Friday, February 10, 2012

Gardening in the Forest: Winter's Harvest

Originally published January 2, 2011

Late Fall and Winter are among my favorite times to be in the forest. After the bold, eye-catching colors of early Autumn fade and drop away, the woods take on the bare, austere cast that they’ll hold until May when the new growth of another year returns. As the days shorten, the air turns sharp and cold. With fresh snow on the ground and the light of the low sun slanting through the barren branches and glinting off the snow-heavy boughs of conifers, the forest is as magical and invigorating as at any time of year. I guard these days jealously, especially the shortest ones in the weeks just before and after the solstice, and try to arrange my schedule so that I can spend them at home, cutting next year’s firewood. It doesn’t always work out that way, but this year it did. 

When we moved from Asheville to Maine, one of the many changes we made, in addition to moving to a much colder climate, was switching from oil heat to wood. When we arrived at our new home on the last day of 2002, the 530-square-foot, half-finished house had a leaky wood stove and a propane wall unit heater. It was cold outside and cold inside. Our first priority was to get warm. The previous owner had left some firewood stacked near the house. We burned that up, found some more buried under the snow, burned that, then resorted to cutting dead, fallen trees and burned them. After two weeks the propane tank was empty. We removed the heater. It was a frigid winter. Some nights when the temperatures dipped into the negative numbers we slept right next to the stove with our two dogs and lots of blankets. In the morning, the dogs’ water bowl was frozen.

Our approach to cutting wood the first couple of years was uncertain and timid. We had a vision, but not much of a plan, and even less of a method. The forest was unhealthy, that was obvious enough from the overcrowded conditions and the many dead and dying balsam firs. I knew forests pretty well, mostly from the time I had spent in the protected forests of the southern Appalachians, particularly Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the wilderness areas of the national forests. But those were southern forests. And much later in succession than our new home forest, which had been cut pretty aggressively in the 1970s. I’d cut some smaller hardwoods—red maple mostly that was regrowing in clusters from older stumps—then get distracted thinning out all the spindly balsam firs, trying to create space for the healthier spruces, pines, and cedars.  My time was limited, and I was focused more on learning the intricacies of timberframing and house building. Most of those early years I didn’t get enough wood cut to get us even half way through a winter, and we ended up buying firewood.

But I spent a lot of time in the forest, listening, trying to understand what it was trying to become. A big obstacle was my not wanting to waste anything. The forest was horribly overgrown, but if I cut out all the small softwood saplings, what would I do with them? I had spent a lot of time in forests, but only as a visitor, a hiker or backpacker or fly-fisher. I had looked at forests, admired and appreciated them, often been awed by them, but I had never lived in one, and certainly had never needed one to help keep me alive. At that level, I had to admit, I didn’t really understand forests at all. 

I took it as small consolation that I wasn’t alone. Common practice among the locals seemed to be to gather the thinnings and brush and burn it. That struck me intuitively as wrong. Then researching natural building, I came across a technique known as cordwood building, which used short lengths of wood mortared together with cob or cement. I designed a greenhouse/bathhouse (the house itself had no plumbing) that used this technique and created a use for all the softwood thinnings that needed to come out. A local foundation that supported natural building gave us a grant to get the project underway. A friend and I spent a couple months cutting small diameter (3-8”) softwoods from about 2 acres starting at our house and working our way out. We cut the unhealthiest trees first, then the ones that were already dying, then the ones that were healthy but growing in the shadow of older or taller trees. Always we left the best trees, giving the forest the best chance of creating a mature canopy in the shortest time. When we were done we had enough wood for the cordwood part of the building and the forest was transformed. It was open enough so that you could walk through it, and with all the sick trees gone, it seemed far more robust and healthy. (We left most of the standing dead trees for the woodpeckers, chickadees, and other forest denizens who use them for food or shelter). As for the smallest cuttings, the saplings too small to build with and the branches of all the larger trees, I arranged those in scattered piles on the forest floor, figuring that the smaller mammals would use them for habitat and they would eventually rot and help build the forest soil. 

A year or two later I came across a book called The Hidden Forest about the Andrews Experiment Forest in the Pacific northwest. I discovered that biologists and ecologists were using the forest as the site of a multi-decade study of how a forest functions as an ecosystem, to understand how its seemingly infinite disparate parts relate to one another. This was exactly what I had been looking for. The scientists admitted that even after three decades they were still just scratching the surface of the forest’s diversity and complexity. Thousands of the arthropod species that live in the soil, for instance, hadn’t even been named yet. But one discovery they made was that the most important contribution to long-term forest health is dead wood on the ground. Clear the deadwood away and you starve the soil. Like cuttings and a garden. Forests waste nothing. 

Now, four years later, when I go into the forest to cut wood, I feel more confident. I’m less ignorant than I was eight years ago. I’ll never fully understand the forest—its complexity overwhelms my limited human capacity to comprehend relationships— but I’ve worked out the broad outlines of a vision, a plan, and a method. The vision is to take what the forest offers on its own terms and to work to restore as much of the diversity and resilience that have been taken from it in the past 400 years. The plan is to go slowly, to treat the forest as a garden, but to garden on forest time, which means a plan that unfolds over years and decades and even centuries. Central to the plan is to minimize how much we need to harvest from the forest each year. Our house is fully insulated now; we heat it with two cords of wood per year. This year we’re adding a farmhouse kitchen and a bedroom, another 400 square feet, which will bring the total to just under 1000. When the addition is done, we’ll switch to a wood cookstove. Since the addition will be superinsulated, the heat from cooking should heat the whole house. That follows the permaculture idea of stacking functions: when we cook, the heat is a byproduct. 

As for method, that starts with respect too. To cut trees I use two axes—one for felling, the other for limbing—and a bow saw. I sometimes use an electric chainsaw for cutting logs to stovewood length once I’ve carried them out of the forest but never in the forest. It seems disrespectful to the trees. But it’s more than that too: like lawnmowers, chainsaws represent everything that’s wrong with the way we relate to the land. A forest is full of sound and nuance. Squirrels chatter at each other or at intruders, chickadees flit through the spruce and pine boughs singing their repetitive songs, woodpeckers pound at trunks, ermines appear out of brush piles, wind whispers in the treetops, branches crackle under the weight of snow. Some of my happiest days have been spent working in the forest during the crisp days of winter. My kids come to watch me and play while I’m limbing the tree I’ve just felled. They help me plan which way the next tree is going to fall, ask me questions and give me advice. Swinging the axe keeps me warm, and in practiced hands an axe is plenty fast enough. In the silences between its rhythmic thwack thwack thwack against the flesh of a tree, you can hear the rest of life carrying on. 

But turn on a chainsaw and this world is silenced. The deafening whine and violence of the machine overwhelms the senses and deadens its user to the life around him, slave to another machine and the unending quest for efficiency and maximum productivity. It’s a dead end. Life isn’t amenable to efficiency; you’re alive or not. Accomplishing a task faster doesn’t make you more alive, it just means you’re done sooner. It also changes the task from one that might enter the realm of craft to one that exists exclusively in the world of production and accounting. How much? How long? How many units per hour? If you don’t enjoy the task, why do it in the first place? Some tasks are necessary chores, they have to be done, and the sooner the better. Cutting wood to stove length is a lot like that. I’ve done it with a bow saw in the past, but this year I’m using the chainsaw. It’s less enjoyable that way, dead time more or less, but the time I save I’ll get to spend cutting the joinery for the new addition, and that’s the form of woodworking I enjoy more than any other.


The Hidden Forest by Jon R. Luoma is a fascinating account of the efforts of scientists to understand a forest as a complete ecosystem. Although the research forest it features is in the Pacific northwest, it is essential reading for anyone interested in how forests work.

My felling and limbing axes are made by Snow & Neally, an old company based in Bangor. I use a Bahco buck saw. I had to order it over the internet, but it’s better than the cheap ones available in the local stores.

No comments:

Post a Comment