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…


  • October 28, 2012 at 11:41 pm // Reply

    uh-hu. . . you are reminding me of the need to cut firewood. Thanks.

    I like your thinking about the benefit of this big storm, Sandy. Sandy is doing us all a favor. Sandy is giving us all a check on reality. If Dickens were chronicling this, Sandy would be called the
    “ghost of Christmas future.”

    That ghost character wrought a transformation in Scrooze’s thinking. Why is it not working on the majority of humans who drive to work each day in their carbon-farting uni-passenger vehicles?

    Please tell us about the impact of the storm.

    • October 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm // Reply

      That wind whipping around my windows right now sounds very ghost like indeed. Still have power, animals are toughing it out and we’ll see what the garlic beds look like tomorrow. I think it is going to be fine here.

  • October 29, 2012 at 12:01 am // Reply

    Hey Erik, all the fantastic pictures (this week’s fave is the one of the chainsaw-in-action) have me wondering what kind of camera you’re toting along while you’re working. It’s hard for me to imagine you hauling a big SLR around, but the photos look so good it’s also hard to think otherwise.

    • October 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm // Reply

      Thanks Tiffany! You’re right, I AM hauling around the SLR (Canon 5D Mark II). I’m not sure what I’m going to do when it eventually gets left in a field, clogged with dirt or driven over by a tractor. But if you’re digging them then it is worth it.

  • October 29, 2012 at 11:00 pm // Reply

    Dearest Eric:

    It is each of our responsibilities to limit our footprints on this earth.

    I sit here planning my own escape from the craziness of semi-city life to a true rural existence. I have goals that are aggressive – 80 -90% self-sufficient. I plan to have a huge garden, can and dehydrate as much as I need with sharing or bartering the rest. I do not plan to have a cow – because I am lazy. Wood, wind, sun shine and water will hopefully cover a large portion of my energy needs. A buggy, wagon and horse hopefully will become my preferred transportation. I have identified a few properties that meet my need – now to the action part of the plan…

    I honestly did not appreciate how “un-citified” my current life actually is until last week when two very good friends came by and both remarked about my “homestead”. Ah – how our perspectives are off and driven by what we consider “normal”.

    I wonder at times about how many people I know really have no idea as to where milk actually comes from or know that chicken eggs, when laid, are soft. Due to Sandy – I have been listening about people streaming into the stores buying everything they can put their hands on not thinking about the fact that a lot will spoil because the electricity will go out or that they do not a mechanical can opener anymore. I wonder how many folks could, if pushed, bake a passable loaf of bread from scratch. About the same time I glanced at my well stocked larder of numerous canned items from this past year along with my staples back-up. No – I am NOT a “Prepper” – I am just prepared to have some sort of disruption in my life that could prevent me from going to the store. And – i just like home canned produce. These are all just mussing concerning the different levels of existence more and more degrees separated from agriculture and sustainable living.

    I wish and pray you will become more comfortable with your pathway. May I suggest you are traveling a path that will soon enable both yourself and Dina to live close to the land in harmony and peace.


    Aunt Deborah

    PS: If you come across a good plan for a solar dehydrator – I would appreciate your sharing it.

  • October 30, 2012 at 11:57 am // Reply


    Why wasn’t I aware that you were such a talented writer? I feel I am right there with you in the tree arraignment hearing and the garlic planting party and all the rest. You’ve always been so reflective….I’m sure you bring an awareness and wisdom to this work that is invaluable to your farming compatriots. I feel lucky that we web-readers get to have a peek.

    You know, I just game from a Greek New Testament reading group (geeking out, I know!), where we talked about liturgy (the words and structure of our worship). The root of the word has nothing to do with religious practice, actually, but instead with public works: projects undertaken by the few on behalf of the many. This means when we stand in church, we don’t do so only for ourselves but for others too. I feel compelled to share this, because I see that though it must be so heartbreaking to be away from everyone you care for, you’re not really doing something without them, but for them.

    Anyhow, all that to say, thanks for standing in the forest for us.

    Much love,

    • November 4, 2012 at 5:27 pm // Reply

      Thanks Liz. I love your brains. I hope we get a chance to stand in the woods together sometime. I’d love to talk to you about all the godly stuff I see around farm and all the farmy stuff I see in the godly places.

      • November 5, 2012 at 10:43 pm // Reply

        I would really love that too.

  • November 3, 2012 at 8:46 am // Reply

    Well done!! It was a great day making our signature with axe blades on the woodlot. The little bird that impales it’s prey on the Hawthorn is called a Northern Shrike, only once in my career as a forester have I witnessed this event.

    • November 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm // Reply

      Glad you found the site Jody and thanks for the info. I have added it to the post! Hope to see you in the woods!

  • November 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm // Reply

    Erik, I’ve logged on for my weekly fix. . . . I NEED to know what you are learning now :-)

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