The Cutting Edge
by Mary Steigerwald of Ojo Sarco, NM
Horses, Solar Powered Saws and Independence
I guess it all started the day I looked out the cabin window as my husband Rico passed by, bent over and straining as he dragged a sled full of heavy firewood through the deep snow: while plodding behind him came the two saddle horses we were boarding, looking mildly interested. “Wait a minute!” I remember chuckling to myself, “What is wrong with this picture?” It suddenly occurred to me that, given the conditions of our life here at 9400 feet in Northern New Mexico – snowed-in four months of the year, cutting and hauling timber, building our log cabin, breaking sod – what we needed was a draft horse or two. Our experience with horses was limited and to learn all there was to learn seemed to be a formidable task: yet it was easy to imagine how wonderful it would be.
That was five years ago. Little did I know, as I daydreamed that morning, what was in store for us here in our wilderness home we call Edge Habitat.
Shortly thereafter, in the spring of ’97, Rico, our daughter Aspen and I, spent one long night trying to get some sleep as the fifty-year-old cabin shook and the wind roared and shrieked deafeningly through the forest around us. In the morning we awoke to a three quarters of a mile long swath of old growth mixed conifer and aspen trees, uprooted and strewn everywhere we looked. We wandered around that morning in a daze as the reality of what had happened during the night sank in.
We hadn’t moved here to become loggers, but it looked like God had other plans! We had chosen to become caretakers of this beautiful place because of the peace and quiet, the clean air, the myriad of birds and wildlife! We wanted to create a mountain retreat! To conduct a typical logging operation, we felt, would completely ruin all that made this place so special. Thus, we were presented with a challenge: how to clean up this blowdown in a clean, sustainable way.
With the help of our solar gizmologist partner, Brad, we bought a Norwood portable bandsaw mill and after enduring the gas powered motor long enough to “learn the ropes,” we knew we had to convert to an electric motor to be run on solar power, as soon as possible.
If this had ever been done before, we were not aware of it. Brad set to work designing the system. After the gas motor was removed, an old 36 volt Cushman golf cart motor from a golf cart repair shop slipped right into place! He wired it to six golf cart batteries, bolted a 36 volt solar panel array to the mill shed roof and it worked perfectly! The mill was clean and quiet and it put out beautiful boards and beams, with a little help from the sun.
Inspired by our success, we turned our attention to the chainsaws. We knew electric chainsaws could be run on solar power, but we wondered if they had enough power to cut big logs, and the thought of using a long cord in the tangled mess of the blowdown was unnerving. But we knew we had to give it a try. Brad put together a portable solar power system, we bought a Stihl E220 electric chainsaw and the results were amazing. The saw has plenty of power. The cord is not a problem because the whole scene is more relaxed without the noise and stress of the gas saw and the user tends to move more slowly. As one onlooker commented, “It’s more like a sewing bee than a logging operation!” Rico finds the electric saw is much easier on his hands, which are damaged by years of gas chainsaw use, and of course he loves not having the noise and toxic exhaust right in his face for hours on end. Best of all, the power comes from the sun!