on a bonfire. A nice boring straight round is what I want.
Now I can throw the big rounds (dead cedar is light) in the truck and clear space to get at the branches that are big enough to bother with. I really love the smell and crackle of cedar, and will cut pieces as small as my arm, or even smaller for kindling. Dry cedar catches nicely.
Ok, now lets take another cleanup project. I have a low dead osage orange branch that is really good size, and I have decided to cut it off the tree to open up the view and ease the weight on the tree which is leaning anyway. For now I decided to leave a piece of it there because it makes a nice place for us to sit and admire the sunset. I know the branch is going down, but may twist, so I take off branches that could whack me first, standing out of the way and cutting from the top down.
Osage orange has major BTUs and catches easily, so I will use every bit of this branch. Besides, it is an area that needs to be cleaned up anyway. I do actually cut the branches into lengths right on the branch once it is down (not safe to cut over your head) because they are small and I will definitely get into the dirt and dull my chain if I cut flush at the major limb first. It is pretty stiff and I made sure my chain was on tight. Any brushy stuff left over can start a brush pile right in the field, since I plan to cut up some living small trees that are growing up too close to the shed. The heat of dry osage orange is what I need to get a green brushpile to start.
Cut off branches too small for use, being careful not to endanger your chain.
The wood is a gorgeous yellow color, which might mean the tree has medicine in it for liver ailments. In the Amazon every tree has miraculous healing powers that are known to the indigenous people. I sat and sketched and took notes all day. So why not our own trees? We have lost so much by destroying Native American culture.
Ok, before we quit, let’s cut up this dead cherry tree. It is leaning out so I know I can easily stand next to it and cut downward, and it will fall right down without any surprises. It has been dead long enough that there is no brush to deal with.
when the heavy part of the trunk is cut I will be able to pull the rest of the tree off the cinderblocks.
The only thing I have to watch is that there is a pile of cinderblock rubble somebody forgot here. It was meant to go down the bank for erosion control many years ago. If my blade touches it there will be sparks and a dull chain to sharpen. I will just buck it out, slicing out the fork as short as I can because it is hard to split, and then cut in all the areas that are safe, then pull the now easily movable log to where I can cut it, finish up and start loading the truck.
That was a satisfying day’s work, and I am ready for a hot shower and a beer.
It is winter, and the winds are howling outside, but our big living room is toasty warm despite big windows and french doors. The small woodstove kicks out good heat, and the kettle hisses comfortably on top of it, alongside of a pot of fragrant bean soup that is gently simmering. Outside the door is a stack of wood I cut, split where necessary, and stacked, from dead trees in the hedgerows on this farm.
I think keeping the house warm is a character forming skill for children. Fire-making is a simple competence that is central to human survival, male or female. As the oldest of four girls I learned many skills from my father that he might not have taught me if there had been sons. As the daughter of a German woman I learned early to like work. So as a little girl I gathered kindling, and as I grew bigger, I helped carry and stack the firewood my father cut, along with my little sisters. Especially in the house we lived in in Virginia when he was teaching at Sweet Briar College, this was not just for the benefit of our characters. During the bogus oil embargo in the Seventies, a professor’s salary couldn’t heat a big, drafty house with oil. That house was freezing, and those mountain winters were snowy. It was cold, our feet and hands were numb, and the hills were steep and slippery, but we did what had to be done as a family to keep the fires going. I have to say I don’t think I was sufficiently understanding or fair when my son was 11 and we were hauling wood on the mild, flat Eastern Shore of Maryland. I was divorced and it’s hard for a mother to raise a son alone. Somehow he learned to be strong and protective, and he learned to split wood along the way.
It took some big changes in my life to turn me into a chainsaw woman. My father kept us well away from his Stihl. It was a woodsman thing; no woman could possibly run it without cutting off an appendage. But when I moved back to the farm in ’99, I had no man to cut wood, and there was a cute little Poulan chainsaw at the Lowes for less $99. I had a breakthrough. What a man has that I don’t have is utterly useless when it comes to cutting wood. I had watched this all my life. English professors do this. I could do this. You can do this. Just be careful in everything that you do. Maintain the saw, keep the chain tight so it doesn’t fling itself off the bar and cut you, watch how the wood you are cutting is going to be affected by gravity as you cut so you don’t pinch the bar or drop a tree on somebody. Know what you are doing before you do it, and never hurry.
Buying your first Chainsaw:
OK, let’s get started. You need a saw. Cheap saws are a good start. Not electric- that’s too cheap. Imagine running around the woods followed by extension cords. Gas. You can get a new Poulanat the hardware store for less than a hundred dollars. Go and heft them. Not everybody has the upper body strength and endurance to cut with a 22 inch Stihl, and if you make a mistake you’ll hurt yourself badly. Start with a 14 inch Poulan. I have two 14 inchers and one 16 inch, because they can generally last a year with someone who doesn’t know how to take small engines apart and fix them. And actually, one of them still runs, if put to it. You probably don’t have too many trees that are too big for 14 inches anyway. You might get a used saw cheaper, but if it is your first saw, make sure it is in really good condition and starts on the first pull. Get the instruction manual off the internet and read it through if you don’t get one that comes in a box. Check out all the youtubes. OK, you think you are too good for a Poulan? If money is not that tight, a Husqvarnais the next step up. Stihl is when you are ready to cut with the big dogs. They are pricey but last forever if well-maintained. My husband got me a very old used #41 Farm Boss, 22 inches, for $300 last year, and I take it in once a year for a tune up, which costs me $80 (for 2 saws.) I only use ethanol free gas in it, mixed with a good quality 2 cycle oil, I clean and sharpen it obsessively, and only certain people are allowed to touch it. It is all metal and says “made in West Germany” on it. It is very heavy and if the chain is sharp it goes through a downed locust tree like a hot knife through butter. It would do the same to my foot, if I slipped, so I keep well away from the blade. My back hurts a lot when we have a big blow and I have to cut a lot. Try to alternate between the big and little saw; work until one tank is empty, then switch to the other saw and do a different task. So think about this. Start with a small, light saw.
My niece showing us how it’s done
While you are at it, get protective gear; safety glasses and ear protectors. And steel toe boots. A friend of mine got a huge chunk of wood right in the eyeball while bush hogging and had to go to a specialist at John Hopkins to save his eyeball. When I have forgotten to wear safety glasses the flying sawdust reminded me in a hurry. For your ears there are those little foam rubber plugs, considerately neon colored so when they fall out of your ears you can find them in the leaves. My father used spitwads. They aren’t much good. You can hear just fine with them in. Honestly, you can get excellent quality cheap ear protectors that are made for shooting. I paid about $10 for some Winchester ear protectors at- I admit it- I went- sorry- Wallyworld. The Husqvarna ones ($17) are tougher though. People are always borrowing mine. If you don’t wear them, your ears will feel funny and you won’t hear very well. Seriously. Damage can become permanent, plus ear protectors are nice and warm. As to boots, I live in barn boots- Wellingtons or whatever. It’s just me. They get sweaty, but they are light and I can slip them off and on while shaking sawdust out of them, and wade through mud and muck without a worry. You might prefer some lace up work boots with steel toes.
This is a t-shaped tool that has a screwdriver on one end and two hex drivers on the other. You can’t live without it. It loosens and tightens your chain, the nuts that hold your bar on, and even opens the gas and bar chain oil tanks. You will always be losing it, so spray paint it neon pink or something. Saves cussing.
The new ethanol mix gas tears up small engines, especially if you leave it in the saw for more than a few days. You really should leave the saw either totally empty and dry or full while you aren’t running it. If you aren’t using it for a month or so, fill it with gas mixed with Stabil. Leaving it totally empty for too long can cause the seals to dry and crack. I go to a gas station that has ethanol free gas and fill up my 2 gallon can 95% full. If I’m using a 1 gallon, same thing. Chainsaws used mixed gas. You buy the good quality 2 cycle oil,measure it very precisely, and mix it into the gas by shaking. It’s easy though. The oil I mix it with is either pre-measured or squeezes into a measuring container that is designed for 1 gallon. I want to make sure I err just a tad on the side of less than a gallon, and I can tell how much I bought by looking at the pump. A few pennies of gas is not worth having to overhaul your saw.
pouring bar chain oil into the oil chamber. Don’t get them mixed up….
When you fill your gas tank with the mixed gas, fill the oil reservoir on the other side of the saw as well. They run out at about the same rate, and if you don’t have oil constantly lubricating the bar the chain will overheat and lose the temper of the metal, among other awful things which have never happened to me because I am religious about bar chain oil. Then it won’t hold an edge. Clean off the sawdust so you don’t get dirt in either reservoir. When you are cutting if you are afraid the chain isn’t lubricating hold the chain above some bark and rev the saw. You should see a fine mist of oil darkening the surface. If not, cut off the saw and check the oil.
Tightening the Chain
Your chain should be seated in the groove on the bar with the cutting edges forward. There should be a picture of a chain link with the correct orientation on the blade or the saw somewhere. You may laugh, but I have put the chain on backwards more than once. It doesn’t cut- just makes a sad little groove on the log. Like I said, be careful and watch what you are doing and not only will you avoid removing your legs but you will also avoid the humiliation of revealing yourself as a dork. Of course with the chain on backwards you’d probably just go through the pants and some meat. Researching this post I actually saw that they sell chainsaw safety pants. What’ll these Yankees think up next? (Actually those clever safety conscious Germans, but it’s just something my grandfather used to say.)
You should be able to slide the chain back and forth on the bar easily with a gloved hand, but it should pull away and snap back when you pull it up off the bar. If you are cutting and it is making a rattling or even jingling sound, cut it off and check that the chain is not hanging loosely on the bar. It can flip off and hurt you. If you are lucky, it can flip off and make all kinds of little bumps and dents on the chain that will prevent it from sliding smoothly in the groove. Then you have to file or grind the links smooth again, which takes a long time, and it will never cut as well again. So be aware of how much the chain can loosen ass it heats up, as it wears, and if you didn’t tighten the nuts really well. Check your saw frequently. If you have been cutting for 15 minutes, you probably can cut off the saw and spend a few minutes pulling brush into a pile, putting logs in a cart or the back of a truck or something, while your saw cools enough for you to check it. This is also good for your body. If you do the same thing for too long without varying, you will get sore and not be able to do as much. Do stretch. If you are loosening and tightening the bolts, check to see if there is a lot of debris under the panel and clean that out. Sometimes I get the bit in my teeth and overheat the little saw.
opening side panel of chainsaw with scrench. Dont lose bolts!
To tighten the chain, using the hex head on your scrench, loosen the two nuts holding on the side panel until it is loose enough to wiggle a tiny bit. Locate the tightener screw next to the bar that tightens the chain. Now, using the screwdriver tip of the scrench (see how useful it is?) turn the screw clockwise until the chain is tight enough to snap when you pull it off the bar, but loose enough to slide back and forth on the bar. If you have to take the chain off to clean the saw, take the side panel right off, carefully putting the 2 nuts in the upside down panel and in a safe place. It is amazing how losing those can waste your time. Tip the bar to give yourself enough slack to remove the chain. Don’t sling the chain around as it will turn into a Chinese puzzle. Just lay it carefully on a relatively clean surface in a circle.
Clean dirt, sawdust, and oil off the saw. Some saws can get so dirty the bar chain oil won’t flow, which is bad for the blade. I clean mine before or after each use, and if I am doing something else to it I clean it to make it easier to work.
Putting the chain back on is a little trickier but just do it and you’ll get the hang. First, locate the chain tightening screw on the detached panel and turn it counter clockwise, noticing how the little nub that fits into the hole on the bar moves back. You’ll need to do that so the hole on the bar fits over it. Clean the bar, remembering the groove, and lay it back on the bolts. It doesn’t matter which way. Turn the chain tightening screw until it sits over the hole when you put the panel on the bolts. You can fuss with this later but I just think it’s easier to do it when you are putting the bar in place. Looking carefully at the forward direction of the teeth on top, put the chain over the tip of the bar and around the sprocket, and pull it into place along the groove so that the whole thing aligns. Put the side panel in place and semi-tighten the screws. Make sure the chain tightener is in the hole in the bar and tighten the chain. You might have to slide the chain back and forth a little as sometimes the chain is on the top or bottom of the sprocket and it has to ride over so it slides straight in the groove on the bar. When it is tight enough to snap and slides smoothly, tighten the bolts as tight as you can with the scrench. If you don’t the saw’s vibration will loosen them and the chain will become slack, which is inefficient and dangerous.
Clean the groove out whenever you have the chain off. Put a rag over the screwdriver end of your chainsaw tool and run it down the groove. There is a grease gun you can buy to put lubricant into the tiny holes in the bar. I got some and lost it. I never heard of anybody doing that anyway. If the groove gets too worn the chain will wobble and not cut as well. Sand in soil will accelerate this- another reason to keep your chain out of the dirt. You can buy a replacement chainsaw bar but they cost $25- $50.
Starting the Saw
If you have mixed gas and oil in the chambers, your protective gear is on and you are ready to go, here’s how to start it. Put the choke on. Because I don’t have the upper body strength to hold it with one hand and pull it with the other, I put my boot in the handle, hold it down with my left hand, and pull with my right. Generally one good fast pull will start a happy saw. Then give it some gas and the choke will come off automatically. But saws aren’t always happy. According to which saw you have- those directions are good to read- pull 5 slow pulls, half-choke it, and one good pull. If it almost starts, take the choke off. The next pull should do it.
If you aren’t giving it a really fast pull and you end up flooding the carburetor, you will smell a lot of gas. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so and try again. Some saws have a little plastic bladder pump that you push to prime the motor. Those work well but eventually the plastic cracks. You can fix them but by then you might be ready for a new saw anyway. If it just won’t start it could be that you used old gas. (Gas that sits for even a week in a half-full gas can isn’t fit to use, especially in warm weather, unless it has stabilizer in it. It’s the new ethanol mix that makes it so bad. You really should buy gas in small quantities and use it, or try to get ethanol free.) I throw old gas in my ancient Chevy pickup. It doesn’t care. Chainsaws need fresh gas. If you have been trying to start it using bad gas you may be in trouble- the cylinder may be scored; all kinds of horrible stuff. I have gotten away with just emptying it out, letting it sit a little, refilling it with fresh mixed gas, and starting it. It smoked for a moment but then all was well. I have never had the problem be the spark plug. I do sometimes open the Husqvarna and cleaned the airfilter, but it isn’t that dirty. Honestly, the annual trip to A & L Small Engine Repair in Church Hill is all I need (If you are local to me and want his number I’ll give it to you. Excellent, efficient, and honest. Shoot me a comment.) After you get used to your saw you won’t have any problems. I do like to keep my saws in the greenhouse in winter so they won’t be too cold, but it isn’t really an issue in this climate.
One last caveat for fellow dorks. Are you sure you flipped the ON switch? I won’t say a word….
Watch your arm. Sometimes when you pull the pull start string it pulls roughly and you get your arm jerked. It hurts for a day or two. I don’t really know what the reason for that is, but if you pull it slowly out a few times it will pull smoothly again.
the lines on the metal attachment on my dremel tool show me how to angle my grindstone.
Sharpening the Chain
When the chain is dull, you will know it. You won’t be cutting as fast, and eventually you will see scorch marks on the wood. You don’t want to wait that long, as you may ruin the temper of your chain and then it won’t keep an edge. When you look at the chain, you will see tiny chips and wear marks on the forward edge of the teeth, like a layer is wearing off. The trick to good chain saw wear is even sharpening, and sharpening at the correct angle (30 degrees). You can get a set of little round chainsaw files that go to your saw. The Poulans, Husqvarnas, and Stihls each take a different diameter file. Make sure you find out the diameter you need. My father just set the file at the correct angle and did 10 one-way strokes on each tooth. You can get a device to hold your file the right way as you stroke. My life improved when my DH gave me a cordless dremel chainsaw with bits to sharpen my saws and an attachable guide to show you where 30 degrees is. Just look and be sure you are right up on the edge, and count aloud to make sure you sharpen each tooth the same amount as the Dremel takes off metal quickly. There is also a little curved rise behind each tooth that you should grind down a tiny bit each ten regular sharpenings. If you don’t, as your teeth get shorter you will take off smaller and smaller shavings of wood. There is a chainsaw gauge you can buy very cheaply that you rest on the chain while you file which makes it easy. It is hard metal though. But by this time you will be hooked and won’t mind a bit. A sharp chain is a joyful thing. Once your teeth are nothing but little squares or you have burnt or dinged up the chain you may go buy a new one. They range for 7 to 24 dollars depending on how you buy them, and after all, you are cutting wood to economize.
Now it is time to talk about wood. Click on this link to read about which woods make the best firewood for what.
This is the first year I have done anything myself with hides. Usually I just give them to my friend. She is amazing with Native American skills, and she is involved in an African drumming group as well, so some of my hides have gone onto djembes. The drum master apparently has decided he prefers goat, though. I have 2 hides in the freezer, because it is so cold and damp that they wouldn’t dry well outdoors, and my husband wouldn’t be too thrilled to have them indoors even if I did have a rack to stretch them on. So I planned to wait for spring to nail them to the side of the milk-house. My friend showed me how to flesh the first hide over at her house. The next day I stretched it out with nails on the side of the aforementioned milk-house, sawed open the head with a handsaw, put the brain in the blender with a little water, mixed it into more water, and painted the strawberry milkshake colored result on the hide with a paintbrush. Kinda gnarly, but it could have been worse. Still, it wasn’t really drying and absorbing like it needed to, so I folded it fur inwards, bagged it, and threw it in the freezer. The next one I didn’t even flesh.
The reason I am writing this now is that one of our congas that we use at work has a split head. Rather than spend the 30 bucks to buy a new one, we decided to do the sustainable thing and use what we have. So let’s see what happens!
First I took out the skin and thawed it by the woodstove. Then I put in on the kitchen floor and put the head ring on it to cut around. I didn’t feel like fleshing the whole hide because I knew I really wasn’t set up to do it, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. My friend uses a length of large-diameter PVC pipe; about 9″ I think, to drape the hide over. She braces the bottom of the pipe against a wall and the top end against her hips, with the hide caught between the top edge of the pipe and her stomach. To scrape the hide she has a piece of stainless steel about 14 inches long that has a sharp beveled edge to it. The ends are covered with pieces of garden hose for grips. The edge is sharp enough to remove membranes but doesn’t cut the hide. I think she bought it from a website. Here is an Amazon link for fleshing knives so you can see what they look like.:fleshing knife What I used was a length of 2 x 6 lumber and a machete. This worked ok but the machete was a little sharp (cut my fingers a bit) and the 2 x 6 had corners, so I did end up going through the hide three times. Luckily the holes are around the outsides of the circle, so it isn’t a disaster.
What you need to do here is remove all the scraps of meat, fat, and membranes from the flesh side of the hide. First make sure you have the hide braced so you can scrape it while pressing down pretty hard. Hold your scraper at about a 60 degree angle. You have to get under the stuff you are scraping off, but your scraper can’t be too sharp, so you just scrape until you get through it and it starts to form a bar of membranes that you can make short, hard scrapes against. Keep working it down towards the edge of the hide. If your blade gets too much hair and fat stuck around it just wipe it off and keep going. Hair around the blade does slow down the scraping a little. Be patient. Talk to a friend or think about something. Have your dog near to pick up the scrapings and talk to him or her. Once it gets going it is very satisfying, especially when you get to the edge of the hide and the pieces of membrane disappear into the waiting jaws of your canine buddy. It is starting to look like a usable hide now. You will see that some of the hide looks red or discolored. This is soaked-in blood and I don’t think there is too much we can do about that now. If I keep doing this I will take more pains to keep blood off the hide, which is very absorbent. Maybe when I soak it in wood ashes it will improve.
Now that the hide is scraped I need to remove the hair. My husband asked why not soak it first- maybe the fleshing would be easier after a few days in wood ashes. I don’t know about this, and I will ask my friend, but it sounds nasty. We have a wood stove which fills up with ashes every week, so I half-filled my big enameled canning pot with those, added water enough to make a slurry, and submerged my piece of hide. The next day the hair was loose, but not very. I want it to come off very easily. I decided this after I had dumped it out, so I piled handfuls of wet ashes back unto the hide and set it to work some more. When I pulled out some of the hair, my fingers suddenly pruned up like they had been in water for hours, and I was reminded that wood ashes and water was where country women used to get their lye for making soft soap, and I went for some rubber gloves! I should be able to get the hair off in the next few days so I’ll continue then as a new post.
When I was a young girl you could walk down to the shoreline at low tide and fill a bucket with oysters. Sometimes we’d pop them right off the rocks of the jetties and slurp them up with the seawater right on them. So good! Now oysters are scarcer, because of pollution in the Bay, but primarily because of two introduced diseases; Dermo and MSX, which destroy the hinge ligament and kill the oyster before it reaches market size. I think Juvenile Oyster Disease is still mainly in New England. So why eat them? I really don’t, unless somebody brings me some or there are a few bushels at a party. In that case the deed is done so I might as well rejoice in traditional pleasures. It’s hard not to. I crave them. Maybe it’s the iodine. I remember once scraping up the 98 cents one oyster cost at the Oyster Bar in Penn Station. Had to have it.
So, scrub your oysters in the sink. Some people don’t because they say it takes the taste away, but they are pretty gritty. If they are a lot, in a bushel basket for example, I dump them out on the grass and spray them with the garden hose, to spare clogging the pipes. Now, you need a strong, stiff blade. Oyster knives are sold as such. Here is a nice one:Dexter-Russell 4″ Oyster Knife
I like the longer, sharper ones because you can work them in between the lips of the shell without making so much crumbled up shell. But some people actually pop the shell at the hinge, by brute strength, with a screwdriver. You need a wooden board to work on, and you definitely need a thick tough glove, like the picture on this link, CUT RESISTANT GLOVES-100% KEVLAR®, Heavy Weight Textured Blue Latex Coated,large, (1 pair)because if you slip you will impale yourself with a filthy oyster knife. If you are serving them on the half shell have a plate ready, and if you are making stew have a bowl for oysters and a bowl for collecting extra juices which you can later pour through a sieve to strain out bits of shell.
OK, now, check out your opponent. Your oyster tends to curve one way more than the other, like a paisley pattern. I usually look for a spot around two-thirds of the way around the outer curve, on the top. The top is darker and the lip kind of makes a little shelf that might curl upwards a bit. Get a good grip on the oyster with your holding hand- I’m right handed so I’m holding it with my left, with the hinge towards me. I aim the tip of my oyster knife slanting down into the edge of the oyster lip. I’m going to push the tip through the thinnest edge of the top shell and as I feel it give I’ll start twisting. This will get me further in between the lips of the oyster and I will begin to force them apart a little, enough to slide the blade in and cut the muscle that is holding the shell closed. Feel for the muscle with your knife; it is just about a half inch in somewhere in there. If you can try to keep your knife horizontal and close to the top to avoid mutilating the oyster so it will look pretty. Once you feel your knife go through it, the shells will loosen so you can slide your knife sideways towards the hinge and pop the top shell into a bucket. Loosen the oyster so it sits free in the shell, check for bits of shell with your knife tip, top with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of cocktail sauce, and then tilt that back and slurp it down. Fabulous! That will give you strength to shuck the rest.
How to cook them:
Classic Oyster Stew
Fry a half a finely chopped onion with two slices of bacon, chopped.
Add 12 shucked oysters, without juice. Fry in same pan until curly but no longer.
Add oyster juice.
Add 3 cups of milk and a cup of cream and bring to a simmer.
salt with Old Bay Seasoning to taste. You really need that celery seed and paprika taste.
Grind of black pepper.
Optional: add sliced boiled potatoes.
Some people thicken the milk and cream with flour and some people use more cream.
Serve with oyster crackers or saltines. It is a milk-thin soup, so crumbling in crackers is normal.
Shuck oysters, drain.
Dip in beaten egg, roll in seasoned flour, roll in Ritz cracker crumbs, fry in butter until golden brown. Seriously. They will shrink so make a lot. I would run a mile for just one though.
At a winter feast on the Eastern Shore, it is traditional to put oysters on the grill until they open. They are hot and savory, and a little smoky, cooked in their own juices. That is hard to beat.
Everybody does them with bacon and cheese. They use cheddar.
Fill a baking tray with oysters on the half shell. Put some chopped fried bacon and a thick chunk of cheese on top of the oyster and bake them for 20 minutes at 400.
Also great with some chopped cooked spinach, fried onions, bacon and cheese- I want to say that is Oysters Rockefeller.
My mother did a batch with a champagne dill sauce and a sprinkle of prosciutto slivers. Pretty fancy.
Oyster casserole is pretty delicious but I never made it because it takes a lot of shucking.
Do return your oyster shells to the Bay. They are a good place for baby oysters to grow on. We always used to put ours in potholes but times have changed and oysters need all the help they can get.
Ok, the holiday season is DONE! But wait, I get a quick gripe in before we get down to business.
Winter is for reflection, for going deep. The surface is dead, and we move slowly, thinking of the roots of things. The Miles River is crystal clear; crabs are sleeping under the mud. Winter is for sorting and repairing; preparing for the rush of spring. Stack the washed planting pots according to size, throw out broken ones, tighten handles, sharpen blades. Prune now, reflecting on the perfect shape of the tree, the rose, the grape. Think about your life and your people. Think about your God.
Blam! No, you have to think about reassuring everyone that they are on your holiday list. Making presents, buying things, wrapping, mailing, giving parties, going to parties. Who has time to go deep?
Look, my tradition is Christmas, which is a pagan holiday dressed in Christian clothing to entice the heathen. My ancestors burned a yule log in the cold winter dark in faith that the sun would finally return. They decked the halls with evergreens to remind themselves that spring would eventually come, for some of them. It had nothing to do with Christ. Matter of fact, it can actually become Antichristmas, with the hideous commercialism today.
Well, things are what you make of them- the Devil can quote scripture to his purpose, and we can create moments of love and reverence in our families, even on a pagan feast day. But keep Christ close.
But I feel bad about all the catalogs that get printed for me, to the extent that I sometimes take the time to ask them to stop sending catalogs I never buy from. And I buy less and less, as I save more and more. The internet is a smorgasbord of delightful, clickable seed catalogs. Tomato Grower’s Supply stocks a fantastic array of tomato and pepper seeds. Why even read a paper catalog? Save a tree! But it is delicious, lying comfortably on a sofa by the wood stove imagining the idealized version of my garden, the delicious fruits and vegetables, the happy eaters all around. Go ahead, savor it. Fall asleep with a seed catalog on your chest.
Well, ok now. Unfortunately most of those nice little catalogs have been bought up by one big evil company. Yup, Monsanto. I smell brimstone, as Chavez would say….( If you want some comprehensive information about Monsanto and its quest to own all the seeds, Organic Seed Alliance is a good place to start, thanks to my noble colleague John Navazio, breeder of the famous Purple Dragon carrot.) Seed catalogs are educational though. After a while you will recognize the old varieties, like Detroit Red beets, Silver Queen corn, Danvers Half-long carrots, Cherry Belle radishes, Wando peas, Roma tomatoes; open-pollinated varieties that haven’t been genetically modified, hybridized, etc. These can be bought cheaply everywhere and if you like them in most cases you can save seed from them without too much trouble. Hybrids are fine- often quite vigorous and productive, and a good choice for a beginning. Buying seeds from catalogs is fun, convenient, and allows you to experiment with which varieties you want to grow. It can bring great diversity into your seed collection. (Oh brother, you should see mine…) It’s just that if you want to be self-sufficient, you will want to save seeds that will come true (reproduce the same plant) from your garden every year. This has the added bonus that your plants will adapt to your particular garden over the years, and you will have a larger number of seeds to trade or share. (We will discuss seed saving this summer.) There are great varieties you can try that great gardeners have been saving for hundreds of years just because they are delicious, hardy, productive, or even just odd. That’s the fuss about heirlooms. Take Yellow Brandywine; a huge Pennsylvania Dutch yellow heirloom tomato grown sparingly on a giant plant with potato-like leaves; a big blob of glowing yellow play-doh in the dark green forest. One huge tomato makes a salad; the seed cavities are small, and the color is more orangey inside, so that the bowl lights up with the firm orange-yellow pieces that have a sort of apricot/tomato sweetness. Not too acid, but never bland. I drool as I write. One fat slice with onion and basil, a drizzle of olive oil, a scratch of salt and pepper…Bob’s Big Boy Hybrid just can’t compete. Sorry.
What varieties should you set your heart on? Depends on where you live, what your garden is like, what you want to eat and whether you will can. What is your zone? Most catalogs explain zones. I am lucky to be in zone 7 because so much grows here, but then, so do weeds and bugs. Every zone has its ups and downs. It’s a great idea to contact your agricultural cooperative extension to get a list of varieties that grow well in your area. I have found a lot of information on the internet about frost dates and germination times as well. Some varieties need a longer growing season than I have, like my Peruvian Aji Rojo, which just means red spicy pepper. Such a cute little pepper, about the size of a sparrow’s beak, but powerful! I got it from a friend in Yarinacocha. The parent plant was 4 years old. If I plant them in February I am lucky to get a ripe pepper by November. Luckily I have a greenhouse, albeit wood heated. I have trouble with plants that grow well in cooler areas. Celery, for example. My garden gets hot and it is hard to keep the constant moisture celery likes. Broccoli does best in the fall for me, because in spring if the row covers aren’t perfect the heads are full of green caterpillars. In fall it’s the timing. I have to bring the seedlings to the garden after the harlequin beetles are gone, but I have to protect them from the heat as well, and since I have to seed them in August this can be tricky. But I really love broccoli, so I finally figured out that all I have to do is get about 8 good plants in the greenhouse and we will eat sweet green sideshoots of broccoli all winter and into early spring, lightly steamed and kissed with butter, as long as I keep them picked so they don’t go to flowering.
But there are some plants that just rock some years and other years you just have to be philosophical. For example, watermelon is a Kalahari plant, brought to this country by enslaved Africans. When my mother and I were in Botswana, I found a small, wild, watermelon-looking plant. The River bushman guide told me it was a Tsamma melon. These melons are not sweet but are full of water. In the rainy season, the rains pour down onto the Kalahari desert, which is a big sand deposit blown in from the Indian Ocean. The watermelons sprout and flourish. Then the rains stop, the water soaks away through the sand, and the place dries up to a crisp. But the bushmen know that if the rains were good, they can still cross the desert, because the Tsamma melons are out there, vines and leaves dried to dust, but fruits still full of water. Our other guide told us he and his friends had found a domestic watermelon in the bushveldt, which is where the elephants hang out. Apparently an elephant had raided a village garden, and the seeds in his dung had grown happily in the peri-Kalahari bushveldt. So, why include this story? When our summers behave normally- wet spring, dry July and August, my heirloom Moon and Stars vines keep our refrigerators full to bursting with their cold, sweet, delicious, oddly speckled watermelons. Last year we had a dry spring and a wet August, and Moon and Stars petered out as the vines fell to a fungal blight. Orangeglo, which I was just trying for the first time, gave me 3 small deformed melons- so delicious I may try them again.
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Processing the meat into usable pieces:
It’s great to have friends come help for a share of the meat.
4-5 medium sized bowls for different designations of meat.
a cutting board and a sharp knife for each person helping
a meat grinder set up and clamped in place.
a box of quart and or gallon sized freezer bags
a permanent marker/sharpie
(a box of snack sized bags if you only have one dog)
a stock pot for bone boiling
a heavy pot for fat rendering
I really love to throw a party and roast a whole haunch of venison on the grill. Therefor I wash both haunches, triple bag them in plastic grocery bags or garbage bags, and toss them in the freezer.
It is pretty easy to cut the meat off the shoulders; the front legs. If you have a piece an inch or so thick, cut it into stewing chunks and put it in a designated bowl. Have another bowl for smaller pieces and strips to be ground up into hamburger. Have another bowl for the stuff you want to use for dog food. Gristle is fine in stew and hamburger, but too much sinew clogs up the grinder, and you will get a feeling for what works well for stew meat. The shoulder blade is cool looking- too bad it is really too soft to make a stone age hoe. There is good meat on it; just follow the flat of the bone with your knife. Once the meat is off the forelegs I put all that into a giant stock pot on the woodstove and simmer it forever with a half a bottle of leftover wine. The wine helps the mineral leach out of the bones. We all need to eat more bone broth. It is so good for your joints. Read some of the studies quoted on the Weston Price Foundation’s website.
The torso is a lot of work. Some people waste it. I wouldn’t. The fat on the hind end is thick and stiff. There is usually a lot of thin sheets of fat over the ribs as well. I put that in my black iron pot on the woodstove to render. Leave the lid on; it has an odor. Mixed half and half with beeswax it makes a good candle. I used to save paraffin candle ends to mix with it and give it color, but I found out it gives off unhealthy gases so I just use old beeswax from my hives now. It is too soft to use straight; your candles would sag comically.
The neck has lots of good meat on it for stewing and grinding. If you are willing to take your time you can get lots of little bits out from between the complicated bones of the neck. Detach the long muscles for hamburger and throw away the windpipe. Once I had a deer given to me who had regurgitated food in her esophagus. It smelled really bad and I had to wash the meat a lot, but it made good chili.
Inside the rib cage there are a set of tender straps of meat along the backbone about ten inches long and 2-3 inches wide. Detach them easily by running your knife along the sides of the spine and under along the ribs.They are delicious to fry up or grill right now to give you strength to get all this meat processed. Just wash, pat dry, rub with a little salt and garlic, and throw it in a pan with some oil or grease. Very primal. Yum.
The meat on the hips is great stewing meat, very tender. You could really make pounded chicken fried steaks from a few chunks of that. It is similar to haunch.
If you don’t want to roast your haunches whole like I do, many people slice them perpendicular to the bone and grill that as a steak. I find that a bit tough, plus it is a cut easiest to make if your meat is frozen solid and you are cutting it with a band saw. If my good buddy Terry Price would care to include instructions for her grandmother’s pounded venison steaks in a comment, that would be a good use, plus jerky, stewing, or hamburger.
The last meat I take off the rib cage is the fatty, gristly flat muscles on the outside of the barrel, and the strips of tough dry meat between the ribs. If your knife is sharp it is easy to run the blade along the edges of the ribs and take out the dry little strips. You could throw that in the grinder but I put that in the designated dog food bowl.Satisfied that I have gotten the good of the torso, I carry it out to the field and offer a few encouraging yips to the foxes.
Wash a tenderloin and lay it out on a longer cutting board if you have one. Trim off little messy bits. Notice the shiny pale sinew on top. Run your knife blade under it and slide the blade along, detaching it. Start with little bits until you get the hang of it. Don’t take off any meat if you can help it. Eventually you will be pulling off the sheet of sinew and scraping the meat away from it as it lifts off. I would think you could use it to sew with if you were so inclined. It is very strong stuff. Once your tenderloin is all prettied up, cut it into 2 or 3 pieces. I do three. Wrap and freeze, meticulously labeled. You would be so mad if you accidentally gave this to your dog.
While you are cutting all this meat up and filling the bowls, I hope somebody else is grinding the hamburger designated pieces, bagging up dinner sized quantities of hamburger and stew meat and labeling it with contents and date, and filling up snack size bags for daily dog portions. If not it will give you a break from working too long in one position.
Always scrub everything with hot soapy water and especially clean all your knives, saws, the grinder, meticulously. My husband even likes to bleach the cutting boards, but I think hot soapy water is less toxic and does a fine job. Careful cleanup after a big butchering job is very important. But remember, this is a good clean animal and you are giving so much more attention to cleanliness than would ever happen in a commercial abattoir. You are doing a good, responsible, respectful thing by using this animal as human beings have used them since ancient times. Then hunting wasn’t a sport; it was life, and hunters gave thanks to their gods for the deer.
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Disjointing the Carcass:
Now you have a clean, skinned carcass. It’s time to make it into useable pieces. Set up a clean area where you will be cutting the meat off the bones and putting it into the meat grinder, preparing for freezing, etc. I clear and clean my kitchen table, set up my meat grinder, get out bowls, freezer bags, sharp knives, etc. I will put up an article on my simple Mexican grinder which you can access by searching the posts, since I don’t seem to be able to create internal links yet.
My father used to saw down the spine like they do at butcher shops. Now that we know about prions we don’t do that. The likelihood of you harvesting a deer with a wasting disease is low, but this is apparently the same kind of sickness as Mad Cow Disease, so you understand why you are safer just not opening the spinal column or the brain. My friend uses brain in tanning her hides but she doesn’t eat it. Besides, sawing down the spinal column is a lot of work.
Start by removing the forelegs. This is amazingly easy. Pull the leg out away from the ribs and cut the thin layer of muscles holding it to the chest cavity, then cut through the thin layer of muscles, running your knife around the shoulder blade, as shown. The leg will just lift away. Take it into the preparation area. Grass and leaves are hard to pick off.
Now for the choicest cut; the tenderloin, also known as the backstrap. This is venison filet mignon. On a young animal I have cut barbecued medallions of venison with a butter knife. It is to drool for. Turn the spine towards you and feel the two long columns of meat on either side. They go from the diagonal edge of the haunch muscle all the way down to the neck. Imagine your own back, and feel where those long backstraps begin. Start by inserting the knife along the edge of the spine. it will stop at the ribs. You can run the knife all the way along the edge of the tenderloin, and it will pull away easily from the vertebrae. You will now notice that there is a sheet of membrane over the tenderloin, with a coating of fat on it, which you need to peel away to see the whole of the backstrap. (I do save deer tallow for candle making. Up to you.) Now that you see the outer edge of the backstrap, put your fingers in there so you can know where to cut. You need to make that oblique cut at the top where the backstrap comes off the leg, and then just gently pull and cut so that it lifts out. It gets smaller as it heads into the neck but that is still delicious. Later you will tidy it up and remove the tough, iridescent sheet of sinew. Put it reverently in a bowl and carry it into the kitchen.
For the next step the deer has to come down. The haunches are easy to remove, but the carcass is still pretty heavy so I would generally lay it down on a heavy black plastic bag or something I could wash, like an old sheet. Grasp the hind leg firmly and pull it out and away from the body. Cut the thin belly wall between the haunch and the belly area, and open the leg out as fully as you can. If you push down on the edge of the crotch you can feel where the leg connects to the hips. This is where the ball joint is. Cut through the meat and keep pushing until the joint opens up and you can see the ball coming out of the socket. The photo shows the pelvis in the left side and the leg opened out to the right and upwards. You would then slip the tip of your knife into the socket of the hip joint and sever the tendon that keeps the ball attached to it. This releases most of the tension.
The round white ball joint is in the center of the photo.
Now you can finish cutting off the leg. Make a curving cut up towards the spine so that that meaty area comes away with the haunch. Anything that stays on the hip can be trimmed off for chunks of stew meat. The leg comes off looking like a ham from the grocery story. Saw off the hind legs above the hock just like you sawed off the front legs. Carry that to the kitchen.
The torso has a lot of good meat on it, but it is an awkward thing. I just wrap my arms around it and carry it to my kitchen table, where I will get every bit of meat off it I can. Once that thing is out of the kitchen, though, things look a little less barbarous.
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Skinning: Getting the hide off
Starting takes the longest; after you get it started it is very easy to skin a deer.Taking care not to cut the Achilles tendon, which would dump the carcass on the ground and not improve your day, make a horizontal cut through the thin skin and white hair on the inside of the leg, below where the stick is going through the leg. I tend to make a cut in several short cuts to control it better. Again, stay away from the tendon. Grasp the cut edge of the skin and pull it back a little, and then make a perpendicular downward cut down the leg towards the crotch. Now you can expand the cut, pulling the thin skin away from the leg as you go and slicing through the membranes that attach the skin to the body. This is easy and obvious; just lay the blade parallel to the body and draw it towards you across the connective tissue so that the skin comes away. Do this on both sides until you have cut all the way around the leg and the skin is starting to hang away from the leg. Keep pulling the skin away, making small slicing cuts through the membranes that attach the skin to the body. At some point you are going to have to saw off the tail to keep going. Grab the tail in one hand and saw rapidly at the base of the tail until it comes away in your hand. (I guess if I had plans to tan the hide for a rug or something I would be more careful.) Any saw is fine. I use a hacksaw. Here you see the very fatty deer butt with the tail sawed right off.
By this time you have the skin off the haunches and can shuck the skin off the back with a steady pull and a few flicks of the knife. Don’t worry when you start to pull the thin layer of meat away close to the shoulders. Unless you are planning to use the hide, it’s really such a small amount of meat that I just let it go until we get to the neck. If you are using the hide you’ll have to remove it when you are scraping the hide. More on that later. Here you see the hide halfway off. See the little bits of cellophane looking tissue you have to cut through as you are shucking the hide down- just like a sweater.
When you get down near the forelegs you can remove the skin the same way you did on the other end, with a lengthways cut along the inside of the leg, running in from the edge of the body cavity. I like to use as much of the upper joint of the foreleg as I can, because that tough gristly muscle makes delicious stew meat. Saw the leg off by grasping the knee firmly in one hand and sawing through the leg at a safe distance from your hand. Continue to pull the skin down the neck, like pulling off a sweater. At this point I do go through the muscle attached to the skin and it becomes more difficult to remove the skin, requiring lots of small slicing movements. The neck meat is great, so make the effort to go as far as you can before you saw the head off. I have a friend who actually does a chunk of neck in the crock pot and she says it is the best. I’m leery of spinal matter so I just try to get as much meat off those tricky cervical bones as I can with a sharp knife. Anyway, saw the head off by grabbing hold of an ear- or whatever works for your hand- and saw away until it comes loose. This is not rocket science.
Dispose of unwanted parts as responsibly as you can. I have a friend who uses my hides for tanning and to make drum heads. Some people make hooves into Native American style rattles. Deer legs are so thin and dry that they don’t smell or leave bloodstains, so they make a great gift for a dog. We live on a farm, so I just throw the bones including the grisly-looking ribcage out in the field and watch to see what comes to clean up the scraps. As for the guts, if you would like to avoid sending compostable biomass to the landfill, dig a really deep hole for what you don’t use and cover it with dirt and something heavy. Dogs will dig deep for such a treat and then you will wish you had dug deeper. I have been lucky with a foot and a half; about the depth you would bury a departed pet….
First, this is a good time for you to have a good edge on your skinning knife. And later when you are cutting the meat into usable pieces it will make the job so much easier. I use a French pocketknife called an Opinel. The metal is relatively soft and takes a great edge. See my review of Opinel knives here. You can’t do that with a kitchen knife. You need a comfortable knife with a short, sharp, curved blade. Mine is about 3 1/2″ from the haft to the tip. Learning to put an edge on a knife is not too difficult, but my father is obsessive about it so I had to practice secretly. He’s the sort of person who watches for two seconds before he explodes with “Let me do it!!!” For a small blade like this you want a sharpening stone. Often one side of the stone is a little rougher than the other. Do that side first. Spit on the blade, or ok, you can use some edible quality oil. Lay the blade at about a 30 degree angle on the stone, with edge flush against the stone. Lifting it away from this flush position would make a blunter edge. Rub the blade against the stone in a circular pattern. It’s as if you are trying to shave the stone. Do this for several minutes. It takes a while. You can check an see if you can see a bright shiny area right by the edge which shows you have removed some metal. Try the edge by cutting a hair off your forearm. I have tried it slicing of a few hairs on the end of my braid as well. Just the split ends…. If you maintain your edge it doesn’t take as long the next time.
People do horrible things to knives. When I taught high school in New York City I took a drop knife away from a kid. I think I only got it away from him because it never occurred to him that I would try to take it. I was amazed to see the horrible deep gouges along the blade. It had been sharpened on a street curb. I gave it to my father for a conversation piece and he put a nice edge on it. Sort of a rescue dog knife, if you know what I mean.
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, about the time we go back to school one begins to see these reddish brown to tawny clusters of mushrooms everywhere; on the lawn and on the edges of woods. Armillaria Tabescens.They are almost bouquet-like. If you pull them up you will see that they are in fact grown together at the bottom. The technical term- attention Scrabble lovers- is cespitose. They grow from buried wood, and when picked young they are delicious; with a mushroomy flavor that seems a pit caramel-like to me. They grow in huge quantities and can be frozen, canned in a pressure cooker, and dried. Here is a small laundry basket with one cluster.
Time to put the fear of God in you. Now, this is a variety that is easy, to me, to identify from a photograph, but but that’s me and I’ve been doing this for a very long time. You might think it looks the same a a Jack O’Lantern, which is poisonous, or a Big Laughing Jim, which tastes bitter and will apparently make you giggle. So before you go mushroom hunting, read The Audubon North American Field Guide to Mushrooms, or Peterson’s Mushroom Field Guide. I grew up with the former, and find the book physically durable- mine still has the puppy chew marks from my dear old Lab now dead. Try to find a mentor. My father taught me, but he learned from a book and we were very cautious. Some of our Russian and Ukrainian neighbors have more background in mushroom foraging and others. Bottom line: Never take a chance. A yummy mushroom is not worth your life. The lethal dose for a Death Cap, which is a big white pretty mushroom, is a cubic centimeter. The only way to save your life is a liver transplant.
OK, now if you decide to forage ahead, and you are totally sure this is what you have, check that the caps are fresh and young. This photo shows a cluster that is right in the middle- not the baby size but not too mature. If they have deposits of powder on them, they have sporulated and won’t be as tasty. If they have nice little caps that are still curved under, they are probably yummy. They are beloved by tiny little white worms, which, while not poisonous to you, are kind of gross. Split a cap down the middle and look for little holes. I am guilty of not worrying about one or two holes if I don’t actually see the worms, but generally I just get them as quickly as I can and process them right away.
Here is a photo of armillaria tabescens cooking down in a cast iron pot. So good!
My favorite way to preserve them is to slowly brown some onions in salted butter, cut the caps off the clusters which I have harvested whole, rinse them quickly, drain well, and cook them down. I salt them a little, and eat them with egg noodles, rice, etc., then freeze what is left. (Once in a while I get the quantity to pressure cook them in Mason jars, as I know that anything in my freezer may be lost in an extended power outage.) They become succulent and rich, but reduce much in volume, so harvest a lot, and process immediately. They won’t wait.