Thursday, November 06, 2008


I've been thinking of a lot of stuff I haven't had anywhere to write or say, so maybe I'll revive this blog. But don't count this as a promise (as if there was anyone to be making the promise to); I might lapse into inactivity immediately again, if inspiration fails to continue visiting once I've vented all the backlogged stuff.

Recently I've developed an interest in woodcutting on my land, and I feel a need to explain why. Not that anyone's asking. It's just that there's more thought on it than might seem evident.

I suppose most people think of going out to fell trees with a chainsaw as something you do to get firewood. And we have a woodstove and we're trying to balance using it more (to contain heating costs) with keeping it comfortable in the house (the woodstove can sometimes make it too hot), so wood is valuable. And there's a strange, hard to explain satisfaction in felling, cutting, and splitting my own wood from my own land, and then burning it in the woodstove.

But in the end the wood is almost a by-product of the process. It's not what drew me to this. Instead, I have been feeling very strongly lately that my little almost-six-acres of Vermont is mine not as much in the sense of possession as in the sense of responsibility. I am its steward and caretaker, and it needs some caretaking. When we bought it four years ago it had not been tended in a while, and so it is now in dire need of tending plus four years.

Which begs the key question: does a piece of forest need tending? Forests were around for millions of years before the first human built the first axe. It's tempting, but superficial, to dismiss the idea of tending to one's woods as touchy-feely and ignorant of nature, but that is itself a reactionary idea.

Sure, forests can and do eventually rebuild themselves after disasters. Sure, nature doesn't have a preferred state of "healthy" in mind for a forest; whatever it changes into, that's nature. And yet, a chunk of six acres in the middle of Vermont is not part of a timeless forest unbroken in space or time, and it's ignorance to pretend so. Let's consider a few facts, not as a definitive list of how the forest needs tending, but rather as a representative example.
  1. 500 years ago, my piece of land was part of an old-growth forest in which softwoods (pine, for instance) were interspersed with hardwoods (maple, for instance). 100 years ago, it was, and probably had been for a long time, clear cut farmland. It's surprising to many people who've seen what Vermont looks like now, but 100 years ago it was pretty much all clear-cut. The return to forest changed things.

  2. When trees started to come back in, softwoods come in first because they grow fastest. They crowd out other kinds of trees and spread quickly. Hardwoods take far, far longer to move in, and at first they move in in segregated clusters. Today's sugar stands are clusters of maple; long ago, those maples would be more evenly distributed amongst the other trees.

  3. When a softwood puts down roots in an old-growth forest with interspersed hardwoods, in order for its roots to get enough of what the tree needs, they have to work down deeper since they're competing with other trees. The roots tend to grow along the same paths that the previous generation of pines followed, and end up deeply rooted. There's an underground ecology of competition in the roots. But when pines come into clear-cut, they form very shallow roots. Why work harder than you have to? Those old paths that the ancient pines blazed for the roots are lost.

  4. When we build roads and houses, we change the flow of water in fundamental ways. These changes encourage the trees to grow in different places and to put roots down in different ways. In effect, they further exacerbate the tendency towards shallow root systems.

  5. Roads and lawns also break what was an unbroken swath of forest hundreds, even thousands, of miles across, into little patches. This has a lot of effects but the most germane to this point: it causes root structures of trees to be inadequate to supporting those trees since the trees depend on their neighbors to help hold them up.
Put it all together and you find that the forest we have today is, due to human interference, far more fragile. Literally, a good wind can blow it over. This isn't good for me: it threatens my house, my water table, my access to my garage. But it also isn't good for the ecosystem of my six acres. It's bad for the animals and the plants. Yes, given a few hundred years, despite the continuing impact of roads and water diversion and pollution and global warming, the forest would regrow and eventually end up strong. But we can expect human interference to increase, not decrease. And in the meanwhile, everything that lives in the forest is far too vulnerable to fire, wind, ice, heavy rains, and simple bad luck.

I don't really have the choice to say "the forest doesn't need my help" while, at the same time, living in the middle of it, affecting it. If I'm touching it, if I'm changing it, it's my responsibility to make sure the net effect I have is neutral or positive. So that means I need to get in there and actively, proactively, tend it. Not as a garden per se, I'm not trying to maximize results of a particular species or anything, I'm not in this for the harvest (though the harvest will be used and appreciated), but for its own health.

Thus, while some fallen dead trees and even some standing dead trees are okay, too many is bad. Someday I may even have to fell living trees in order to encourage more growth, but for now, I have far more than enough higher-priority work to do, far more than I can keep up with. There's years, maybe decades, of neglect to catch up on; and I'm only one man in not-great shape, working alone, just learning how to use a chainsaw, only able to spare a weekend here or there to the work. I'll be lucky to even keep up with continued degredation for a long long time, let alone get ahead of it. But every bit I do is progress. It's satisfying.


litlfrog said...

I know what you mean about feeling responsibility for that land. I think feelings for my family's property were stunted by a realization of how little I could do: much of the maintenance was in the hands of the farmers who rented it out, and the rest was handled by my grandfather whose health was in decline by the time I could be of any use. drscorpio has mentioned that feeling of responsibility even for his own little suburban lot.

Anonymous said...

My family has a much smaller bit of Vermont, but we also know that the trees need tending, and some of that tending involves thinning them periodically.