It’s May and we have plants in the garden (celery and cabbage) and we have a frost advisory for tonight. As if this year hasn’t thrown enough at us already, we are flirting with freezing temps tonight! I have friends who actually saw snow today!! It is currently almost 11AM and the outside temp has just now crept to 40dF and with a wild and crazy wind at that. The year that keeps on giving.
None the less, the transition is well under way; the ferns are standing tall now at 6-8” high and are beginning to unfurl, the leaves on every tree are opening and taking their respective shapes, the grass is greening and growing, and the birds are literally everywhere. Despite the minor setback of cooler temps for the night and the next few days, May is well underway and hold that splendid promise of what is coming. Hope springs eternal and spring blossoms the flower of the seasons: summer.
Upon reflection, I think I write about the summer woods fairly often, for example The Wealth of the Woods from last June. They are resplendent with green and swollen with life that absolutely bursts forth wherever you care to look. Rich, fresh, and almost quivering with the desire to tease and please us, they dance with life and dazzle with brilliance; they softly and subtly seduce us to luxuriate in their embrace. The shades of green vary seemingly endlessly with each plant, each leaf trying to outdo its neighbor in delighting the eyes. Even my archenemy and sworn nemesis, the bull briar, contributes to the plush and vibrant canopy of the forest.
Sadly though, as I think you probably know from my past writings, my personal woods are not as deep with growth as in the past. That insidious and invasive insect called the Gypsy Moth decimated my 100-year old oaks. Gypsy moths eat like nothing you’ve ever seen. It is actually the caterpillars that do all the damage, they eat nonstop and the food of choice are oak leaves, followed by maple and other hardwoods. An oak tree can withstand a 100% defoliation and can usually survive a second defoliation as long as the second does not exceed 50% of the tree’s leaves. A great number of mine were all stripped completely for two straight seasons, ultimately killing them. I’ve taken down four or five so far and have at least another half dozen or so who’s skeletal still remain standing sentry, silently watching the rest of the woods flourish.
I took down another one this past week, a good-sized century old oak. It was big enough to make me nervous, but it came down right where I planned with no problems other than the collateral damage on smaller neighboring trees and bushes who lost some branches. The tree is already cut up into pieces ready to split and the branches are cut and stacked or are already in the debris pile. There is probably close to a cord of firewood in this one tree so that will provide our heat next winter. I have two more I still want to drop this summer, one of which is a monster – probably pushing four-foot diameter. I may save the big one for the fall; it will wreak havoc upon everything around it when it comes down and I think I want to hold off that kind of destruction for the fall.
Like so much else in life, each tree felling comes with both a gain and a loss. The greatest gain is that I gain fire wood for heat, free (except for my labor in cutting and splitting, which frankly is a pleasure thanks to the benefits of the exercise). I guess I also gain more sunlight into the woods, which will allow other plants and bushes to grow and fill the void created by the loss of the tree. The whole ecosystem changes due to the devastation brought by the caterpillars – I’ve witnessed it on a grand scale in the deeper woods while hiking. It is a natural and inevitable cycle of nature; one that has played out for thousands of years. And that is all good and natural – an essentially invisible rhythm that keeps the forest vibrant and healthy.
By far the greatest loss though, when I lose a tree, is the loss of the tree itself: its canopy of green and the life it supports. The shade, the rhythmic sway in the winds, the rustling of the leaves on a summer night; trees bring so much to a property and they truly leave a hole when lost, in more ways than one. Woods also bring privacy to a yard – a hidden peace. Removing one punches a hole in the screen of green, and once a tree is down on the ground, you have a hole in a wall that took fifty years or more to build. Of course, life goes on – the birds and squirrels all move to a different tree and their life goes on as usual. And the more trees that you remove, the more holes in the wall, the more open the space, and the less forested your land. And that is another part of why I resist dropping them for as long as I can.
Why do it at all you may ask. Certainly, the firewood is a motivator; there is a strong feeling of satisfaction from providing your heat from wood you felled, cut, and split yourself. And the economic side too – wood is not cheap any more. (Although given current oil prices, oil may well be the cheaper choice right now!) But trees have branches – big ones. A limb on an oak tree can weigh up to, or even over, a thousand pounds; and they have lots of them. After a tree dies, the natural process of rot and deterioration begins; it starts with the smallest branches – the fragile twigs – that quickly become brittle and break and fall with even a gentle wind. As time goes on, the bark splits and water seeps under it and into the wood, making it heavier. And being dead and no longer supple and string, the bigger branches begin to randomly fall; often during a particularly wild and windy night, but sometimes unpredictably and capriciously even on a warm calm day. And the last thing I want is a dead oak branch falling on anyone. So the first trees to come down after they die are the ones in areas where people often walk, in areas that pose the greatest threat to my wife and my grandchildren. Those trees along the edges or deep into the woods can wait to come down.
Ultimately, it is like so much else in life – routine maintenance – like mowing the grass or getting a haircut. Things grow and eventually need to be groomed, pared. It is how we keep things neat, controlled, and from becoming unkempt. The same thing happens in the deep forest, with nothing but the wind, the snow, the rain, and the insects performing this maintenance. But the deep woods has an almost endless supply of trees, I do not. Having to take down even one is a solemn and somber task for me, it is always a event of loss; inevitable perhaps, but a loss. All I can do is eagerly look forward to what springs forth where this tree once grew. That’s all any of us can do, look for the growth that comes out of our losses. Stay well dear reader!