The Winter Woods
In November of 1992, 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists (including the majority of the Nobel laureates in the sciences) published a little-known document called the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. It’s a quick and sobering read, using simple words to describe our future and the choices we have to make or pay dearly for later. Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of that document and its starting feel like the future they describe is now blowing not too far off our coast, literally. Their letter opens like this:
“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.”
As the final presidential debate wrapped up this week without, to my knowledge, a single question about the environment, this warning has been on my mind. I can’t help but feel that our collective house is burning down and all anyone seems to be talking about is the dinner menu. We continue to find ways to misguide and distract ourselves: the economy, war, the role of government, who paid what in taxes, terrorists, back the economy . . . All of these things are worth discussion, but not without first addressing the smoke that is filling the room and filling our lungs.
I spent this past week at Farm School in the forest. Gratefully, I might add, given the dark and dramatic place where my mind is, “Everything is better once you’re in the woods,” our forester Jody Bronson, reminded us. I agree.
On four-season farms, winter marks the season for forest management. The branches are bare, providing a clear view of the canopy. The cool weather makes the intense chopping and hauling more bearable. And snow on the ground makes it easier to remove logs without covering them in dirt, which would bring a premature death to our sawmill blade.
In the dense hundred-acre forest surrounding Maggie’s Farm, we listened and learned the way of the woods. Who knew that hard wood trees’ and pine trees’ growth are governed by completely different mechanisms – one from below and one from above? Hardwoods are “phototropic,” meaning they grow in search of light. Soft wood trees, such as pine, are “geotropic,” meaning they grow in direct opposition to gravity. We learned that a bird called the Northern Shrike impales its prey on the thorny prickers of the Hawthorne tree to eat later. And that spice bushes indicate good soil fertility. And apparently, if you want to grow a red maple in the Northeast, just stop mowing your lawn.
These small things add up and eventually culminate in real decisions about which tree lives on and which tree goes to the mill. If the speed and efficiency of thinning a bed of carrots is at one end of the spectrum, this work in the woods is at the other: measured and deliberate. After all, these are trees that had been growing for more than 50 years and wouldn’t return for another half-century.
So we shuffled through the understory, each of us holding an axe, our eyes trained skyward looking to the canopy for clues that would help us with our uneasy task. Which trees were the happiest? Which trees were competing? Which would make good firewood? Which could we use to fix the buildings on our farm? Did we want to create habitat for animals? Or do we desire an old-growth stand to walk through while we ponder the world and write poetry? What were our goals for this forest?
Our arboreal proceedings took on a judicial tone, each side arguing for or against a certain tree, and we handed down verdicts more or less comfortably. I did argue for one particular maple just because I found it beautiful and heroic in the way its three trunks grew like siblings – I didn’t want to kill it even though our textbooks would flag it as an unhealthy specimen. Such is the power of the forest caretaker.
But with such power also comes responsibility. Though our process moved at a snail’s pace compared to our blade-wielding concision in the fields, the principles and responsibility remained the same: We – people, forest, plants and animals – are all parts of this one interconnected whole and our consumption must be bounded by sustainability and balance. The forest it turns out is a garden too; it’s just on a much longer rotation.
Except for my charity case, the red maples didn’t fair too well. All the white pines were acquitted. We no doubt delighted the resident woodpeckers with all the rotted stuff we left behind. In all, we marked 60 trees for removal, enough for the 5 chords of wood to keep us toasty though the coming winter. But more importantly we left behind a number of trees that now have a bit more room to spread their branches toward the light.
As I write, Hurricane Sandy is churning off the east coast, threatening to wash out our vulnerable, bare fields of freshly planted garlic. This so-called “Frankenstorm” is forecasted to be the sum of two storms colliding over New England and is already being compared to the “Perfect Storm” of 1991. Work is underway at the farm to do what we can to minimize and mitigate the impact. Sheep and cows are being moving closer to home and getting access to the barns. We’re tying the chicken coop to the ground. And we’ve rehearsed protocols for generators, water pumps, freezers, and how to make light when there is none.
On a selfish level, I am hoping for as much to go wrong this week as possible just so I can learn what the heck to do when I’m on my own. If I’m going to be a farmer in a world of increasingly unstable weather, I want as much practice as possible dealing with this chaos. It could be an invaluable learning experience.
But I’m also hoping we begin to see the increasing frequency of these storms for what they are: as warnings. I desperately want us to start making some hard decisions about the ways we live because we have only two options: change or be changed. But the Union of Concern Scientists put it best:
“Acting on this recognition is not altruism, but enlightened self-interest: whether industrialized or not, we all have but one lifeboat. No nation can escape from injury when global biological systems are damaged. No nation can escape from conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. In addition, environmental and economic instabilities will cause mass migrations with incalculable consequences for developed and undeveloped nations alike… The greatest peril is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty, and unrest, leading to social, economic, and environmental collapse.
A new ethic is required — a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.”
On a personal note, all my farming and stressing about farming in the last three weeks has left little room for much else in my life. Whatever time I have left usually goes to making sure my marriage doesn’t suffer from the distance any more than it has to. As much as I love this work, I am painfully aware of the friends I’ve not been able to talk to and the communities I’m missing out on. It’s been a tradeoff and I’m still uneasy with the balance. For those of you who’ve been patiently waiting out my radio silence, thanks for the understanding.
PS: Special thanks to an eagle-eyed reader: Apparently, in previous posts when I’ve been writing about the pain of harvesting mescaline greens I’ve been implying that we’re growing acres of a hallucinogenic drug. I would like to correct for the record that we are indeed growing mesclun greens (though the other might make the harvest quite interesting).
More pictures from the week can be found HERE…