A Storm’s A-Brewin’

A.V. Walters

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There’s a storm on its way, so I woke at first light, for chores. I wanted to wash and line-dry three loads before the rains came. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. There’s a fierce wind—the one that will bring the storm, and the laundry is hanging horizontal. I don’t think they even make a clothes dryer that works as fast as this. A wind this strong actually shakes out the lint, and leaves even line-dried clothes as soft as a machine-tumbled load. As soon as my basket was empty, even while I was still wrestling to pin the last item, off it went, rolling in the wind. Last year’s standing corn plants, in the field next to our clothesline, make quite a racket, rustling in a wind like that.

There it goes in the wind!

There it goes in the wind!

I’m glad for the weather, though. A good wind can blow out the cobwebs, literally and figuratively. Admittedly, I’ve been in a funk. We’ve been hiking in the woods quite a bit of late, and doing some unexpected detective work. You see, we’ve been finding cut logs and stumps. Someone has been cutting wood on our property. This breaks all the rules.

In the world of making wood, there is no need to cut live trees for firewood. With weather and wind and blights, there’s always plenty of dead wood (or “deadfall”) to forage. Gathering deadfall cleans up the forest—and gives you a head start on seasoning the wood, for burning. Cutting live trees is reserved for timber cutting, either as a harvest, or to thin the forest. We did a “thinning” harvest 11 years ago. Now, with the emerald ash borer damage, we have no further need to thin the forest.

This property has been without stewards for a couple decades. Vacant land is often considered ‘fair game’ in rural areas—at least for gathering. Last Spring we politely disinvited some locals from morel mushroom hunting on our hills. There’s a longer story there, but basically, they were put out that we’d returned to the land—a gathering zone that they’d considered theirs, for decades. I do understand; I have my own secret berry patches in the woods where I grew up. I don’t own them, but I am proprietary about not revealing my sources. Had these ‘locals’ not been outright abusive in years past, I might have invited them to keep up their tradition.

Vacant land is also a source of deadfall gathering. I know that, in our absence, at least three neighbors had fuelled their winter heat from our slopes. It was fine. They kept trails clear and didn’t (for the most part) abuse the privilege. But, we’re here now. A few faces fell when, otherwise friendly neighbors, realized what our return meant. You see, they follow the code. One might gather from vacant land, but you don’t harvest from your neighbor’s land. Even without fences, there are boundaries.

We’d been finding cut logs for several weeks. They were pretty consistent, six to eight feet long, saw cut, top and bottom, five to six inches in diameter. An easy size to carry, and one that can be burned later, needing only to be cut to stove size, but not split. They littered our walking paths. In total, I’ve tallied (and collected) well over thirty such logs. And I’m sure I’ll find more. It seems that ‘they’ cut each year, and then the following year, when hunting season came, they’d collect the seasoned logs for burning. This annoys me, no end. We assume that these logs were left by the same “locals,” who were collecting the mushrooms last spring. They used to own the parcel behind us and had a deer-camp cabin there. It seems likely that they used our firewood to heat the cabin in deer season. As they’ve since sold the property, we figured that the wood-cutting would end, too. There’s no sense in being angry at a theft that’s past, and incomplete at that.

Lest you think that I’m just a wood miser, I’m angry mostly because of the way that this was done. With a forest rife with available deadfall, these jokers saw fit to cut living, young trees—for their convenience. Whether they wanted them for firewood, or for posts, doesn’t matter. And, they’ve cut slow growing hardwoods—maples and eastern hophornbeam. The hophornbeam is a tall, elegant tree of the understory of the forest. They have thin, shaggy-barked trunks; a hophornbeam’s trunk is rarely thicker than 9 inches. They like the shade of north-facing slopes. The thieves are stealing wood and damaging the forest. It’s like killing a generation of children. How can that gap be filled? Rick and I are already buying and planting trees from the Conservation District—an effort to fill in and diversify the forest following the Ash Borers’ losses. We expect to plant 50 to 80 trees per year and that’s just the beginning. There are right ways and wrong ways to manage a woodlot. What they have done is wrong in so many ways… in every way.

A weeping stump.

A weeping stump.

Yesterday we were out for a walk and I saw yet another stump. This one was weeping, literally. It means that it’s a recent cut. We dug about in the leaf litter, and, sure enough, found fresh chips and sawdust. The tree was cut last fall, we guess—just before the leaves fell. Now, with the spring sap running, the tree’s roots are trying to feed the treetop that has been taken. So, our problem is ongoing. I am sick about it. It was an eastern hophornbeam (also known as ironwood because it’s so hard.) They are very slow growing—they don’t even flower or make seeds for the first twenty-five years. Though I’m happy to harvest their deadfall, (because they’ll burn all night) I would never cut a living hophornbeam.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

And right next to it, a deadfall tree of the exact same type.

Rick and I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to post “No Trespassing” signs on the property. We have a number of neighbors who hike, snowshoe and ski its trails. We have no issue with respectful use. We like sharing its beauty. But, if I catch someone in the act of cutting, I will see to it that they are fully prosecuted. Michigan is a logging state, and they take timber theft seriously. When I say this, Rick raises his brow at me, wondering at my vehemence. We both hope that this is not one of our neighbors, but the chances are high that it is.

This evening, we’re waiting for the storm. It may clear my head. The whole week is expected to be unsettled—cool weather with the possibility of snow. Right now, the only rustlin’ I want to hear about, is the wind in the trees.

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