Been awhile, eh? We’re coming to the end of a long string of challenges, so I’ll try to wrap it up and get on with regular blogging.

2022 was a doozie. When I last left off, we were heading into summer after Rick’s unfortunate encounter heading down the stairs on his ribs. He actually had a miraculous recovery. Five broken ribs would normally sideline one for months—but he was up and running in weeks. Things went a little hairy after that.

We were grappling with how to handle the previous year’s diagnosis of brown spot needle blight on our Scots Pines out front. Remember, we are tree-huggers. Hundreds of trees were infected, and our State’s Ag University (MSU) advised us that we should cut all affected trees—and quickly—to prevent it from spreading.*The scope of the job was well over our heads, so the search began. Unfortunately, there is no timber value to the Scots Pines. They can be chipped, but they are not a viable commercial logging option. We were concerned that any delay could result in the blight’s spread to the acres of plantation red pines back behind the house. We connected with a local outfit—who were slow to come up with a bid for the work.

Then, one day, almost a year ago, we took a shortcut through the red pines, and both of us stopped short. Something was wrong. The light was wrong. We were accustomed to it being much darker under that canopy. We turned to each other, horrified. Had the blight spread? I reached out to MSU for advice. They wanted samples.

Easier said than done. As best we can figure, these red pines were planted in the late 1970s. They are 60 to 70 feet tall. MSU wanted samples from the canopy. We had to wait for a storm to knock down some branches. When that finally happened, Rick collected an armful of samples and we shipped them off to the diagnostic labs at MSU. 

The results were confounding. Not the blight we’d expected. Our red pines were infected with yet another ‘needlecast’ disease, Lophodermium. But what was the prognosis? Unless we thinned, and treated (and we’re talking acres of red pines) our trees had six to eight years. 

How could this be? How could we have two, different, lethal, needlecast diseases at once? The short answer, climate change. Though our area of Northern Michigan is forecast to be a “climate change winner,” that doesn’t mean we won’t see changes. One of those changes is that our trees, now in slightly warmer and dryer conditions, find themselves susceptible to fungal diseases that are usually more prevalent in regions south of us. Even slight changes in climate can stress established species. Stressed trees are at risk. 

Part of this speaks to bad decisions made decades ago—the likes of which continue to be made all around the country today. Whose idea was it to plant acres of one tree species? Monoculture is death on the installment plan. A healthy forest has many different types of trees—each with its own different nutritional needs, and contributions, all dove-tailing together in a diversified concert of life. In a monoculture planting, once a blight takes hold, the stressed trees succumb quickly. You cannot reasonably treat acres of trees. They’d require spraying, at canopy level, (seventy feet up) up to six times per year…indefinitely.

We were left with the prospect of clear-cutting almost seven acres of red pines, and another four acres of Scots Pines. Thousands of trees. And, if we didn’t, cut them, they’d die anyway, and we’d be left with acre upon acre of unmarketable, standing dead timber. A conflagration in waiting. We lived in California long enough to know the dangers of forest fires from standing dead. They call them zombie forests.

We are not clear-cut people. But neither are we oblivious. Addressing it sooner, rather than later, gave us an opportunity to begin the process of re-foresting, and diversification, while we’re still young enough to make an impact. 

Most loggers will not consider small parcels. Small is, apparently, less than ten acres. They’re also not thrilled about logging on steep slopes—and our trees form the toe-line of the steep hills to the west. Rick and I went about our business while we awaited the bids from local tree outfits. In short order, we found ourselves dealing with just one company. In the meantime, we were still gardening, caring for trees we’d planted and building a quonset shed for our equipment. When the offer finally came in, it was acceptable, except for the time frame. They wanted a two year window for their work. We countered, offering generous incentives for an earlier window. They said they’d consider it and get back to us. Then they stopped taking our calls.

Then, in late August, Rick had a ladder accident on the shed job. Not a little accident. He broke off the bottom end of the tibia and pulverized about five inches of the fibula. Major surgical reconstruction, lots of hardware, and a guaranteed 3-5 months, flat on his back. He had to build new bone. He was despondent. Not only wouldn’t the shed get finished, but we’d made no progress on all the larger issues on the property. 

At the same time, we were dealing with family obligations, and my mother was ill. It was not a good time.

Other than caring for Rick’s convalescent needs there didn’t seem to be much I could do to move things forward. Thankfully, because of the power of the internet, I was able to research other logging options. And I found one. A solo operator who logged “the old-fashioned way,” and who was not hostile to our request that he log so as to save any and all deciduous trees that were mixed in with the pines. We walked the property and I explained our long range objective to reforest with a diversified deciduous blend of trees. He was on board—and he was available to start in the late fall. Rick’s relief was palpable. We signed.

Rick’s superpower is healing. His ankle is nearly back to pre-accident performance. We are back working on the property—and, once the snow is gone, preparing to finish the shed. Once Rick was mended, I could take some time to spend with my Mum, who is also, now on the mend.

In a couple of weeks the logging will be complete, and in time for this season’s tree planting. Even better, those Red Pines were peppered with volunteer maples. And hidden in the lower Scots Pines were a dozen or so mature, American Black Cherry trees. Though it looks a bit rough, there are enough standing trees that it has an almost park-like appearance. We still have plenty of re-planting to do, but we are wildly pleased with the results. In just a couple of years, you won’t be able to tell we logged at all.

Turns out, our decisions, and the end result, were not so clear-cut.

* As we look around, it’s clear that Northern Michigan’s conifers are in trouble. Now that we know what to look for, we see sick trees everywhere. Though we’re thrilled to have solved our own blight issues, this is not a problem that is going away soon, or at all.