Sunday, January 13, 2008

Perambulating the Bounds

Last week, we had one of those magical winter days where the weather was more like late March than early January. In the mid-60s with a gentle wind out of the south. Downright balmy. Weary of sitting at a keyboard, I took advantage of the occasion to go for a walk in the woods.
Sandhill has 135 acres, 60 of which are in trees. As northeast Missouri as a region is only about 10% in trees today, that means we're blessed with 4x the average. It's a lovely mixed hardwood forest. While white oak is the climax tree in our area, we also have significant stands of red oak, black walnut, white ash, elm, black locust, honey locust, silver maple, shagbark hickory, red cedar, cottonwood, and sycamore—plus sprinklings of that many again other species. In short, we're wood rich. Which is great for a community that's trying to focus on self-sufficiency.
For the last 30+ years we've been able to cut from our own land all the wood we use for heating our four residences, all the fuel needed to cook down our sorghum syrup in the fall (which is not minor—in the three weeks of harvest we roar through twice the wood boiling sorghum juice that it takes to keep us toasty all winter), plus the dimensional lumber we use to construct our buildings and make a good bit of our trim, shelving, and cabinets.
Despite all this wood use, we have more lumber on our land today than when we started in 1974, which means we're meeting our goal of harvesting on a sustained yield basis. Thus, when Mark from neighboring Red Earth asked if he could get a dozen 13-foot black locust poles for constructing a barn, we agreed to supply them.
In our climate, black locust makes the best poles if you're going to eschew treated lumber. So it made good sense that Mark was looking for that species, which doesn't grow on Red Earth's property, just three miles away. While not as rot resistant as Osage Orange—called "hedge" around here, because it was originally introduced to the area as a hedgerow planting; locals say a hedge post is so tough it will wear out two holes—black locust naturally grows straight and tall, which hedge does not. So if you want poles, black locust is your choice.
While I don't do as much forestry work as I used to, I still love it and I readily agreed to be the one who oversaw the selection and collection of Mark's poles. For one thing, it gave me a great excuse for the walk through our woods that I took last week.
The beauty of the woods is more subtle in winter, yet the views are clearer with all the foliage gone. The colors are muted, and the normal sounds of birds and insects are conspicuously missing. It is a quiet time of visiting old friends.
Having walked our woods many times, I already knew where the stands of black locust were located. Species tend to clump (there's a reason for the saying that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree) and I know the patterns in the same way that I know that power will be unevenly distributed in a group. Over the course of about two hours, I walked to each stand of locust, observing which trees were big enough (I needed a minimum of six-inch diameter heartwood at the small end), straight enough, and could be extracted with minimal damage to the land and other trees. In addition, I was assessing which were too crowded, which were encroaching onto fields, which had rot or storm damage on upper limbs, and which appeared "unthrifty" (too many branches low on the tree) and ready for harvest. We have perhaps 200 black locusts on our land of harvestable size, so I had choices, and there's a lot to weigh when you aspire to making selective cuttings intelligently.

• • •
But my winter walk through the woods was more than reconnoitering black locusts. I was "perambulating the bounds." I was communing with our land: taking stock, and paying attention to the changes. It was a meditative, reflective walking of the boundaries that has a ritual quality about it. I was looking at all the trees, not just potential poles. I was looking at how the Sandhill Branch—the intermittent stream that runs through our property—was cutting away the banks in its never-ending sinusoidal rhythms. I was noticing how runoff from about 40 acres of our neighbor's fields has virtually silted in the 12-foot deep pond we had constructed 32 years ago (why are they plowing such erodible land?). I was noticing how the die-off of red oaks is continuing. I was admiring how some of the trees we planted as six-inch slips in 1975 are now more than 12 inches in diameter and thriving. I was scouting out which oaks I'd cut in March to yield the 100 three-foot logs I'd want to inoculate with 2 kilos of shiitake spawn (we've been doing this every other year since 1996 and are now self-sufficient in these mushrooms).
The next time I'll walk the land will be in late April, when the wild morels make their shy, brief appearance, poking up through the leaf mold. Then the new green will be rampant and the frogs will be in full chorus. There will be bluebells and spring beauties. Only the mud and the tree trunks will be the same.
They say that the best fertilizer is the footprint of the farmer. While I mostly think of walking the land as an aspect of getting one's shit together, I reckon it can also be seen as one of the most pleasurable ways of spreading one's shit around.

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