Landscaping Stories – With Horror Featured

This is a recirculated story about dynamiting for landscaping purposes and my very precious moments with a fine man – Bert – and a great crew of machine operators………just when I was very ambitiously starting out in the field of landscaping…1981……

I’ve recirculated it because I think there are lots of readers who have not encountered it. My blog has become ponderously large now, I realize. I do know blogger reading habits somewhat and asking someone to view this old post in a natural review of my work is asking a ton. I really don’t expect that sort of attention. I bring some of these back at the risk of boring those who have encountered them before because they are soulful or timely or that I got lazy – and to you, I apologize. To you guys, thanks for your comments and I’ll have a fresh Desert Landscaping – Part 2 in a couple days.

(2 notes – 1. – I fully realize this story runs on. It is very long. I advise maybe cutting the reading in two. You can stop at the “Dynamite” section and resume later – that’s about halfway. I had someone read it who thought it too long and I cast about for what to cut and, honestly, I am happy with it as an accurate rendition of the circumstances of the project. 2. -Another thought – the preservation of these stumps was obviously something I wanted. It’s a heartbreaker, in many ways. Just remember that the entire province of BC is one massive tree farm. Plus, you can fit California and Oregon together inside of this massive province. While you and I might deem these stumps priceless – which they are – it is not unusual to see them as impediments. After all, there are literally millions of them. BC is rich in stumps!) 😉

Since I have been plying this trade for so many years, it only stands to reason that I would accumulate a few stories which might make for interesting reading. I do have one or two already in here, one in particular a sort of narrative concerning the construction of the Portland Chinese Garden I was involved with helping construct. I have this one, a tale of an eccentric rhododendron grower in Langley, British Columbia which you might enjoy.

Horror Stories

But I thought it might be interesting to deal with “horror” first. 😉  Now, I don’t want to put thoughts in your head, but I ‘am convinced we all love seeing someone more miserable than ourselves, just as – when “the horror” occurs – almost anyone’s life seems better than the one we are living. I remember thinking, in the midst of some blazing financial or personal tragedy how even Death Row Prisoners had 3 meals a day, a cot at night and  so few responsibilities. Now that’s stretching!!

These are tales that chronicle what may be somewhat typical, actually, of many landscapers. I mean, anyone in business for themselves for longer than a couple of years has to have a fairly impressive stash of horror stories. Since every trade is different, they vary in severity, longevity and in the sources of the horror.

(Enlarge any picture by left clicking – it’s worth it)


1. The Root From Heck

I obtained a contract from a guy who, by any criterion, would be called “obnoxious”. Others might call him a straight out “pain in the butt” – and did, for that matter – often. Anyway, he hooked me in by telling me I would have “carte blanche” to landscape an enormous piece of property – (10 acres) – from front to back. The only caveat to the project was this:

“I don’t want any history. Tear it all down and rebuild it!”  OK, um, sure.

What I did not realize at the time was how literally he intended his remark. There was a lake there, fed by an Artesian Well which was very mucked up and which I was going to be happy dealing with. Indeed, this lake spilled into a creek which was terribly overgrown and which would require scraping by machine in order to find the soil and get it to a “blank space”, fit for re landscaping. All this was cool – no, I misstate that – it was to die for. I was ecstatic.

The parameters of the work would be the draining and diverting of the water in the small lake while we scraped all the muck down to blue clay – scrape off the bottom and sides, complete with the reeds, pussy willows and blackberries which literally teemed there and then “lose” this material into the back of the property which would eventually become a cattle area.. We would essentially render it blank, as mentioned. The creek itself which flowed from this was in a ravine, right below and aside the house itself – a veritable mansion with a 3,000 square foot foyer, no less. I believe the home was some 20,000 square feet. A giant of a house.

Our role was to install various spillways and waterfalls for the well’s water to spill over, making it a series of waterfalls, fed from the lake above. Points of interest like waterways has always been a lure and a huge strength of mine. I love it. There would be around 6-7 of these “falls” as I recall.

Anyway, so off to work we go.

Mucking out the lake was performed by using a good sized pump, feeding about 300 feet of hose to avoid the spillway and excavation work planned in the ravine. The muck and stuff, we were to take to the back of the property and use later to level it all off and sort of reclaim the land from the mess it was. No problem. That was the easy part. We were going to plant clover and alfalfa in the “back 5” (acres) and he was talking about getting horses or cattle. Since both these plants love clay, it was a natural.

We accomplish the lake cleanout by using a D-5 bulldozer with a bucket for loading the trucks who then take the material to the back area. In the meantime, I hired a 3 yard cleanout bucket on a monster excavator, complete with another D-5 Cat bulldozer for the ravine. It was hugely industrial for a while. Another guy – a local – came by and mentioned he had a large bulldozer to help with and would charge less money – he said he was bored. He had all these toys – even a huge crane – which he had accumulated over the years and ran an auto demolition yard. Fun guy, with toys – who could turn him down? So he came along, too, working in concert with the others. It was going swimmingly.

This is a picture of a D-7, from a stock Caterpillar photo:


The ravine itself had all these old stumps from the first-growth logging which had occurred in the British Columbia forests at the turn of the Century. This had resulted in numerous humongous stumps of old Douglas Fir and Cedar trees which were absolutely fascinating. They secreeted “pitch”, even still, a sort of varnish from old sap which was incredibly flammable and smelled just like some acetone compound. Sticky and moist, I used to fantasize how some of this sap could be older than Jesus. Truly, the stumps were from trees which were a thousand or more years old. There was nothing cooler, in my view than having these remnants of our human and floral past standing around. Add that they made some of the greatest imaginable mediums to plant in. I was excited more each day we worked.


Well, the homeowner came home and congratulated me on doing a magnificent job of clearing it all and inside a time frame which we had surprised him with. In truth, it had really only taken about a week. We had pushed over these 100-200 foot tall trees which had been dead a while, as well as some he had requested which were alive. Bert, the guy with the toys, had taken away much of them in the form of firewood. The owner was pretty stunned and it left a glow as he spoke, raving about how it was “perfect” – much better than he had even expected. The only glitch, according to him, was those “dam stumps”. “Remember when I said ‘no history’?”

Sitting with his wife at the kitchen table, I patiently laid out my reasons for leaving them – stressing both their historical interest as well as how they could add so much to the landscape for purposes of planting. His wife had very much bought into my rap but he resisted. I’m not sure if it was his macho because he was so used to running things or whether it was a real urge to be his version of a “pioneer” and render it all his domain. We took a walk outside with me taking the behalf of the stumps and he pointing at which ones he wanted out. We argued some and he even came around a bit. It was a tiny victory however. In the end, he wanted about 6 of the 12 or so stumps completely removed. I sighed and agreed, with reservations.

These stumps were about 6-10 feet across. They stuck out of the ground about 6 feet, some maybe 10, and they represent one heck of a lot of work. Some even had other trees – even other species of trees – growing out of them as if they were fertile soil, which, of course, they were. But since we had the huge excavator still on site, along with 2 other strong D-5 and D-7 bulldozers, I figured it would be a snap. Plus, the one virtue of these pitch-laden stumps are in their volatility. We were going to burn the refuse we accumulated and which Bert did not take away. These were your average  “fire starters”, to say the least. In fact, starting this fire would take one match. So, in my sadness at seeing them go away, I at least had the consolation of some relief in terms of the disposal of our currently enormous pile of forest refuse. But I had underestimated the mutual sadness of his wife.

It turned out she had advocated leaving them most vehemently. She had been an ally in my urge towards preservation and the entire issue had become a real hot potato inside the home. But that sucker would not budge. I was fully convinced the dynamics inside the home determined the fates of those gorgeous natural stumps. Alas, we moved on to Monday.


Bert’s D-7 had a ‘splitter’ on the front which rested on the blade of the Cat- a virtual “spear” which was essentially a long (12 feet) narrow triangle which could penetrate a stump and basically cut it in half, especially aided by the force that a huge bulldozer can deliver. I have never seen one since and I have to believe this was a unique object. I also know he made it himself, a fact for which he was quite proud. I also know it worked………… a degree. As it widened and as the machine pushed the penetration deeper, you could often hear a monstrous “Crack!!” as the tree split. This was some brutal technology – like a log splitter applied to a maximum-sized object. We set the excavator nearby who would use the big bucket to split the stump further and eventually dig out or at least loosen up the roots. At the same time, on the other side of the ravine, we placed the D-5 which had about 300 feet of airline-strength cable spun around its winch. We ran the cable to the split half of a stump, wrapped it up and the D-5 would begin pulling, usually never even applying any driving power to get the desired result. It’s heavy weight and the combination of forces were generally all it took to yard some humongous root right out of the ground. We would then use the Cat with the cable to take the remains over to the burn pile, then return for more.

We got 5 of them out of the ground, proud of our successes. You could hear triumphant roars now and then as we succeeded at these gnarly tasks. These trees were definitely stubborn. Meanwhile, the lady of the house watched in horror as the destruction proceeded apace. Clutching her 2 year old, she was visibly crying. It was some sad stuff, unfortunately, casting a real pall over the project, then coursing through every remaining moment we worked there. Sure, I wandered up and spoke to her often. I had actually grown fond of her and we had joked about her old man more than once, the truth is. And I even liked the guy, so this was the banter of a friendly sort.

But the rubber was hitting the road on this one now and she was darn near inconsolable. Nor did she blame me or anything like that. Unfortunately, I had made too much sense in my arguments for preserving the stumps. I hugged her and mentioned that there were silver linings, etc, etc. The usual. I also took her boy down to ride on the Cat – whoa!! – now at least he was convinced we were the coolest guys who had ever lived, so we had that going for us and she smiled at his obvious relish. He saved us, I am convinced to this day, from curses and voo doo she may have resorted to. The guys were great with him, as well. They sympathized with me and her, actually. No one could understand the logic of removing these priceless virtual organic antiques.

Well, there was only one stump left. We performed the standard operation, with Bert trying his damnedest to split the trunk. But this one was somehow more solid. We attached the winch line to a half we thought would be above a seam in the trunk and Bert pushed in his splitter, Guy used the excavator to help and the D-5 across the creek pulled, even engaging his drive this time. The groans and efforts of the combination of all the machines was absolutely deafening as each strained to accomplish what was becoming seemingly impossible. We tried variations of every move but that dang stump had not even budged – not one inch. We went at it for an hour or more to absolutely no avail. The stump was incredible.  There was only one solution – Dynamite.


Bert mentioned he had a buddy who had some sticks of dynamite. He was licensed for it and all that, having worked for the highways blasting rock for the past 20 years. Bert arranged for him to come out within an hour. It was actually fairly impressive. Needless to say, this was my first experience at using dynamite for landscaping and I would never have guessed how to even go about acquiring a good blast man. Bert smiled at me and winked: “We’ll get ‘er outta there, Steve.”

I wandered up while waiting to apprise my client’s wife that we were about to blow up her property. Nor was this a pleasant experience. “Dynamite??” she responded in horror. I mentioned it was a last ditch effort to get the stump out of the ground. And, to be honest, dynamiting tree stumps is not all that unusual. She called her husband who was all for it, remarking at how resourceful I was, ha ha. It was embarrassing, actually. I mentioned she might want to go to the store or something because things were going to get hella noisy. But she said she wanted to stay for the whole process. I sighed and went back down to where the arrival of the dynamite guy had everyone standing around him.

He was this 135 pound grizzled old man with 3 fingers on his left hand and no thumb. I looked at him and my heart skipped a beat. I suddenly wondered what the heck I had done to deserve this. Of course, it had also started raining – I left that part out. I began to face a misery which I had never plumbed before. The stresses were getting to me.

The little dynamite guy got shown the tree and made his best guess as to where the tap root was going to be. He placed 10 sticks at that spot wired it up and ran up the hill by me. “Ready?”, he asked and I nodded. He tooted his horn, set the plunger and it went off – “Ka-Bloom!”

The earth shook where we were standing and I could see the other trees bounce in in place. Bert immediately started up his D-7, splitter on, and rammed the tree again. The guy across the creek pulled and the excavator reefed on one of the roots closest to the creek. The roar of machinery recommenced as the smoke from the dynamite wafted across our vision.

The stump did not budge. Not an inch.

After 10 minutes of effort, the cable snapped on the winch and shot back at the Cat like a bullet from Hell. Luckily the cage prevented it damaging the driver or the rest of the machine but I will never forget that sound as long as I live. That was the single most malevolent “hiss” and “pop” in history. The speed of the broken cable line was stunning. By the time the break sounded, it had already smacked the Cat. I could have sworn it was simultaneous.

Our dynamite guy was puzzled, so we got down in the hole and used shovels to try and locate the tap root. Thinking we had found it, we loaded that one up with another 10 sticks of dynamite. Once again, the sound of the warning horn, then the muffled but incredibly loud “Ka’Boom!!” of the dynamite as it went off. Once again Bert firing up the D-7 and once again he headed downhill to lance the stump. This time he actually made a tad of headway, getting through all the way to the other side but the firmness of the stump befuddled any effort towards increasing the split. The excavator roared, the D-5 guy had fixed the cable and stubbornly insisted on another “go” at pulling the stump apart and the same thing happened.

The stump would not  budge.

To make a very long story short, we tried another 8 times to blast that stump. We had used 100 sticks of dynamite in our efforts by the end of this session and the dynamite guy was standing there scratching his head, still. Add that he was now out of dynamite. I thanked him for his efforts and sent him on his way. I walked up to the  incredibly upset Mom and mentioned her dynamite days were over. To say she was relieved is an understatement. The, when I walked outside, I saw a most bizarre event.

Bert had gone around the tree to the top of the ravine. He was now orienting his bulldozer nearly straight down. He was mad. The guys were taking this personal now. Bert got himself about 30 feet above the stump and then just launched himself off a precipice which was probably about 60 degrees. When his bulldozer hit that stump, his splitter went through it almost like butter. The crack of the stump was insanely loud as all its pressure released inside the split Bert had just created. He slid on his splitter as it went through, rising off the ground. He sat there, hoisted literally “on his own petard”, bouncing off the ground, stuck in that stump.

So here we are, we have this immense D-7 bulldozer, stuck into a stump with its running pads literally off the ground! Bert was suspended, all 10 tons of himself propped right up into the air. He sat there for a few moments and he began laughing. Looking at me he asked: “Am I off the ground?”

I looked at the layer of mirth written large across his oil-stained face, smiled and said “Yup!”

The other guys wandered over and we all began laughing. “Dam,” Guy said, “I never even seen that before!” The other guy was laughing as well, some of it in relief as we saw the cracked stump and knew we had gained a purchase.

“Hey, Bert, what’s it like to fly in a D-7?”

It was pretty rich. We also knew we had won. That was not small. Crazy Bert had gotten mad enough to enforce his will on that stump – and a formidable foe it had been. That he risked his life was implicit – but he was somewhere beyond thrilled. This was why he was alive. He just craved this stuff – problems and fixing them.

The excavator piled up some dirt under Bert’s Cat and the other ‘dozer came over to ease the journey down by placing the bucket on the tracks and applying downward pressure. The excavator then re-positioned himself to the front of the Cat and began pushing with his bucket in the tip of the “splitter”. With some serious groans from the machinery and the amount of iron-on-iron, the sheer torque of it all saw us get inches at a time until we finally got Bert out of that stump. That was a true victory and our optimism hit a real high.

So………. we returned to our basic positions and it took about 15 minutes to clear the area, then pop the stump with an audible “Pop!” as the roots finally gave up their amazing war. Pulling one half of that giant stump free was one of the most electrifying sights I’ve ever seen. I nearly cried from joy. So we got the other half out like warm butter, then replaced the soil. The stump was out and was added to the pile. After 6 hours on this gnarly stump, it was now dark outside and still raining. But we could not help but feel triumphant. It was with one bizarre mixture of feelings that I drove home that night. The range of emotion during that day was simply astounding. I’m not sure to this day if it added to or took away from my time on Earth. 😉

We had missed the tap root which had uncharacteristically been skewed from its very origins and went virtually sideways into the bank. Bert’s launch of himself in his ‘dozer had loosened the root which had indeed been somewhat damaged by the blasting earlier. The downward pressure released not only the root itself but Bert’s additional great good fortune had come with hitting the perfect spot in a seam running up the stump, splitting it in half.

Later on – a couple days following this, we had the fire which would render all our refuse into a small pile of ash. That the fire went 6 stories high and blanketed the entire neighborhood in soot and ash is another story for another time. It turns out Bert’s crane was a toy which could make epic blazes.

11 thoughts on “Landscaping Stories – With Horror Featured

  1. Wow….helluva story! That last stump said “screw you, I’ve been here a lot longer than you aholes and I’m not going down easy”!!!


  2. Bingo! Of course, it was also the prettiest of them all. Figures. It had all these snowberries coming out on top.I will never forget that sucker, Freddy – ever. I can guarantee that.

  3. They’re the original “Sticky’s”, lol. Yup, 100 sticks, ten at a time. We didn’t want to blow the hillside off.

  4. Great job! You did a fine job of telling – or retelling – this adventure; you evoke sympathy for the wife of the homeowner, reveal your own appreciation for the naturalness of the stumps, the perseverance it sometimes takes for a successful outcome, and exhibit excellent mastery of short story elements: plot, tension, character — delightful.

  5. Wow! This is one for the books. The visual images you create bring the narrative to life! What a day you all must have had. Success on that day must have been bittersweet a little.

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