Archives for posts with tag: forest

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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Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

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We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Right Plan…

A.V. Walters —

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

It’s said that, when the Europeans arrived in Michigan, a squirrel could cross the state, Great Lake to Great Lake, without its feet ever touching the ground. That didn’t last. Michigan’s vast forests became the fuel for building the region’s great cities. By the turn of the twentieth century, the pillaging was near complete. Only a few stands of virgin timber remained (and remain still.) Here in Leelaunau County there were numerous mills—timber being Michigan’s first wave of development. Empire, the little village where we spent the winter, was historically a booming timber mill town, with the largest, best equipped and most productive hardwood mill in the region. Its claim to fame is that they invented tongue and groove boards. (Our previous home, Petaluma, was responsible for the invention of the chicken incubator. It’s always something.)

In 1917, the Empire Lumber Company mill burned to the ground—and not for the first time, either. But, it was the last time. With the timber all but gone, there was no point in rebuilding. The devastation from Michigan’s unrelenting, statewide clear-cutting inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Park System. It was the era of the Robber Barons. They gave little thought to man’s impact on the environment. After all, with all its rainfall, it’s a climate that renews. But you can never rebuild the majesty of a virgin forest. Michigan remains a timber state—eager to clear-cut the very minute the trees are marketable. We’ve seen the results, a striking scar on the landscape, and a hazard of erosion on these sandy soils.

As if to illustrate the point, our property is actually zoned “Timber Cutover,” shorthand for “already cut and too steep to farm.” Though there are some fair sized trees, now, the land shows distinct signs of clear-cuts through its history. It’s crisscrossed with ancient barb wire fences—grazing being the normal succession to clear-cut. The land was last “selectively” logged in 2004—to thin the trees, as recommended by the local extension people. I saw first hand how the taste of timber-money can change one’s view of the land. When I bought the property, I saw it as a sanctuary, a refuge in the forest, but my then-husband’s view of it changed after the quick profits from the cut. It became a timber holding and he, by extension, a timber baron, eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to cut. It’s silly to aggrandize so small a kingdom. I knew then that he had no intention of ever living on the land.

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The property is still recovering from the ’04 cut, and we’re suffering the ravages of the ash trees to the Emerald Borer. But, Rick shares my dedication to the land. We walk its steep hills, taking note of the trees and identifying the undergrowth. Blackberries sprout up in the sunny spots where fallen trees have left openings in the canopy above. There are wild strawberries, grapes, and, we hear, morel mushrooms in the early spring. We explore and plan, learning the land’s glaciated folds like the lines on our hands. We’re cutting a little now—mostly scrub pine out front on the more gentle slopes—to make way for a driveway and the foundation of our home. We debate the merits of each tree. Does it provide screening for privacy, sun, or snow? Is it healthy? Does it have aesthetic value? Does it block the view? Is there another alternative to chopping it down? We are pioneers to a new future, which goes to show that life can be full of wonderful surprises. We laugh at the short tag line I use to describe the circuitous circumstances that brought us here at this late point in our lives—right plan, wrong man.

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