look up

When I first started looking at my forest with an eye toward managing it for increased health and faster growth—for MORE BIG TREES, basically—I was still in the habit of assessing a tree primarily by looking at its trunk. “Hey, that’s a big one!” or some variant of “This tree is only 8 (or 10 or 12 or 14) inches in diameter, so it really doesn’t merit my attention right now”………(insert phallic joke here). It took a walk of my woodlot with a State Forester for me to begin to see where the action is really going on—in the upper canopy.

tall maple

It is estimated that in the forests of the northeastern U.S., of the 5000 or so tree seedlings that germinate per acre, only 100 will live to full maturity. Put another way, if you were to lay out a square on the forest floor with 25 feet per side, that area would ultimately be claimed by one mature tree. This makes for some pretty merciless competition, as ultimately only the trees best adapted to their specific circumstances are going to be able to outlast their fellow competitors to claim a portion of the sky—to gain direct access to sunlight. This process creates a feedback loop, as the tree that overtops its neighbors maximizes its photosynthesis and capacity for growth, while the neighboring underlings struggling in varying degrees of shade are simultaneously crippled in their abilities to make food at a time when they most need it to be able to compete. So a multi-tiered canopy structure usually develops, consisting of four crown classes: dominant  (the tallest, broadest crowned), co-dominants  (receiving full light from above but little from the sides), intermediate  (shorter than co-dominants, receiving still less light), and suppressed  (shorter still, receiving no direct sunlight).

It is a common (and forgivable) misconception that tree size correlates directly with age: that a forest consisting of trees of differing heights and diameters is by definition a forest made up of trees of all different ages. While uneven-aged forests exist (and once were the norm), they are generally a product of many centuries of undisturbed tree growth—old-growth character forests. In the northeast most of the land was either cropfield or pasture 100 years ago, so the forests around us are relatively young, and are overwhelmingly even-aged. What I’m getting to here is the fact that the majority of the ‘small’ trees in a forest are in fact the same age as the biggest ones. There are a few major lessons to be taken from this: 1) if you want to assess the true health and future potential of a tree, don’t be fixated on the size of the trunk, look up at the crown; 2) in most cases, the suppressed trees have already lost the race, and will never become dominants themselves, so cutting all the biggest and best trees will not lead to another stand of ‘best’ trees (this is the fallacy leading to the patently unsustainable practice of “high-grading”, a topic to be explored further in another post);  3) that managing a forest by selectively thinning to maximize sunlight to the crowns of the most desired trees can bring about exponential increases in growth. For now, I often find myself with a stiff neck after walking in my woodlot, as I’m constantly fixated on looking upward (I trip a lot too). One last note: assessing and comparing tree crowns is a lot easier without leaves on the trees, so get out sometime soon and see for yourself, as springtime is right around the corner.

firewood—which trees?

stacked firewoodI spent some time in my woodlot a few weeks ago, marking the trees that I will harvest for firewood this year. As I worked my way through each stand, inspecting trunks and crowns in order to find the trees best suited to end up in the woodpile—and ultimately the woodstove—I was thinking about engaging in this same process a decade ago, when I first became a forest landowner in need of a steady supply of dry, hot burning wood. Never having been in the position to be the executioner, so to speak, of so many trees all at once, I was quite daunted, and more than a little unsure of myself. How to pick the right trees? What size should they be? Can I cut any big ones? What age? What species are best? How many can I cut each year without depleting my forest? With this in mind I thought I might offer a few ideas based upon what I have learned over the years—-at least as pertains to the hardwood forests in my neck of the woods.

unsplit firewoodA general rule of thumb for the forests of the northeast dictates that 1/2 cord of firewood can be taken per acre/per year on a sustainable basis. Stay within this parameter and you will be living off the ‘interest’ your forest generates in annual growth, rather than cutting into the ‘principal’. The actual sustainable cut will vary depending upon the history and past management of your woodlot, as many forests in this area are actually overstocked—were not adequately thinned over time—and thus can support (and even benefit from) initial firewood cuts at higher rates—provided that the proper trees are selected. As far as what to cut, this can either become a highly technical scientific inquiry (which has its own merit), or it can simply be approached with a little knowledge and some common sense. When in doubt, I generally prefer the latter, as what better way to learn about something than by actually doing it?

First off, you’ve got to know how to identify the choice firewood species in your woodlot by sight, and the relative Btu or heating values of each. My friend Akiva, who used to work for a tree service, tells me that he has as many as 30 different species of wood in his woodshed. Most of us will have a much smaller number of core species to work with.  In my forest, Sugar Maple, Black and Yellow Birch, Red and White Oak, American Beech, White Ash, and Eastern Hop Hornbeam are the top tier firewood species. Of these, I probably cut and burn over 80% Beech, as it is uniformly infested with Beech bark disease (or scale-nectria), an insect fungal complex which causes the trees to decay rapidly once infected, and often to snap in strong winds —as shown in the photo below.

snapped beech trunk

So the primary criteria in my situation is to search out trees—and in this case an entire species of trees—that are wounded, diseased, dying, or dead. Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes it takes some careful examination. Fungal growth is a sure sign of internal decline, as are dead/dying limbs in the upper tree crown, and loose or otherwise damaged bark is often indicative of a tree with compromised health (much like our skin actually). Another reliable sign of a tree under stress is the presence of ‘epicormic branching’ or branch suckering from dormant buds found on the trunk, as seen in the declining ash tree in the photo below:

epicormic sprouts on ash tree

Some folks harvest only deadwood, and with enough acreage (or minimal fuel needs) are able to meet all their fuelwood requirements without ever even considering healthy trees. If you find yourself in this scenario, I would encourage you to leave some standing dead timber dispersed throughout your woodlot as wildlife trees, as a great many species will benefit by finding food and shelter there.

snag in woods

So that’s the easiest step—working with trees that are standing dead, or that are in obvious decline. This one criteria for selecting your firewood trees may keep you going for years, or it may not get you anywhere. If you fall into the second camp, upcoming posts will address criteria for tree selection from among the healthy tree population.

more pruning

pruning pear tree

A few more thoughts on pruning……….this pear tree I’m working on in the photo above (taken in March 2011) doesn’t look like much, but that fall we harvested about 200 pounds of pears from it! For years this tree never produced more than a few dozen pears, as the previous owners of the property hadn’t realized that it would need cross-pollination from another compatible pear. Prior to my arrival, it was probably the only pear tree within a square mile or more. It took a few years, but the 10 or so pear trees I planted finally started to bloom in 2011, as did the grafts I added to this tree—and it made all the difference. The photo shows me doing some radical pruning to the top of the tree in order to allow more light to reach the grafts that I made lower down on the trunk…………..this year I hope to harvest six different varieties of pears from this one humble tree. It is helpful to keep in mind that pear trees can look quite sad, pocked with sapsucker holes and full of dead branches, and still be reworked into bearing significant crops of fruit—-providing there is cross-pollination, that is.

pruning the orchard

I grew up on the east coast (Massachusetts), but after graduating from college I moved to northern California, and spent the next ten years living in that incredible landscape before moving back to New York in 2002. My last stop in California was the little town of Willits—in the coast range 150 miles north of San Francisco—where I first learned how to prune and graft fruit trees (thank you Richard Jeske). Even though I had yet to find land to settle on, I was hooked, so decided to start my orchard anyway—in pots. I bought a bundle of apple and pear rootstocks at $2 each, attended a local scion exchange where I gathered dormant wood from dozens of heirloom varieties, and grafted some 3 dozen trees. Well, at this point I had yet to accept the fact that California real estate (at least the type of homestead acreage I was looking for) was far beyond my means, and hadn’t considered the ramifications of moving far away for my young but vigorous trees. What to do? Rent an even bigger U-Haul truck, of course. Rather foolhardy in retrospect, as the additional costs in rental fees and fuel would probably have bought me some hundreds of rootstocks to start over with, but at the time I was simply unable to part with these fruit-bearing beings that I had surgically assembled with my own hands. So the orchard moved east too. Of those original 36 or so trees, a grand total of FOUR have survived to this day (the saga leading to the demise of the rest will have to wait for another post). So today I am heading out to perform the annual ritual of pruning the orchard (about 50 trees total), and will be manicuring a Golden Delicious apple, a Fuji apple, a Seckel pear, and a Warren pear (all excellent varieties) that traveled over 3000 miles to end up rooted in the Middlebury silt loam of Willseyville, New York. The photo below shows my good friend (and fellow tree lover) Akiva Silver in the act of pruning one of my young trees and collecting scion wood to use in topworking some neglected trees on his property.

orchard pruning

pruned apple tree

big trees

Trees like this magnificent Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), which I was fortunate enough to witness firsthand on the Albright Grove loop trail in Smoky Mountain National Park…………….

tulip poplar seedling………….come from these humble origins (Tulip seedling on the forest floor of my woodlot). While trees that become this massive undoubtedly benefit from fertile, well watered sites, long growing seasons, superior genetics, and a healthy degree of luck in avoiding drought, floods, hurricanes, pest infestations, and the like, the number one determining factor in their prevalence across the landscape is us—the choices we make, or don’t make, in managing woodlands. Patches of old-growth forest remain scattered across the northeast, nearly always in areas too difficult to access for logging in the days prior to mechanization. Occasionally, a patch was preserved due to the foresight of a landowner a century or more ago. Mostly, what we in the northeast can see of this type of tree growth comes in the form of individual specimens that were spared from the axe or saw because they grew in the hedgerows that divided cropfields or pastures—like the 34″ diameter White Oak (Quercus alba) that towers above the surrounding forest along the border of my woodlot and the neighboring farmer’s pastureland. Spending some time with these giants can help in reorienting our baseline conception of forest potential, and can remind us that forest management is a long-term endeavor.

nature and mind

As I sit pondering how to begin this blog, I am looking through the window above my desk at a late winter scene: morning sun on a fresh bed of snow, swirling snowflakes glinting in the slanting light, shifting shadows made by passing clouds, dessicated flower and herb seedheads swaying and rattling in the wind, juncos and chickadees visiting a rapidly emptying feeder…………..but what is most striking to me, by far, in this scene, is the silent presence of innumerable trees, standing like sentinels around the periphery of my vision.

For reasons that I am still coming to comprehend, I have from childhood felt drawn to the forest, to trees, and, eventually, to wood. Growing up in a highly suburbanized area, the small tracts of undeveloped forestland around me were where I first experienced feelings of wholeness, timelessness, and connection to the natural world in a way fully unmediated either by my own thoughts, or by the linear boundaries of human culture. While I had little context for understanding these feelings then, I was overwhelmed—and overjoyed—by the degree to which my worldview had expanded, and knew that my path thereafter would be rooted in the  natural world, and for me specifically, in wooded landscapes.

As a teenager, I first worked as a carpenter, an avocation that I continued (with a few small detours) over a period of two decades. All the while I sought out majestic forests to explore, and slowly began to educate myself in the more exacting skills of woodworking and furnituremaking, which increasingly became the focus of my creative energies. In 2003, my wife and I purchased a wooded 33 acre homestead in central New York, which has become a laboratory for experimentation with sustainable forest management, as well as the primary source of raw materials for practicing my craft. More recently, I have turned to woodworking full time, and am continuing to deepen my relationship with woodlands and with wood.

So, on one level, trees are the unifying theme of what I intend to explore in these posts: 1) a woodland owner’s attempts to gain working knowledge of the myriad and interdependent components that make up a forest, and of how to go about  stewarding a small wooded acreage toward maximizing its productive potentials; and 2) a woodworker’s journey toward practicing his craft in as holistic a way as possible, from felling individual trees, through the intricate processes involved in hand-working rough slabs of lumber into durable, functional, and hopefully aesthetically pleasing configurations. Additional topics to be explored over time are some of the varied tasks involved in creating and managing a small homestead, such as organic orchard and garden management, cultivating and using medicinal herbs, coppicing, and creating wildlife habitat.

From a more philosophical standpoint, I aim to explore the nature of handcraft, and what it still has to offer an industrialized society; questions of the nature of place, culture, and the pursuit of ecological integrity in the ‘globalized’ world; and ultimately the nature of mind, and its ever-present potential for presence, connection, and peace.