A Cape Cod Notebook 12/18/07

listenThinning the Woods

By Robert Finch

When I first lived on the Cape, I used to cut most of my firewood from my neighbor's woods. He owned a large tract of typical Cape scrub oak and pine, and he kindly allowed me to thin a portion of it e ach year. Wanting to do it right, I called the state forester in Carver, who drove down and gave me advi ce on which trees to cut and which ones to leave.

Almost immediately, I found myself the victim of competing claims. For instance, some of the most obvious candidates for cutting were also some of the most visually interesting trees. These were the so-called "wolf-trees," that is, trees with low, wide-spreading crowns, often with multiple trunks a nd grotesquely warped branches. In the forester's view, these wolf trees took up too much of the forest canopy for the amount and quality of wood they produced.

On the other hand, to my eyes they possessed a valuable character. They were not only natural sculptures, but concrete expressions of survival in the face of past battles - of fierce competition , repeated cutting, lost leaders from browsing, chronic fires, insect infestations, and wind damage. Like stoic soldiers, these warped and wounded trees mutely bore the scars and mutilations of decades. Ye t in terms of firewood, which I needed, these were bad trees. But what, after all, is a "good" tree or a "bad" tree? In comparison to what? Doesn't it depend on what we want from them? These were not only woods from which I sought to harvest firewood, but woods I enjoyed for their own sake. The real problem was, how to take out what I wanted, and yet leave what I wanted.

"Take out the snags," the forester said, "and watch out for signs of damage, broken or dead limbs. Chances are the rot has spread down through the trunks." So, the dead, the sick and the dying shoul d be weeded out, to make more room for the healthy. It was not anthropomorphic sentimentality that made me hesitate here, but some knowledge of what role these "damaged" trees play in the broader lif e of the forest. For instance, they provide abundant insect food for woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers , and other birds; nesting cavities for chickadees, titmice, screech owls, wood ducks, squirrels and o ther animals.

Moreover, there's something about thoroughly "managed" forests that suggests, if not sterility, than at least a certain lack of possibility. I distrust those who assure us we can have wilderness and lumb er together forever, in the same way that I distrust "reclaimed" trout ponds. For all the deer in one, or trout in the other, something, some unpredictability, some variety of experience has been removed in the process of such management. The point is, I suppose, do we want something out of our forests and ponds besides a "maximum sustained yield" of fuel and fish? Through years of benevolent neglect by their owner - my neighbor - these woods had produced something more than lumber or firewood - call it a certain completeness for lack of a better term - that I was reluctant to remove. There wer e parallels here with the human community, of course, but the whine of my chain saw would not let me pursue them too far.