The Farm Report: Chicken Man Goes Jungle-Whacking

I said I’d post pictures of the birthday presents I bought myself, so here’s one of them:  a Stihl weed-whacker with a rotating blade attachment.  I bought the blade so I can finally start attacking the briar-patch jungle near our creek.

I had already done a bit of cutting when Chareva snapped these pictures, but you can still get a sense of how thick the briar jungle is.

I wore protective chaps and a helmet partly because everyone said it’s a good idea and partly because I’m a bit of chicken it comes to power tools – a trait I blame on my upbringing.  My dad’s toolbox was a drawer in the kitchen.  It contained two screwdrivers and a wrench, none of which he ever personally handled.  There was also a rumor that he kept a hammer somewhere in the garage.  As far as I know, he never used a chainsaw, miter saw, power drill or socket wrench in his entire life.  He fixed things by picking up the phone and hiring people who knew how to fix things.

My dad once nearly junked a big, expensive TV after lightning struck the house and the TV went dead.  He assumed something had exploded inside the TV and asked me to go with him to shop for a new one.  Even though I inherited his lack of interest in tools, it occurred to me to fish a screwdriver from the kitchen drawer and remove the back of the TV.  Yup, blown fuse.  I bought a replacement at the hardware store for something like 25 cents and brought the TV back to life.  My dad was awe-struck and considered me some kind of savant.  He treated me to 18 holes of golf to say thanks.

Sometimes inherited traits seem to either skip a generation or come out of nowhere.  Neither of my parents could play a musical instrument or sing on key (my mom has honored several requests not to sing at birthday parties), but I ended up playing in bands and writing songs.  In a similar mysterious development, the Older Brother took to engines, power tools, baseball, fishing, hunting, and other regular-guy pursuits that either mystified or bored my dad.  The first time the Older Brother rebuilt an engine as a teenager, my dad looked suspiciously at my mom until she pointed out which of the Older Brother’s features clearly came from dad’s side of the family.

Under the Older Brother’s tutelage, I learned to change the oil and spark-plugs on the Volkswagen I drove in college.  That was the peak of my tool-man career.  I spent most of my post-college life living in a small apartment in Chicago where, like my dad, I was satisfied with a hammer, screwdriver and wrench.  I used the hammer to hang pictures, the screwdriver to pry open jars of peanut butter, and the wrench to … actually, I don’t think I ever used the wrench.

So naturally, Chareva concluded that a guy with my background would be the ideal candidate to buy a small farm that needs lots of work — work that not only requires using tools, but dangerous tools.  Her dad’s a major power-tool guy who built his own working railroad around his property, so in her mind, these are just the kinds of things guys do.

I was able to mask my fear and ineptitude during our first year on the farm by claiming it would make more financial sense if I took on extra programming work and then paid other people to do the hacking and banging and sawing around our property … in other words, I adopted my dad’s method of fixing things by hiring people who know how to fix things.  To avoid suspicion that I was motivated more by fear than finance, I even volunteered to take on tasks that involved non-powered tools, such as pounding t-posts into the ground.  (I’d much rather risk smashing my thumb than, say, having to locate it somewhere in the front pasture.)

I probably would have gotten away with the subterfuge for years if I hadn’t gotten addicted to disc golf.  Chareva reached the logical conclusion that if I had time to play 72 holes on weekends, I clearly wasn’t loaded down with extra programming work.  She asked why on earth we’d pay someone else to clear the land when we had the time and the ability to do it ourselves.  So I finally confessed to a deep-seated fear of setting out to cut down some bushes and ending up with a well-deserved nickname like “Stumpy.”

Being the smart cookie she is, she figured out how to push me past my fear of using power tools:  she threatened to use them herself.  Now I was facing a fear bigger than cutting off my own toes:  having to explain to an emergency-room surgeon why my wife cut off her toes while I was in the kitchen cooking up a loaf of almond-butter bread.

“I see, Mr. Naughton.  So the root cause of your wife’s tragic condition is that you’re a big chicken.”

“I concur with your diagnosis, Doctor.”

“Your wife will need reconstructive surgery, and for you, I’m prescribing several weekends working with a chainsaw.  Real men aren’t afraid of power tools, Mr. Naughton.”

So this weekend, for the first time since I mowed lawns as a teenager, I fired up a tool with a gasoline-powered engine and enough cutting power to seriously hurt me.

It was awesome.

The week-whacker blade easily sliced through the thorn bushes, some with trunks as thick as my shins.  This of course means the blade could just as easily slice through my shins, so I was happy to wear the protective chaps.  I thought all the safety gear might be overkill, but I was soon proved wrong.  Several times, flying bits of thorny branches ricocheted off the facemask.  Several more ricocheted off the chaps.  I know from painful experience that jeans are no match for those thorns, some of which are an inch long.  A thorn-missile launched by a power tool could leave me with a punctured vein in my thigh or perhaps even a serious testosterone deficiency.

I hacked away at the briar jungle for about an hour and Saturday and another hour on Sunday.  I ended both sessions when the week-whacker ran out of gas.  That seems to be about the point where my hands are getting numb from the vibration, so it’s a good time to quit and start gathering up what I’ve cut.

In the picture below, you can see the progress I’ve made so far.  Three days ago, the briar patch was growing all the way up to the trees you see in the foreground.  I’m guessing I’ve cleared about a third of the entire briar jungle, at least on that side of the property.

Unfortunately, clearing the jungle means building up another one of these:  a thorny burn pile with an insatiable appetite for poorly-thrown discs.

I’m not going to go through that again.  I’m suspending my disc-golf play until I’ve cleared the jungle, then I’m going to cover the burn pile with a giant net, the same kind we used to cover our chicken-yard to keep the hawks away.  We’ll let the pile dry out, then burn it up.

In the meantime, I’ll get over my fear of chainsaws and start cutting up that big pile of logs by the barn.  If I don’t do it, Chareva will … at least that’s what she told me.


31 thoughts on “The Farm Report: Chicken Man Goes Jungle-Whacking

  1. SteveL

    You are following in my path.

    Bought an old farm 3 yrs ago. Always afraid of chainsaws, since the Texas Massacre movie, and Scarface.

    I started with the Stihl trimmer, I stared with the circular saw type blade, switched over to a Triangle blade, – it is easier and faster with thinner canes and brush.

    This fall I bought myself a chainsaw for my 50th. Scary, but very quick going. I find it very good exercise.

    Watched your film, everyone in the extended family, and my close friends have been exposed to the story. No bread in the house anymore. Just some nut/seed crackers. My high school boys don’t even notice I don’t serve them grass fed burgers on buns anymore.

    I couldn’t bring myself to get the triangle blade. The guy at the Stihl dealership told me those sometimes grab onto things and cause the unit to jump — not exactly what a newbie who’s afraid of losing a toe wants to hear.

  2. ChristineD

    So proud of you!
    Some lighter fluid and some fire would dry that thorn pile up pretty quick, with the added effect of a lot of smoke! But it’s instantly gratifying!

    I’ll try to be patient and let the pile dry out first. The last time we let them dry out, they went up like matches.

  3. Chris

    So what are your plans to stop the briars inevitably growing back from the cleared site? Goat? Or something more long lasting (chemicals).

    Actually, rumour is you can eat the new shoots. Not sure about the carb level.

    My plan is to keep whacking ’em as they grow back.

  4. Rebecca Foxworth

    You’re smart to wear protective gear, particularly the logger’s helmet. It will protect your hearing. Also, we never lit the pilot light in the heater in my childhood home. It was all wood heat for us. My father was quite experienced with both chainsaw and log splitter, but it took only one unexpected knot to cause a kickback that sent the chainsaw into his face. Chippd his jawbone. Grazed the cheekbones. Missed the eye by milimeters. Bounced off his neck, cutting the skin between his windpipe and artery. They stopped counting at 160 stitches.

    He survived and had little lasting effects, save an occasional twitchy eye. He still cut wood, but you never caught him without a logging helmet, despite ribbing from friends. He would tell them there was a difference between fear and respect, and he now had a healthy respect for the danger inherent in using a chainsaw.
    Wear. Your. Helmet.

    Yee-ikes. I’m going to wear the helmet whenever I’m doing outdoor work with power tools. A friend of mine told me a guy he knows lost a front tooth when a weed-whacker — and we’re just talking about the whirling cords here, not a blade — launched a pebble into his face. The tooth could’ve just as easily been an eye.

  5. Bruce

    I have and am able to do many of the jobs/repairs around the house. My dad was pretty handy, and could build cabinets with, for the most part, hand tools. I learned a lot from him. As the years (60 of them) have gone by, one thing I discovered as I do more of the jobs is, I know which ones are better left to the professionals. I can tell from the start how many trips to the hardware store this one will be. Figure in the amount of times up and down a ladder, multiply by the amount of ibuprofen, carry the 3…and um, hand me the phone.

    I do like doing the yard work and such 2 acres of property and it’s great to be outside. Unless it’s a bad mosquito season.

    I’ll still hire people for some jobs, such as cleaning the leaves from the second-story gutters. I don’t like heights, and I don’t want Chareva climbing up there.

  6. Laura F

    I think you should get some goats or sheep to do the maintenance work for you, as suggested above.

    Sheep are in the future plans, but not until we fence in the entire property.

  7. Mark.

    The briars will try to grow back. Repeated cutting can help, as can letting rank new shoots grow for a while and then spraying those with Roundup. Another alternative is a movable pen with a pig or two, I’m told: pigs will grub up and eat the roots, supposedly.

    I wonder if a pig could actually dig these up. The roots seem to spread out forever.

  8. Mike

    I started clearing my property similar to your current approach. Then I found an old Gravely Model L with a 30″ brush cutter. With that you can do 5-10 times as much cutting in the same amount of time. Might be something to look into with the farm. I also have a tiller that I can attach to till my garden. It was called a 2 wheel tractor, because there were some 39 or so different attachments made for them. Here are the two I currently own:

    Maybe, but some of the briar-bushes are taller than I am with very thick trunks. I’m not sure I could run a brush cutter over them.

  9. The Older Brother

    Quitting when you’re tired/numb is as important as any safety equipment. Fatigue means you’re paying more attention to how you feel than the tool.

    Do the chaps really protect you from a slicing blade? My (incomplete) understanding is that they prevent major damage from a chainsaw accident by jamming the chain/teeth quickly.

    May have to get one of those for the land up here!


    They do jam the chain. The guy at the Stihl dealer told us a customer came in with a chainsaw that needed repair after taking up a piece of his chaps. The guy was only going to cut one branch and didn’t want to bother putting on the chaps, but his wife harangued him into it. Good wife. The branch snapped and the chainsaw hit the guy right across the thigh.

    I don’t know if they’d stop a rotating blade, but they do stop flying thorns from penetrating my jeans.

  10. Ellen

    I also discovered how important protective gear is when using just a regular weed whacker. The first rule I now know is don’t wear shorts, but I figured I’d be careful enough to escape injury. Um.. WRONG and STUPID. The combination of a neighbor distracting me and a touchy trigger on the whacker gave me the mark of Zorro on my lower right leg. Severe pain. The scar took about 9 months to completely go away. But I’m very lucky it didn’t require medical treatment like Rebecca’s father, wow!

    Yee-ikes. I’ll wear the chaps even when weed-whacking.

  11. LisaW

    I thought about renting a little chainsaw and cutting down some brush in my back yard. I pictured me, triumphant, standing next to the pile of brush but then another image intruded….one of me, in an ambulance, on a frantic rush to the ER to sew on a detached body part. I quickly decided to hire it done.

    Kudos to you for taking that on, power tools and all!

    I’m getting over the fear, but it’s probably to my benefit to keep a healthy dose of it.

  12. Live Free or Diet

    “I ended both sessions when the week-whacker ran out of gas.”

    Good man! I’ve seen too many people get hurt from being over-tired.

    “too over-protected to appear manly.”

    Knights, soldiers, firemen… Armor is as manly as it gets!

    Then I’ll think of myself as Sir Thomas and keep at it.

  13. Spork

    I was in your shoes around 2006. I’d spend days clearing an area that was 20×20 ft. Then I discovered it — the thing that makes it all easier: Tractor. You’ll thank me later.

    I wouldn’t mind owning a tractor someday. Unfortunately, the briar patch is behind some trees that are too close together for a tractor to pass.

  14. Don in Arkansas

    You can get a 2.5 gal container of generic Roundup probably for about $35-$40. With 15-25 gal sprayer that you can tow behind a mower or a 4-wheeler you can kill a lot of briars. I probably spray 100 gals + of herbicide a year to keep fences and trails clear. One 2.5 gal jug will last a couple of years. A good brush cutter helps too. A little pricey, but worth the $$.

    I won’t buy Roundup for two reasons: One, I hope to avoid using chemicals on the land, and two, Monsanto makes Roundup. I hate Monsanto.

  15. Kathy

    Love your “workout gear” and your respect for dangerous tasks. And you look manly enough to be in a Stihl ad.

    My husband, even at 66, thinks he can do anything until proven wrong. Scary.

    Well, let’s him give him credit for his zeal.

  16. Bullinachinashop

    Now I don’t wanna get too technical but it seems to me a machete would provide you with a more paleo-style workout to get the job done 😉

    I actually took a machete to the briar patch once to retrieve a disc that had gone in there but was still within sight. After some successful cuts, the machete bounced off a thick branch and whipped my pant leg, just missing my shin. That ended my desire for paleo exercise involving sharp tools.

  17. Mark n MD

    Tom, You look fine in those chaps… Although a little dirt and some blood stains will help with the overall manly look. Another option for brush clearing is modifying an old push mower by cutting off the front lip to create a bush whacker… Just make sure you are never visited by OSHA…

    That option scares me a little … no, it scares me a lot.

  18. Chuck Currie

    Excellent post – my wife was in tears.

    Ask Joel Salatin about the pigs – the pictures I’ve seen of his pasture after the pigs went through tells me it would be no problem for the pigs to dig up those roots.

    Check out his presentation at Cal Berkley’s Editable Education 103 – it’s on YouTube.


    A pig is on our list of future farm animals, so I’m glad to hear that.

  19. Kim

    I didn’t even know chainsaw chaps existed until you mentioned them. Thanks! I’m getting my hubs a pair.

    Great story. You funny.

    Make sure he wears them!

  20. TonyNZ

    “I won’t buy Roundup for two reasons: One, I hope to avoid using chemicals on the land, and two, Monsanto makes Roundup. I hate Monsanto.”

    He mentioned generic Roundup, otherwise known as glyphosate. It is the equivalent of non-branded drugs; same chemical at a fraction of the price. (Don’t know about in the USA but in NZ you can buy a generic glyphosate for roughly 25% of the cost of “Roundup”.

    That at least deals with your second point.

    I’m not sure if we have a generic, but I probably wouldn’t use it. I’m suspicious of what Roundup does to soil.

  21. Pat

    Using glyphosate in a safe way: pour a little in a disposable container and label the container, so that you always know what container to use, and get a small cheap paintbrush and label it. Observe all the usual precautions – no wind, you have rubber gloves on, plus all the precautionary gear. In the spring when the briars are actively growing, but still short and open enough to walk in there, go in and paint the leaves with the glyphosate. This gives a very controlled application, uses very little chemical, keeps it off the soil, and makes sure you only treat the plants you want dead, not everything. I have used this method for poison ivy and invasive sumac. You may need to repeat but it is very effective. For me this is a last-ditch effort, the poison ivy in my yard has survived 20% acetic acid, it is tough.
    By the way, glyphosate itself is *relatively* non-toxic compared to a lot of pesticides, and breaks down quickly. If you look for it in PubMed you won’t find a lot of toxicology horror stories. I think it has its super bad reputation because it does not differentiate between grasses and other plants, so it does kill everything.

    Thanks for the info.

  22. phiend

    There is absolutely nothing un-manly about wearing protective gear. It’s not just insurance that makes professionals wear that stuff. It can and does save lives and prevent serious injury. You don’t see firefighters running into fires without all their gear and no one questions that, don’t think people will question your choice to protect yourself when using dangerous equipment.

    Well, even if they do question it, I’d prefer to keep all my body parts intact.

  23. Tony Dickson

    Using a face shield has one more advantage: Bits of weeds taste TERRIBLE. That’s the main reason I started using one while weed-whacking.

    With all the twigs and pieces that bounced off that mask, I probably would have discovered that as well.

  24. ngyoung

    About looking manly, you can find gear that looks pretty menacing if you want instead of just traffic cone orange and can also double as a base for a Halloween costume. Custom paint job can help too if you’re feeling crafty. Also if you get a good brush mower you’d be surprised how big of trunks it will chew through, even if they are taller then you. If the little motor on your weed whacker can handle it a brush mower likely can. Nothing wrong with having both out there to do the job either.

    I’m trying to imagine how you get the mower blade against the trunk. Must be something here I don’t get.

  25. ngyoung

    They usually have a push bar and you just run it over. I guess if it is so big that it won’t bend over they may be too thick and you put the mower in idle and pick us the saw.

  26. Rae

    We have very shallow soil in Signal Mountain TN (near Chattanooga) so we avoid chemicals at all costs too. So far one of the best methods we have come across is the use of tarps or heavy black plastic sheeting and strategically placed heavy objects such as bricks, rocks or even better heavy boards.

    I like that idea better.

  27. SteveL

    Stay away from roundup.

    This quote is the best solution for your briar patch.

    A pig is a possibility, but not until we fence in all the land.

  28. Lobstah

    Great work, Tom. For help in keeping down the patch, sometimes local farmers will “rent” out a goat or two for a day, or longer. Goats eat anything…and love thick thorny brush. You can also buy a cheap older lawnmower, raise the wheels up, and just mow it every time the shoots start coming up.

    It also seems that the brush piles would be reasonable “hazards” on a disc course…sort of like water hazards on golf courses 😉

    For your saw and whacker, only mix up small batches of gas at a time. I use a small gallon gas jug, and I don’t refill that until I’m ready to use the tools, so I try not to let gas sit in the container OR the tanks of the tools. Today’s gas seems to go bad quickly, at least in some cases, and there’s nothing more frustrating than a tool that won’t start when you want/need it to.

    I’d also recommend a heavy material “work shirt” and keep the sleeves DOWN and buttoned (Is that a fresh wound I see in the first pic, just above the protective cuff of the glove? 🙂 )

    When you tackle the log pile, you’ll want to add a maul, 3lb hand sledgehammer, and some wedges to your arsenal. Let the tools do the work 🙂 A few wedges and a hand sledge will bring even the most stubborn piece of hickory to it’s knees with ease…and adds to the satisfaction of gazing upon your pile of stacked wood.


    Reasonable golf hazards don’t shred your skin.

    We bought gas from a station that sells it without ethanol, as per the Stihl dealer’s recommendation. I hope that extends the life of the tools.


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