Thursday, March 14, 2013


     I remember it being 1984 when we planted our mini-forest.  The idea was to create a screen between us and from the road out front.  Not that the gravel was all that close, more that it was closer and more naked than we wanted.  Relativity strikes again.  We figured five hundred pines, spruces, maples and a couple of decades would do the trick.
       Five hundred cuts, a single lift and a stuffing of inches high seedlings with a garden spade isn't much of a burden when seen from the present.  The difficulty comes with the five hundred being dug one at a time in very real, thickly rooted soil.  Ye shall know the pretend foresters by the sweat on their brows and the bottle of chilled riesling they sip as they plant (an unpretentious auslese off the bottom shelf. We like our German wine sweet).
     Before we owned the land up north I thought planting pines up there to be a coals to Newcastle operation.  Couldn't envision Mother Nature needing a hand at what she did all by lonesome, one hand tied behind her back.  The picture I carried in my head was of endless tracts of lofty conifers shushing and bending in the breeze just like the one's in the Hamms beer commercials.  Why plant more?
     Turned out neither Hamms nor I had a clue what the woods were really like. Seen at a distance the photos we took for gospel showed nothing but needles against the blue.  A closer look told the truth. The pines tend to stick up higher than the oaks, birches, aspens and occasional maples down in their shade and dominate the skyline.  From the ground you get the real picture and would swear hazel brush is the be-all, end-all, with a hardwood here and there.  Not a lot of pines at all and a little research told me they may may never have as dominant as in the picture between my ears.
     And it wasn't just Hamms that bought into the pine tree myth.  When Lois and I went in search of affordable stock we learned the State of Minnesota had tree nurseries with yearlings free for the asking, in clots of a hundred.  And they were pushing pines.  Oh yeah, lets hear it for the red pine (or is it the white?) the state tree of the Great White North (that we're south of three million square miles of Canada doesn't mean squat to us yankee doodlers, eh!?).
     Not wanting to be caught short as to variety we ordered a hundred apiece of red and white pines, white and blue spruce, along with soft maples.  They were planted in an area we'd first cleared of bush.  Not much rhyme or reason to the way we put the yearlings down.  Some here, some there in a ragged series if lines. A lack of order seemed the way to go.  And appropriate to our skill level.  Also more nature-like and not the symmetry that gets you immediately thinking tree farm or German farmers planting corn via GPS.  When done, each of the four of us, me, Lois, Annie and Allan, posed by a baby tree for a photo.
     Twenty-nine years have passed.  Of the five hundred no more than tree hundred remain standing.  Might have been more had not a mowing misjudgment done in all but one of the maples.  Oops.  Beyond that, not all fared equally.  Typically, our pines and spruces stand thirty feet tall and six to eight inches in diameter.  But a fair number are quite a bit smaller, particularly the blue spruces.  Might be that a tree native to Colorado has no place in the northwoods of Minnesota.
     That the trees have been slow growing might be a good thing, tighter grain makes for better, denser wood.  Not that I can foresee a harvest.  Should each and every stalk still standing outlive me, I'd be a happy man.
     That they might eventually live to a true old age, two centuries or more, is doubtful.  Inevitable climate change will alter the face of our woods.  What was once a mix of conifer and hardwood will become oak savanna in less than a century.  Dry, hot summers will breed more fire and remove much that now stands.  Perhaps our land will someday be home to walnut and hickory.  Or worse.  I pray for the hardwood and fear the possibility of barrens.
     We've lived in apocalyptic times since the days of WWI.  Seems like there's always someone predicting the end of the world be it from aliens, collision with an asteroid, or some form of self-infliction like nuclear holocaust.  None of those have come true though we've given it our best shot.
     However, climate change is another animal.  We've put some long term work into it, and thrown in some extra elbow grease for good measure, for better than two centuries.  Can't say anyone really wanted destroy the planet on purpose.  Just a case of shortsightedness, a need to feed ourselves, and a healthy dollop of greed.  There's probably not a happy future awaiting either our grandkids or the woods.
     As it stands today, our plantings at the cabin have done a good job of screening off the road and lining our two-track driveway.  Lois had a vision as to how our entry drive would eventually look and she made it happen, with a little help from the trees.  If you were to enter today - on foot 'cause there's two feet of snow still on the ground - you'd pass through a hundred foot long, car roof height, bower, before popping into our three quarter acre clearing.
     Down in the pine grove the hazel brush has all but disappeared.  Seems brush doesn't have a fondness for the acid of a pine needle floor.  A path meanders through the grove alongside our strip of water and bog.  Take it and you'll wind through alder, mountain ash, birch and jack pine on your way out to Deadman.
     We've spent many an hour keeping our paths open.  Every time I'm up north I walk them several times, stopping now and then to see what I may see.  Nothing stays the same.  Trees split, branches fall, some trees just die, maybe of old age, or disease, or insect incursion.  But for now, there's always something new coming up to fill the holes.  At the moment it seems the red maple is front and center.  Maybe a sign of things to come.
     Our little pine grove has grown to be a thing of beauty.  A thicket of trunks rising from a floor that is rarely touched by the sun.  Should Little Red Riding Hood come strolling through, she'd feel right at home.

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