Friday, January 1, 2016

Winter Mind

Winter has finally come to us. Temperatures below 20 degrees F, snowfall, car doors frozen shut with the last freezing rain, the clinkeling of ice crystals shed at forty five miles per hour. Despite this wintry attitude, we here at PrairieWood have work to do. The new shop is now standing with roof and ceiling. It never occurred to me that I would work into the night, outdoors, at just a handful of degrees above zero, but I did just that last Sunday so that we could get the wiring in before the ceiling closed out our access.

While I've been able to put most house projects on hold until springtime, one thing is still weighing heavily on my mind -the woods. What once went concealed by countless leaves is now made obvious by the contrasting wet bark and newly fallen snow. If I could sum up its appearance in one word, it would be diagonal. What is it about a wood of slanted trees that is so disturbing? Is our sense of order satisfied by horizontal ground and vertical columns of trees? Is the removal of angled wood a goal of a "clean" woods? 

What we need here is a plan, a forest plan, to guide us in the care of these woods. But wait. Why do the woods need our care at all? Isn't that awfully anthropocentric? Couldn't the woods take care of itself as it has for thousands of years?

Why is it so hard to look at the woods and see ourselves in it? We entertain the woods as a medium of passage. We experience the woods, but are not a part of it. Our aim is to be out-of-the-woods. We are beasts of clearings where a few selected trees may stand sentry. Why not the woods? Is it a blow to our ego to be among such large beings? Or is it the inherent danger of a sustained presence in the woods, the mashup of life and limb? Maybe this is the most practical tack, that a life in the woods is a life fraught with falling timber. Even among the trees there is danger. No elderly tree gives way without taking or scarring those around it. The falling of a great old tree reverberates through the forest, destroying the order, remaking communities, providing opportunities for well placed upstarts. 

I've realized how easy it is to make a metaphor of the woods, but the questions are more difficult. In our short time here we've had to ask many, and no answer is quite right. Any intervention is yet another question, or string of questions. We cannot extract ourselves from the story of the woods; people created it and we are living it. 

I regret to speak so abstractly, but somewhere in this line of thinking is a better perspective that may be teased out in writing. I understand intuitively that we have a role in this mess, that we are the aliens among the trees, roadsides, and fields. We cast dispersions on the plants and animals that take advantage of sensitive niches, but were it not for us this would hardly be the case. We are the aliens, the agents of drastic change. We project it onto others (plants, animals) while claiming our place. There would be no buckthorn, no garlic mustard, no barberry or burning bush if it weren't for our own invasive nature. Can we make it right? Can you take it back? Can you undo the done? 

This is a defining aspect of our culture. We invade a place, instigating the consequences that we see all around us and then tell ourselves that it is the others' fault, it is their doing that has created the mess and maybe, just maybe, we'll commit resources to cleaning it up, and it will be ongoing, forever perhaps. The productive citizen looks away; it's just easier that way, isn't it? We can spend a life throwing resources at a problem that traces back to exactly where we stand. Is it rational to label plants and animals invasive and yet completely ignore our responsibility for it? 

In the woods I see the paradigm of our conflict, one as much with the natural world as it is with other human beings. I am left asking you if an answer, one that can never be fully right, is to look away or to commit the resources to try to correct the damage, forever, perhaps. And what to make of the trying, because trying isn't necessarily accomplishing anything other than assuaging one's conscience of total responsibility. 

I don't mean to be melodramatic. It's simply that so much of what appears to ail us today is hindered by our unwillingness to take responsibility, or at the very least, to understand our responsibility. I am not personally responsible for the rampant buckthorn in the woods, but I sure can see how it came to pass and how I've benefited from our ancestral migration to this place. 

Ignorance (in the sense of not knowing, but also ignoring) leads to bad decisions, or self-centered ones, and consequences difficult to ameliorate. For instance, water holds in the middle swale, in the back woods, and leads to ponding, mosquitoes, and to water-logged roots which can bring an untimely death to the trees there, fallen timber, more sunshine, and then faster buckthorn spread. I considered trenching a drainage so that the captured water could drain into the great wetland. Autumn came and I saw that some trees at the center of the middle swale remained green-leafed long after the rest went yellow.

Upon investigation, the bark and leaf, below, spoke. These are silver maple, Acer saccharinum, the fast growing, brittle-wooded tree of wet areas in the Eastern Forest.

I can only guess that silver maples living at the boundaries of its range put the species under pressures not necessarily found near its core. So I came to an understanding of this middle swale. I will not dig a trench to help drain it, yet I will dig deeper into what else is growing, and dying, in this area, and attempt to understand it before acting or, quite possibly, not acting at all.

The questions of how to act and what sustained gestures are both possible and effective, are for our winter mind. What can be done that limits the rampant buckthorn and doesn't undermine the fragile species under threat from its able fecundity? We spent a quantity of time pulling garlic mustard from the drainage stream connecting the northern, small wetland to the great, southern wetland. Our work was effective, but it also appeared to me that there was a significant reduction in jewelweed in the very same area. I'm working on memory, now, but I thought it was more prolific in that region in past years. So I wonder, was it the garlic mustard that reduced the jewelweed population to nearly zero, was it natural swings in population due to unusual temperatures or flooding, or was it our trampling feet that inhibited its seed from sprouting? 

Every action has consequences, so many of which are unknown. I recall how, as a child, certain people were inclined to spray pesticides into the tall oak trees to bring down gypsy moth caterpillars. Our camp director screamed, during lunch, that by God he was not going to allow those trees to die! Our neighbor brought in a pump truck, unannounced in summer time, and sprayed his trees. I am still haunted by the overwhelming bitter smell of the pesticide, the sticky residue dripping from the trees, the dead birds and squirrels on the ground. His trees didn't die, nor did the camp's, but then, neither did the vast majority of unsprayed trees.

Each of us who is responsible for a part of the woodlands at the edge of the prairie has to choose for ourselves whether to act, or look away, to spray herbicides and trample, or do nothing. There is no mandate, we operate independently of our neighbors and yet nature cares little for these arbitrary boundaries.

I am inclined to act, yet feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is necessary to be effective. We hesitate to spray herbicide, usually in two or more applications, but pulling is incredibly time consuming, physical and often, incomplete. Should we adjust to the new, simpler woods, make peace with the knowledge that we brought this thicket on ourselves? Could there be a middle ground where buckthorn and garlic mustard and all the others are accepted to a degree, where we do not look away but effectively manage the woods?

*all photos are from October, showing yellow-leafed sugar maples along with the green understory of buckthorn -low growing, young plants spread north while the large shrubs reside on the south facing slope.

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