The Chainsaw Massacre

Over the years I made various assaults on the wattles with my chainsaw but my impact was minimal. The smaller gum trees were useful for building the kitchen and sheds but many of the trees were too big for our purposes. Our initial plan for the farm was not agricultural at all – we worked with the vague aim of rehabilitating the soil. We planted indigenous trees in the clearings that we managed to establish and started vegetable gardens in various places but for the most part, the land was an almost impenetrable tangle of invasive aliens. I would plunge into a section with the chainsaw and we inched forward in this way but finally we got a contractor in with a bulldozer. It was an old machine and it broke down several times. On occasion it would sit for months while Vissie, the contractor, tried to find a replacement part. In the end he “cleared” the gum trees but the farm was left looking like a battleground. Again, we planted indigenous trees and shrubs in a haphazard way, hoping to create an indigenous forest. We also planted olive and nut trees in the hope that we could eventually be able to live a kind of subsistence life with veggies, chickens and so on. I started a process of tidying up the shattered trees by piling the fragments into circles – a kind of land art project.

A chainsaw is a wonderful tool. We would never have managed to clean the farm without it. I’ve lost a couple to theft and one to sheer overwork and once I almost cut my leg off. The wattle are like an invading army and when a big tree starts shedding its seeds they germinate and grow close together, tall and thin as they fight for light. So when you start cutting them out you need to start on the fringes, working your way into the center of the copse and getting the trees that you fell to fall into open land. Sometimes despite your good intentions, you find yourself working among the other trees and when you drop a tree that falls on the surrounding ones it becomes a real hazard. One morning I was cutting wattle below the koi pond and a sapling that had been bent under the weight of a felled tree whipped loose and slammed the saw into my knee. Fortunately I had taken my finger off the trigger-throttle a split second before so the chain was slowing but it still cut a nasty groove in my patella.

There are no more gum trees or Hakkea on the farm and we have killed the bulk of the black wattles but there is an infestation of scrub pine on the slopes of the gorge that we are still working on. Policing the cleaned area is an ongoing chore – the wattle seeds remain viable for decades and blackwoods jump up out of nowhere. On every afternoon walk we pull up a few wattles that suddenly appear skulking in the undergrowth. Once a piece of land has had black wattle on it for any length of time you are going to have to be on your guard for ever. And you are going to have to develop a pattern of vegetation that allows you access. It is no good allowing nature to take over again: you’ve got to have open, park-like areas and develop a system of paths that lets you get at the invaders.
The fires that have periodically raged through the Crags and, more recently through Knysna, have woken everyone up to the dangers of alien vegetation and the need for firebreaks. We have cleared steadily and although we are still terrified of fires, we have a lot of good, open space on the farm.