Friday, February 10, 2012

Gardening on Forest Time

Originally published March 28, 2011

As suddenly as Spring appeared last week, it retreated this week; six inches of new slushy snow and a cold front that settled back over New England curtailed some of our early garden prep work. I went back into the forest to work under the big trees, hewing more timbers for our addition. Tanya focused on gathering maple sap and boiling it down to syrup over a wood fire outside. One of the fringe benefits of being a house carpenter is that I end up with a lot of wood scraps from each job. If the wood is oak or cherry or birch or some other hardwood I’ll use it to cook over, the hardwood smoke flavor adding depth and subtlety to the taste of the food. The softwoods, however, have resins that make them unsuitable for cooking over an open fire, and we usually burn those scraps as kindling in the woodstove or, this week, under a lidded maple sap pot where the smoke isn’t a concern. 

The long stretch of days with temperatures rising a little over freezing during the day and then dropping back down below at night is making this a banner year for maple sap. Very different from last year, when the season ended almost as soon as it began. We’ve got ten taps going, and our preferred beverage for the past week has been sap straight from the tree. Our trees are red maples, which average only half the sugar content of sugar maple; the sap tastes like the purest water ever, with just enough hint of sweetness to make it a perfect spring elixir. It’s better than anything you can buy in a bottle—so good that we temporarily forgot all about the hard cider that we had bottled just two weeks ago.

Mornings this week were cold when I started, about 25 degrees. When I’m swinging an axe I wear only thin gloves so that I have better control, and my fingers were stinging with the cold the first day. The wind whistled through the tops of the trees, but down at ground level the air barely stirred, for which I was thankful. I find it challenging enough to balance on an eight-inch log and swing a heavy felling ax so that it bites into the wood just inches from my foot without 30-mph gusts of wind to contend with. Shelter from winds and storms of driving rain or snow are just one of the many benefits that forests provide.

Most of the logs I was hewing I had felled earlier in the winter, but there are a handful of trees that I still need to cut down, and I cut and hewed the first of those yesterday. This is the last pass thinning an area within sight of our house where we’d thinned once before five years ago. I’d left trees spaced about eight to ten feet after that cut, and in the time since they’ve taken advantage of the added space and available nutrients to put on a lot of new growth and are still crowded at their crowns. So even with cutting out all the timbers I need for our addition—about 30 trees in all—the canopy will still be about 75% closed. I’ve left the oldest trees—white pine, red spruce, northern cedar, and red maple—which I estimate to be from 50 to 75 years old. Forests here take 200 to 300 years to go through the stages of succession to reach old growth, and we’re helping the forest toward that goal by leaving the oldest healthy trees.

While I worked at felling and hewing a red squirrel busied himself carrying seeds back and forth from an underground hollow at the base of a big red spruce to some other lair that I couldn’t make out. Chickadees were plentiful in the boughs too, flitting here and there, calling to each other across the forest. The sun is up early now, and even though the thermometer never hit 40 on the days I was working, by nine o’clock it was plenty warm enough for someone swinging an ax. The work went quickly and well, and I averaged about an hour and a half to cut each rafter on two faces. It’s days like these when time seems to stand still and I lose myself in the forest, not quite sure where the boundaries between me and the rest of life are, or if I gain anything by trying to make them out.
When I first started thinning the forest here five years ago it was so choked with spindly balsam fir saplings that it was all but impossible to walk through. There was literally no place for us in the forest, and no place for anything to grow in the understory. Today this patch of forest is open and inviting and one of our favorite places to spend time. Clementine and Guthrie came to watch me work this morning, using the fallen tree as a balance beam before I started hewing, helping me snap chalk lines, replacing a chickenwire cage that had fallen over from the sapling it was protecting, and then going off to repair a fairy house they had made last year.

In these open spaces we’ve already planted new trees over the past several years—two chestnut hybrids, a northern pecan, a sugar maple, and a mulberry. These will become part of the canopy in the second half of this century, but even before then they’ll be providing nuts and berries for us and for the wildlife. In the sunnier openings we’ve filled in the understory too, and with this last pass of thinning, we’ll focus this season’s planting on filling in some of these new gaps. We’ll plant shrubs or small trees that bear fruits and nuts—native plums, serviceberries, hazelnuts and chinquapins. Over the next decade the harvest from this part of the forest will have almost completely changed from wood for heating and building and cooking to nuts and berries and tubers and vegetables for eating. And I expect that beyond that, as the open woodland structure and more abundant food attracts and supports larger populations of deer and turkey and hare that our harvest will expand yet again.

Gardening in the forest requires a much different approach than vegetable or landscape gardening. For one thing, the harvests are much more diverse, and can include wood for shelter, cooking, and heat; plant and animal food; and animal skins for clothing or leather. Unlike a vegetable garden or a flower garden or a field of wheat or corn, a forest garden can provide all the necessities of a human economy, especially at the small scale of a homestead or village. History confirms this. But to reap these harvests requires an economy that is in most of its features the opposite of the economy that we have now and that organizes our world. That is the economy of commodities, where the brute force of fossil-fuel powered machines—or of slaves, servants, and animals in an earlier, and perhaps future, age—is deployed to render the landscape a blank slate that can then be planted with one of a handful of cash crops. This commodity economy is an expression of hubris: in the modern English sense of arrogance, yes, but more definitively in the original Greek, where it means wanton violence. This describes precisely the relationship between an economy and a native ecology when commodities are the repositories of value. Hubris is an effect more than a state of mind, and it can be read in a landscape of overlogged forests, suburban lawns, corn fields, and parking lots.

An economy of the forest as garden requires intimacy and understanding; hubris and the brute force it implies are useless. The Wabanaki who gardened this land for centuries before European settlement exemplify these levels of intimacy and understanding, and provide rich historical material to draw on in assaying the features of a modern forest garden economy. As I’ve written throughout these essays, the salient features of the forest are complexity and diversity. Gardening in the forest requires methods and actions calibrated to these qualities and to the forest’s own seasons, patterns, and rhythms. We remove wood from the forest, but slowly, incrementally, leaving the stands of trees dense enough to withstand windstorms and prevent soil erosion. We add new species of trees, shrubs, tubers, vines, and herbs, but mostly species already native to the forest, and in patterns already established by the native ecology.

A forest garden economy may ultimately be more productive than commodity economies—I don’t know, and I don’t think that is the criterion by which it should be judged. I’m sure it is more productive when we count the incidental benefits that forests provide, such as climate moderation, topsoil creation, erosion prevention, carbon sequestration, and many others. And the comparison becomes truly absurd when we add the long arc of creation: a movement toward greater degrees of ecological diversity and complexity exhibited over the whole history of life on earth. But some values escape measurement in dollars and cents: the pleasures of intimacy with a living community, the richness of experience that comes from inhabiting a landscape alive with meaning, the value of the diversity of life that is beyond human reckoning. These values can’t be quantified. They are the values central to native economies; monetary values are assigned to the living world by frontier speculators, and their insistence that all values can in fact be monetized demonstrates nothing but the poverty of their own vision. For the fact remains: there was no currency in North America north of Mexico until European settlement. 

Scales of time are the other major difference between gardening in the forest and other kinds of gardening. Heraclitus famously wrote that you never step into the same river twice; the same is true of a forest. It changes with the seasons, it changes with the years and decades, and it changes with the centuries, following an arc longer than a single human lifetime. Forest gardening demands patience, but the rewards, slow to arrive though they may at first seem, exceed those of any other kind of gardening. In our first years here our harvests were almost exclusively wood, and that was obviously because our land was already forested. We planted our first fruit trees in the front yard the first spring after we arrived eight years ago. We had to wait four years until we picked the first cherry, five years until we tasted our first homegrown apple. But this year our forest gardens will produce more food than last year, and next year we can count on them producing still more than this. Each year the work we have to do to get that food shrinks, as the main jobs of mulching and composting are taken over by the maturing trees and other plants we grow for those specific purposes. In other words, the energy returned over energy invested increases every year, at least for the next couple of decades.

But this week we’ve been feasting on the last of the bear meat, gathering mussels again from the ocean, and digging the jerusalem artichoke bulbs that are the first garden harvest of the year. We have a big patch of these last at the sunny edge of the forest, and they produce an incredible amount of food with no effort at all at a time of year when the first new growth is still a month away. Their one supposed drawback as a garden plant is that they are so vigorous they are hard to eradicate, though I can’t write from experience since we’ve never tried to get rid of them. We have ours surrounded by a seasonal frog pond, our tool shed, and the forest, but since they’re native to here we wouldn’t worry much about them spreading anyway. In any case, I can’t quite follow the logic that declares a plant that is native, vigorous, pest free, beautiful and produces lots of food a problem.

Note: These blog posts will probably be more sporadic for the next month. I need to spend some time working on the book for which these essays serve as raw material, and with my other commitments I don’t think I’ll be able to post every week. Thanks for reading.

Further Reading:

Two books on the economy and ecology and forests in North America are well worth reading: Americans and Their Forests by Michael Williams is a comprehensive historical treatment and New England Natives by Sheila Connor is a beautifully written and illustrated account of the myriad relationships between people and trees over the centuries here in the northeastern corner of the country.

One more: I thoroughly enjoyed Notes on a Lost Flute: A Field Guide to the Wabanaki by Kerry Hardy. It is the work of an amateur in the best sense of that word: passionate, personal, and engaging, even when it wanders to dark places on the map a professional historian or ethnographer would avoid.

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