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.
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.
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…………….
………….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.
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.