Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tending my firewood garden

(DrTom with his firewood pile, cut and moved without the help of his wife, who was talking to her sister on the phone in Ohio.)

For the past few weeks I have been “bringing in” the firewood that will heat our home for the next five months. Cutting down trees, sawing them up, and moving the pieces to the house from the woods is a laborious process that I work on from spring to fall, whenever the weather is not too hot and not too cold. This is really hard work, but I enjoy it for two reasons: my wife and I benefit from the “harvest” in the form of inexpensive heat from November to March, and it is gardening at its best. How can this be gardening?

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When gardening, we normally think of starting with a bare patch of earth, adding some seeds or small plants, and then nurturing them until they produce something usable. When I cut firewood, I am selectively removing individual trees from an already crowded palette. When this old cattle pasture was abandoned about 50 years ago, wind-blown seeds of maple, ash, and aspen wafted onto the site from the old forest across the road and took hold. Decades later the stem density of trees was so high that it was difficult to walk through this woodlot in places. So I have been reducing this density by removing trees that are misshapen or diseased, or trees that after removal will open up much-needed space for adjacent trees that I have decided are more valuable. Sun is limiting in such an environment, so opening up the canopy on two sides of a tree you hope to encourage is sufficient to hasten its growth. This is essentially like thinning a row of carrots or radishes that is too dense to allow these root crops to develop to a decent size.

Now, cutting trees down is potentially dangerous work. My wife worries about this and so she insists that I take one of our handset phones with me, because it has an intercom feature on it that allows me to call the house. If a huge branch falls on my head and knocks me out, it doesn’t help. If a tree falls on me and pins me to the ground many yards away from the phone, it doesn’t help. The other day, I thought I would test the system. I pushed the intercom button to the house, the phone was busy. I waited a half hour, tried it again, busy. And a third time, busy. What the hell? What good is this system if it is always occupied with my wife talking to her sister in Ohio? I’ll bet her sister doesn’t have a chain saw in her hands during their conversation. I decided if I was in real trouble in the woods, I would just scream loudly. That probably worked for centuries before we had all this technology.

But what is really interesting is that my forest garden has been changing. Originally populated by maple, ash, and aspen, whose seeds blew in from adjacent older forest, I now have hundreds of nut tree seedlings and saplings that have appeared since I moved here in 1980. Gray squirrels and probably blue jays have moved those nuts from mature oak, hickory, and beech from my neighbor’s forest to mine, and I didn’t pay a cent for them. It certainly appears now that my woodlot canopy will be dominated by these species several decades into the future, and I am helping this process along with my thinning. I always leave oak or hickory trees over red maple or white ash when I decide what to cut, because I have so many of the latter compared to the former. In other words, my gardening is helping Mother Nature move in the direction she “wants” to go anyway, and I benefit by obtaining thousands of British Thermal Units (BTUs) of heat.

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But what about the global warming/carbon footprint aspects of woodlot gardening? I am burning wood, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. But I am thinning my forest, which increases the growth rate of trees left in the woods that are sucking carbon out of the atmosphere to support that growth. If the pounds of wood added to these trees due to my thinning exceeds the wood that I cut and burn, then there would be a net gain in reducing carbon. But to determine if that is true would require measurements I have neither the time nor expertise to make, so I can not be sure.

On the other hand, if I were not burning wood, I would be heating my house with electricity, which also contributes to carbon inputs. My colleagues who know more about this than I do say that I am doing about as well as one can. And so, I continue to garden in the forest, to heat my house, to stay physically fit, to enjoy the changes I witness in bird populations due to my "gardening", to admire the new palette, to endure bruised shins, to marvel at the changes, to justify it to students, to fight off leg cramps, and to sit with a scotch and a cigar in its midst. It is all good.