Thinning 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
year. Wanting to do it right, I called the state forester in Carver, who drove down and gave me advi
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
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.
stoic soldiers, these warped and wounded trees mutely bore the scars and mutilations of decades. Ye
in terms of firewood, which I needed, these were bad trees. But what, after all, is a "good" tree or
"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
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
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
Moreover, there's something about thoroughly "managed" forests that suggests, if not sterility, than
least a certain lack of possibility. I distrust those who assure us we can have wilderness and lumb
together forever, in the same way that I distrust "reclaimed" trout ponds. For all the deer in one,
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
parallels here with the human community, of course, but the whine of my chain saw would not let me
pursue them too far.