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Seeing the forest for the trees

Winter is the time for hiking on our land. It’s often gray outside, but it isn’t too cold (mid 40’s). The underbrush has died out this time of year making it the best of circumstances to explore, thanks to the absence of nasty thickets and thorns. Mark and I have been on a quest to learn more about the other end of our forest. We didn’t walk this area when we were searching for a house site because we knew we wanted to put our home near the creek. Most of our early walks were along the back of the property where the water rolls along the wooded hills and through the small pasture portion of our land where I keep the animals.


 


Now, we are planning trails for walking, horseback riding and four wheeling through the forest, so we’re venturing into the opposite end – the unused portion of our acreage. We are trying to find reasonably clear potential paths that Mark can take a tractor through to make level, safe trails. This involves tearing out small trees and thorny bushes with the tractor, cutting away overhead branches by hand and then going over the area again with a scraper bucket to level it a bit. Mark would like to line the pathways with mulch someday, perhaps put a few rustic log benches along the way too. He is contemplating purchasing a wood chipper for this purpose, a good idea since we have this endless supply of trees and wood remnants from his projects to grind into mulch. However, pretty, mulched paths are a low priority when there is so much to do to get this property functional. For now, we just want to make a simple clear trail through the dense forest so we can use this area for recreational purposes.


 


The entire process of making trails is labor intensive. Finding the best path to make is difficult.  We must avoid huge trees that are too difficult to remove, avoid places where the hills are too steep, too rocky or too lopsided, because the tractor might get stuck. We also need to stay on our own land if we are planning to make changes in the terrain, and there isn’t a definite boundary along ½ of our 50 acres.  Thankfully, years ago a neighbor did run a single barbed wire along his property and this helps us to know where our land ends on one side.  As for the other side, well, we have a hard time trying to figure out just how far our land goes. Each of our neighbors has 100 plus acres. We also keep getting lost on walks. We were told there once was a county road that circled Kings Farm (our land) and this defined our property line. We discovered an overgrown path that probably was this road long ago at the very front of our land, but deep in the forest, it disappears. When we walk through the trees we get all turned around and confused, then all of a sudden Mark will say, “Hey, there is my workshop” and we will get our bearings again. It sure makes it understandable how people really do get lost in the woods. Apparently, it’s an easy thing to do when you are out there with endless trees and a hidden sky.


 


Slowly, we are learning this unexplored side of our land and beginning to plan future paths. Mark took a tractor in and carved out a good 50 feet where the former road lay, but now he is at a point where we have to tag trees in advance to guide him through the wilder areas safely. We’ve discovered some cool things, such as an old house site out in the forest. We found a pile of rocks that was a former hearth with an old tin chimney shoot. I found a big glass jar too. They used to make moonshine out here, (they called this area “hells hollow” because of it and I wonder if this “site” might have been a rustic cabin designed for that purpose. Fascinating! We stumbled upon a dried up man made well and we’ve discovered many deer paths.


 


Mark finds things he plans to come back for later, like a cherry tree, all gnarled and burled that he can harvest to make something remarkable. When nature is your art medium, originality is limited by those gifts you discover through sheer luck. Yesterday, he pulled a thin tree from the ground and it had this huge bulbous knot under the soil near the root, like a big, wood onion or something. It was a freak of nature. He was thrilled. Turned and polished, that will make a unique bowl, I’m told. For this reason, our walks are fun, but they do demand energy and involve some discomfort –everything from scratches to sore muscles. Mark is famous for pushing branches aside and letting them loose with perfect timing so they careen towards my face. Luckily, I have good ducking reflexes.


 


Sometimes I wonder if we are totally crazy. It would have been so easy to just buy a farm with a nice workshop intact, a barn, and perhaps some well-used paths. Life could have gone on uninterrupted- no wait for gratification. But leave it to us to find an expanse of land that didn’t bare the stamp of someone else’s vision. As such, our life is labor intensive from all angles. And it requires patience. Mark is still waiting for his workshop to be finished (waiting for final electrical work to get those big machines running). I don’t know when (or if) I will ever get a barn, and it will take years to correct the soil to get our currently weedy pasture lush and to create the big generous garden I want. Paths designed for pensive walks or rides will probably be a five-year project, at the very least. And then, there is the grove I want to plant. It takes a minimum of three years for apple or peach trees to produce – ten years for walnuts. As you can see, we have to have faith and long term vision to make this land self sustaining and ideal. 


 


But everything worth having is worth working for, so I’m not complaining. Our house was a huge, difficult project, but it was worth the sacrifices and the long wait. I trust, in the end, our homestead will be a paradise suitable to our specific tastes, and we will be able to take pride in every inch of it. Putting your stamp on a place makes it really your own. But, (sigh) it does make you want to take a nap or two along the way.


 


When the grader came to fix our decrepit gravel road (after cement trucks visiting the house site tore it up) he told us of a fellow who would take out pine trees for free. You allow the guy to sell the trees to a paper company and he will do the work to remove them. Since you are not paying him, he leaves a bit of a mess behind. Stumps and debris are left in the areas deforested, but if you want trees removed, at least the heavy work has been accomplished.


 


Our forest area is so dense that you can barely walk through it. Unfortunately, it isn’t thick with wonderful hardwoods, but quick growing pines. These trees grow straight up in short time, then they rot and fall. Downed trees are everywhere, rotting and making the land look a mess. Every time there is a heavy wind, a tree will fall to block the road, or one will crash into our pasture fence, or threaten to collapse our workshop or chicken house. We lost our huge metal garage that way. Several fences. When trees fall and obstruct the road, Mark removes them with the tractor, but it takes half a day. We’ve had most of the potential problem trees removed around the house, but still, these wicked trees are everywhere, threatening to land wherever they may. It is frustrating. In the evenings when I walk to feed the horses, the sound of these monster trees creaking, groaning and cracking like the bones of some old man getting out of bed, is ominous. I imagine them crashing down around me. Some are even at huge slanted angles, readying for that moment when they will slap the earth.  They are like weapons – bombs waiting for a trigger (a slight wind) to set them off.


 


The country boys here call these trees “nigger pines” (because they are good for noth’in) which, as you can imagine, offends me to no end. I told them they are not to use that term EVER around me. They argued that that is what the trees are called. I said, “Certainly they have another name. I don’t believe the word “nigger pine” is going to be found in any botanical dictionary in the world.”


 


They grinned and explained that the only other name for them is “Virginia pine”, and if I rather have these damn, good for noth’in trees named after ME, well, they can call ’em that. I told them I can live with the term, so now when we discuss the trees, they are referred to as “those trees” – at least when I am around.


 


Anyway, the pines are a problem, not everywhere, but in areas where we want to function safely. So, we made arrangements with the pine removal man, and he has come to remove trees from the land surrounding the pasture. He comes in with huge equipment to cut down and load dozens of 30-foot pines into a flatbed truck. Each day, he carts a load away, but it hardly makes a dent in the woods. Amazing. He leaves around four, which is when I feed the horses. I’ve started walking back through the woods where he has deforested, checking out the new lay of the land. I look to see if there are any animals that might have suffered from the project, afraid I might find a baby squirrel dislodged from a  nest or a baby raccoon whose den has been unearthed. So far, I haven’t found any creature distressed, thank goodness. But is it odd to see the land changed. When you drive in now, you can see the road to the house where before you could only see trees. It takes some getting used to. It isn’t better or worse, just different.


 


I think about how difficult it must have been for early settlers to do this with nothing but an ax and a draft horse. Amazing what man has accomplished throughout history. It is a huge job even now, with chainsaws and huge grapple machinery and trucks. The massive pile of leftover branches is daunting. Mark will have to work hard to clean the area up. He will have to get out there on his tractor, move it all to a burn pit, and remove what stumps he can. Eventually, we will have a cleared area with only a few hardwoods left behind. We can plant shade plants here, or ride through the open spaces on the horses. We can position a picnic bench under the canapé of hardwood trees left, or remove them and turn this area into an apple grove. Whatever we do, it will offer us new possibilities for this section of the land, which is exciting.


 


We are waiting to see how we feel about the deforested area before deciding what to do with the rest of our land. If it is too much work to clean in the aftermath, or if it looks too “cultured” we will stop him. We figure we will probably be happy allowing the pine-guy all the area around the pasture, which is probably twelve acres, but we will leave the twenty acres of dense forest on the opposite side of the road wild. Trees may fall on our riding paths, but Mark can cut them up for firewood. I’d hate to lose all of our natural forest, even if it is full of creaky pines and dense underbrush.


    


So, with diligence and effort, we are making this little corner of the world evolve into something akin to our fondest (middle-aged) dreams. This project is not unlike our former accomplishments, building a business and/or designing a certain kind of life that involved a creative work environment, family and home. As a couple, we have always worked together well, probably because we think so much alike. When two like-minds focus together on a single target, wonderful things can be accomplished. At least, that has proven to be the case with us. What is important is that we continue to “see the forest for the trees.” And just to make sure we don’t lose sight of the big picture, we are even thinning out our trees a bit. 

And now, for a bit of pictorial illustration. . . 
This is what the forest looks like before we thin out the trees. See how they tumble? This is not one of the worst sections, but an area where the picture actually turned out.



This is a the pine-guy (I really should ask his name) at work taking wood for paper. Hey, wonder if any of that will find it’s way home and become a canvas for the manuscript I am writing. Even if not, it is a romantic thing to imagine….
   



This is the mess Mark is left to clean up. I don’t know if you can see how big the pile of branches is, but it is at least the size of a garage. I’ve also added a picture of one of Mark’s new trails (this one goes from the house to the workshop) so you can see what a raw path looks like.

   


Now, I must get my head out of the trees and off of paths I want to walk and return to the path of more resistance. Homework.  Sigh.

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

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