Tree Tops

Everyone who has taken 8th grade science knows that trees drink in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Trees are terrific friends to us humans (and many other relatives) for this and for other reasons: shade, lumber, nuts, autumn colors, fruit and so on.

I am blessed to live on 120 acres of Mother Earth’s beauty and bounty. I lease 50 acres to an organic dairy farmer. I grow Christmas trees on another 20 acres or so. And there is about 25 acres that are wooded, a mixture of hard and soft maple, hickory, beech, tulip poplar and ash.

I have long been a believer that those of us who are fortunate enough to “own” land really only own it in the sense of modern man made laws. The laws of nature and of the Spirit really say that we really only get to steward and connect with the land in a good way, or we exploit it, wringing and extracting what we can from the land for our own gain and material reward. As someone who has worked with the soil, the seasons, the hydrology and the lay of the land for a lifetime, I am grateful for the opportunity to take seriously the tenet that it is up to me to leave this place better than I found it.

Now, I have grown a variety of crops over the years. Grapes, tomatoes, rhubarb, peaches, squash, pumpkins and Christmas trees are some of what I have grown with hopes that the land, the sun and the rains would return some measure of reward for the hard work and intention that went into tilling and tending. I’ve lived much of my life walking the woods for the pleasure of time in the woods, and connecting with the various relatives that inhabit that space: the racoons and turkeys, the deer and porcupines. Coyotes and gray squirrels, trilliums and mayapples have all brought smiles to my face, and comfort to my soul. Aside from this balm for my psyche, and the annual foray to cut firewood to heat my home, I have little formal education and knowledge of woods management. Thus my invitation to my old friend Jim, a retired logger and one who has knowledge where I have a vacuum.

Two years ago we walked the woods, meandering past the wetland, climbing the drumlin, circling back along the top through the sugar maples and the beech trees. Here and there Jim would stop, pointing out a particular tree standing tall and straight, one with girth that was sure to excite any logger with an eye towards a worthwhile timber harvest. He also pointed out copses of beech that were too thick, where thinning out a larger tree or three would improve the overall health of that particular part of the woods.

I had shared in conversation with Jim that there were really no “grandfather trees”, none with massive diameter and branching that would call to any tree hugger to come and embrace. His response was that the woods needed some selective harvest to encourage that kind of growth. He taught me that day that, though there was a school of thought to just let the woods grow on its own, there was also benefit in selectively harvesting trees to open the canopy and let younger trees emerge into the sunlight.

I’ve had the benefit of hiking these woods for a couple of decades now. I recognize many trees on sight by unique characteristics. I know the trails well, unconsciously know the next curve about to appear, the next tree root just over that rise that has tripped me up in the past. I know that just over there, past that split poplar tree is that pothole that often holds rainwater well into the summer. It’s a favorite drinking place for the coyotes, and a sometime breeding place for mosquitoes.

I thought long and hard about the pros and cons of harvesting some of the trees from the woods. I have a personal connection, a spiritual connection, if you will, with much of the life that shares this space with me. On the one hand, leaving all of the trees disturbs nothing, allows the trees to fulfill their “original instructions” uninterrupted by me or anyone. Leaving them allows for totally natural progression, evolution, intention. Or, I could employ a scientific and measured selective timber harvest. This is the direction that I was leaning.

I met with a professional forester, a timber harvest consultant. I stated as my priorities that the woods was to be left in good shape, not trashed by huge equipment, ruts and waste left scattered. I would want a plan that managed the woods for sustainable harvest over the long haul, many trees left to suck out CO2 and to grow into good timber for future generations, not just take everything of any value now, and future be damned.

It would be important to me to leave at least a couple of large trees per acre to grow into the desired grandfather trees for those who come after me. And there had to be several trees per acre left as wildlife trees for those who live there now.

A lot of prayer, meditation and conversation with my wife led us to the decision to harvest in a selective fashion. We hired the forestry consultant to mark trees that fit the criteria we had layed out. The total board feet of the various species was estimated and the sale was put out for bid. We chose the logger with the best reputation, and based on personal meetings and good feelings
This winter the harvest began shortly after the holidays. Within 2 weeks, it was complete, and only the pile of sawdust was the only indication of any disturbance at the landing area on the crest of a knoll just outside the woods.

I took a stroll through the woods, wanting to see how the logger had left things. I wanted to get a feel for the energy of the woods now that the harvest had been completed, logs skidded out, the trails graded as best as could be done, considering a recent half foot of new snow.
Though I knew that things would look different this time through the woods, it was still a shock to my system to see the tree tops laying about. The logger had done a good job, cutting cleanly, avoiding damage to nearby trees as well as possible. Any reasonable portion of the tree that could be used for timber was chained to the skidder and removed to the landing area. Still, seeing the 200 or so tops lying about, with a newly sawn stump nearby brought on some profound sadness in me.

I get it that life is about choices. I understand that I cannot exist on this awesome planet without having an impact, without taking some of what is being offered so that I might survive. And I was gifted the teaching of offering something in return when a deer sacrifices itself to feed my family, or a rock quarry offers stones for the sweatlodge. I use tobacco to bring balance to the relationship. This is what I did before the harvest began, and again when walking the woods soon after the harvest was complete. Still, some choices bring sadness. This is one of those times for me. I do not regret my choice. Still, I recognize that it has impact well beyond my understanding.

I do not know if I will have trees once again harvested in 10 years. This would be the “proper” time to do so, based on the size and population that I left this time. There is a good chance that I will not be the steward of this land any longer at that moment in time. Still, when that time approaches, I will take time to walk among trees, wherever I may be, and to be with them in a connected way. After all, the trees have wisdom way beyond my own.

Steve Aman, The Wandering Bobcat

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