i’ve been spending my free time in the woods this spring. a little over half of my acreage is wooded, more or less. it has been neglected and mismanaged since long before I began to steward it. storms rip through and drop whole trees under snow or ahead of gales. birches and poplar crowd into spaces that were once open. because i’ve been known to trade hardwoods in exchange for snowplowing, i have mainly garbage trees left. trees die, trees germinate, trees grow. and i, short on tools (i also traded my chainsaw for snowplowing; the rural barter system is weird) and time and will, have let the woods be wild.
it sounds like the right thing to do, to let the trees be ferociously free, but the health of a managed forest isn’t supported through neglect. out in the wilderness, trees can do as they please. they can grow cheek by jowl, live and die through weather and disease and no one needs to care. they’re not going to impale a horse or drop a branch on anyone or look particularly terrible to the deer and the fox. if whole stands are infected and die, so be it. but a managed forest should be different: health and diversity and beauty are supported through smart management.
and so i have begun to manage my woods. it’s a project with no end. it starts with culling and pruning. then planting. and always, always maintaining. i will never finish it and hope that whoever comes after me will continue this work that they will never finish, either
as i walk in woods this spring, digging my hands into the humus, cutting and snipping and sawing and burrowing, i reckon that our lives, our bodies, our secret souls are not unlike those of trees.
our roots may be shallow and dainty, little cartilaginous fingers scampering under a thin layer of soil and joyfully leaping up for the sun as they travel, leaving a new tree behind. that’s a glittering life, full of opportunities for change. or our roots may be deep, a great, girthy taproot that delves right down into the bedrock. absolutely committed. not sending up shoots, but moving the bones of the earth, one molecule at a time. inexorable.
our trunks, our supports, our cores may be supple and whippy; straight and swaying; hard and obdurate; or twisted and strong. every type of tree has its own nature, but that essence isn’t immutable. it’s nature versus nurture.
there’s a young oak at the bottom of my driveway that bends as gracefully as a birch instead of standing like a sentinel.
there’s an unusual single-trunked red maple in the meadow that was pollarded by a storm. it has fresh growth popping out of the top, its trunk scarred and pocked and torn and bubbling with tumors. it strives on.
there’s a striped maple, a classic woodland shrub, at the bottom of the pasture that has lived long enough to have transcended shrubness and become a mighty tree.
the bendy oak daily rejects the rules of oakness and dances unapologetically in the wind. the ravaged maple quietly gives the finger to an unkind world. the goosefoot leverages patience and luck into a genuine legacy. “do what you will,” they all murmur, “and i will do what i must”.
from trunks sprout limbs and branches, eternally scrambling toward the light. they reach upward, sideways, around neighbors, always striving toward the sun. each fork and split was a decision, calculated ruthlessly. lithe birch saplings grow as tall as venerable pines to get at the light, their branches thin and vertical to weave through the shading needles of their neighbors. beeches spread by runners; a wildfire of offspring burns through clearings and roadsides, searching for the bright spots. every growth decision is powered by desire. earlier growth is drowned by later growth, leaving sharp bayonets on the trunks of evergreens and tipis of thin, brittle branches propped in the crotches of red maples.
as i stop to look at each tree, to think about its place, to think about how it fits and how it grows, i find kinship with many. sometimes, i decide less ruthlessly than the trees themselves: which live, which die. when i begin to understand a tree, i begin to understand myself.