↓ Archives ↓

Posts Tagged → oak

It’s that time of year again

Plenty of things have gone to hell in a hand basket over the course of the last four or five decades, and I would only be living up my highest and bestest reputation as a grouchy curmudgeon if I ticked them all off here as a laundry list of petty grievances. But other writers and commenters have already done all that, much better than I can, so I am going to mention just one frustration. And it must be credited to that mild mannered conservationist Aldo Leopold, who first put his finger on this, on the very beginning of what ails us Americans today.

If I read one more time the overused phrase “In a Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes…” I am going to scream. You are there and I am here on the other side of the screen, and we cannot actually hear one another, so it will sound like a silent scream, but rest assured, it drives me nuts and right now I am doing my best silent scream imitation about this. Sure, it is a testament to how inspiring Leopold was and still is that so (so) many people begin all kinds of talks and writings and poems with this opener, citing some comment or observation Leopold made back in the crusty 1940s Dark Ages that yet, surprisingly, has so much application and salience today, eighty years later. But it is so very much overused to the point where it is almost maudlin to hear it used yet one more time.

And then, when I think of those intervening eighty years, well, they have been both a blessing and a curse, haven’t they, and so I find myself in that recognizably similar frame of mind…

So what the hell.

In Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, he talks about cutting down a large oak tree with a crosscut saw, and how much history is gliding by as the saw blade traverses across the tree stem. For every few growth rings that are sawn, Leopold lists various wars and human milestones, scientific achievements as well as natural science moments, as the blade cuts deeper. Just that description alone is a pretty cool writing achievement by Leopold. It is a symbol and image that so many people have trouble forgetting.

But then at the end of the essay, just when the reader thinks “Yeah, I suppose cutting fire wood is more symbolic and meaningful than I thought it was, guess there’s a lotta history in those old oaks at Grandpa’s farm,” Leopold suddenly gets to the whole raison d’être of his history lesson (and I am closely paraphrasing here):

I knew Americans were eventually doomed to cultural rot and failure when we discovered that heat came from a small switch on the wall, and not from cutting our own firewood every year.”

Here in the middle of his gentle outdoor lullaby, Leopold lamented the ease of life that had arrived with then-modern conveniences and services. He saw them as a two-edged sword, cutting both ways, for and against, because working hard for something, especially for your own ambient heat in the dead of winter, is an important lesson about how all humans are in truth part of the natural cycles around us all the time. Participating in these cycles humbles us, brings us into the actual healthy swing of things around us, helps integrate us with the earth’s natural vibe, tune, and wavelength, each of which we ride every moment of every day, even if we are unaware of it. And thus, it helps us thereby appreciate the natural world that sustains us every day. Even if we are unaware of it.

Leopold was advocating for Americans living newly cushy lives devoid of physical challenges to get the hell off their asses and live in the real world, to take responsibility for their own needs and not outsource everything (like the Romans did at their end). Cut their own firewood, grow a garden, shoot a grouse for dinner or a catch a fish for lunch. The ability to be self-reliant is not only an American trait from our frontier days, it is innately tied to all successful human cultures at all times.

Mind if we switch here to someone on the other side of the spectrum from our mild naturalist and wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold, who nonetheless expresses much the same sentiment?

I hate luxury. I exercise moderation…it will be easy to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women. [All of which will result in] you being no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.” — Genghis Khan (brutal conqueror of the entire known world in his time).

As that completely successful “mad butcher” said it, luxuries make humans soft and weak. Hard work makes us strong and successful. If there is a hallmark of modern America, it is that we are awash in luxuries and conveniences, to the point where the younger generations have no idea how we arrived here at this point, how much sacrifice was required to give them these fancy phones and coffees. Our younger people think that luxuries and easy comforts just fall like manna from Heaven.

So, to be the truest, best American you can be, why not cut some firewood?

Here in central Pennsylvania it is that time of year again, the time of year where if you have not yet stacked the last of your firewood in the woodshed, you damned well better get on with it. Ain’t no time to lose. Any week now Mother Nature can show up with a big old cold surprise, a major dose of early Winter, knock out the electricity to your town, and leave you at the mercy of serious cold temperatures. It’ll be nice if we have all of October to enjoy mild Fall weather, with no need to light the wood stove, but you never know what the future brings. Better to be prepared, right?

Funny how something so insignificant as cutting one’s own firewood can be synonymous with an entire culture’s success or failure.

Wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold smoked tobacco, owned guns, ate what he hunted, planted a garden every year, and cut his own firewood. If you have not read A Sand County Almanac, then get it, because a world of special delight awaits you there, and it will change your life.

This season’s supply of split firewood stashed in the old woodshed, which is due to be replaced in 2020

Hunting licenses, 1976 and 2015

Since my first hunting license adorned my back way back in 1976-1977, a lot has changed in the Pennsylvania landscape.

For example, wild game then so abundant that you could go out and shoot a couple for dinner is now practically extirpated.

Why pheasants and quail disappeared from Pennsylvania is a big debate with no clear answers. Loss of farmland to sprawl, low density development is one. Changes in farming practices is another; fallow fields had the best habitat. A plethora of winged and four legged predators cannot be discounted. Successfully rebounding populations of raptors like hawks and owls for sure ate a lot of plump pheasants. But why a sudden and dramatic crash?

Conservation successes since 1976 are plentiful and say a lot about wildlife biology. Wild turkey populations, fishers, bobcats and other animals once thought completely gone are now firmly in our lives, whether we see them, or not.

An interesting dynamic is playing out at our hunting camp. This year we have a virtual carpet of oak and hickory seedlings unlike anything we saw over the past 15 years we’ve owned it. Why?

Conventional wisdom is the deer population is low, and it’s true that it’s lower than it has been in 15 years. That is, deer are known eaters of acorns and tree seedlings. Fewer deer means more of both.

However, another factor seems to be playing out with these newly abundant tree seedlings. Where we once had an incredible overload of tree rats, aka squirrels, the new fishers have eaten them all. Like all of them. Not one tree rat remains in our carefully cultivated forest of white oaks. We see fisher tracks. We neither see nor hear squirrels.

As squirrels are known eaters of acorns and hickories, it stands to reason that their absence means more acorns and hickories hatching into baby trees.

Add a long icy winter that appears to have crushed our local wild turkey populations, also known for eating nuts, and the right conditions emerge to help a forest rebound and grow some new stock, a huge challenge we aggressively tackle every year.

So, my son getting his first hunting license yesterday is now entering a landscape that in some ways is just as dynamic as the one I began hunting so long ago.  What a difference these landscapes were and are, and who would’ve guessed the fishers would be responsible for oak and hickory forests regenerating?

A lot has changed in our wildlife landscapes, and yet not much has changed in my lifetime. Different animals, same kind of population changes, variations, pressures. One thing I keep reminding myself: It’s all natural, these changes. And while some are painful to see, like the loss of pheasants, other opportunities open up. Never would I have imagined in 1976, nor would any PA Game Commission staff, that in 2015 my son would get a bobcat tag and a fisher tag with his license.

Totally different opportunity than chasing pheasants in corn fields, but still good.

Aggressive timber management necessary in the Northeast

When I tell some people how aggressively we try to manage standing timber (forests), they often recoil.  It sounds so destructive, so environmentally wrong.

It is not environmentally damaging, but I will be the first to admit that the weeks and months after a logging operation often look like hell on the landscape: Tops everywhere, exposed dirt, skid trails, a tangled mess where an open woods had stood for the past sixty to eighty years just weeks before.  No question, it is not the serene scene we all enjoyed beforehand.

This “clearcutting” gets a bad name from poor forestry practices out West and because of urban and suburban lawn aesthetics being misapplied to dynamic natural forests.

However, if we do not aggressively manage the forest, and the tree canopy above it, then we end up with tree species like black birch and red maple as the dominant trees in what should be, what otherwise would be a diverse and food-producing environment. Non-native and fire-sensitive species like ailanthus are quickly becoming a problem, as well.

When natural forest fires swept through our northeastern forests up until 100 years ago, these fire-sensitive species (black birch, red maple) were killed off, and nut trees like oaks, hickories, and chestnuts thrived.  Animals like bears, deer, turkey, Allegheny woodrats, and every other critter under the sun survived on those nut crops every fall.

Without natural fire, which is obviously potentially destructive and scary, we must either set small prescribed fires, or aggressively remove the overhead tree canopy to get sufficient sunlight onto the forest floor to pop, open, and regenerate the next generation of native trees.  Deer enjoy browsing young tree sprouts, so those tasty oaks, hickories, etc that lack sufficient sunlight to grow quickly usually become stunted shrubs, at best, due to constant deer nibbling.  Sunlight is the key here.

And there is no way to get enough sunlight onto the forest floor and its natural seed bed without opening up the tree canopy above it.  And that requires aggressive tree removal.

Northeastern forests typically have deep enough soils, sufficient rainfall, and gentle enough slopes to handle aggressive timber management.  Where my disbelieving eyes have seen aggressive management go awry is out west, in the steep Rockies, where 1980s “regeneration cuts” on ancient forests had produced zero trees 25 years later.  In fact, deep ravines had resulted from the flash-flooding that region is known for, and soil was being eroded into pristine waterways.  So, aggressive timber management is not appropriate for all regions, all topography, or all soils.

But here in the northeast, we go out of our way to leave a huge mess behind after we log.  Why? Because how things appear on their surface has nothing to do with how they perform natural functions.  Those tangled tree tops provide cover for the next generation of trees and wildflowers, turtles and snakes, and help prevent soil erosion by blocking water and making it move slowly across the landscape.

Indeed, a correctly managed northeastern forest is no place for urban or suburban landscape aesthetics, which often dictate bad “select cut” methods that work against the long term health and diversity of the forest, as well as against the tax-paying landowner.

So the next time you see a forest coming down, cheer on the landowner, because they are receiving needed money to pay for the land.  Cheer on the loggers and the timber buyers, the mills and manufacturing plants, and the retailers of furniture, flooring, and kitchen cabinets, because they all are part of a great chain of necessary economic activity that at its core is sustainable, renewable, natural, and quintessentially good.

Why deer hunting is good for the environment

This past week was the early muzzleloader season in Pennsylvania. Instead of the modern inline muzzleloaders, I use an old fashioned flintlock. It is more challenging, and honestly, it’s just plain beautiful to look at.

Up at a relatively small piece of land I’ve been cultivating for twelve years, this fall marked the first time I’ve seen young oak seedlings survive deer browsing. Across the forest  floor a plethora of oak seedlings – white, red, chestnut – create a carpet effect that indicates a future of young oak trees….if they can avoid being eaten by deer.

While I was casually walking through the forest, I saw a young doe looking at me. I raised the gun and fired. I will take any opportunity to help the little oaks become big oaks. They do, after all, produce the acorns necessary to feed deer, bears, turkeys and many other wild animals.

Then as if on cue, one of my very next steps was right into an enormous pile of bear poop. Colored brown from all the acorns, this fresh pile represents a great modern conservation success story, Pennsylvania’s population of huge black bears.

How ironic that deer can eat the trees needed to feed both themselves and their predators, the bears. How ironic that humans, who have dramatically shaped our planet over the past 20,000 years, do all we can to help an animal that might want to eat us (the bear), due to our recreational desires, and in doing so eat the deer sought by the bear.

Life is intertwined. Our futures are intertwined, humans and wildlife. Deer hunting is good, and good for the environment.

 

Forget sexy issues like “climate change,” let’s solve real environmental threats

By Josh First

Pennsylvania’s forests are suffering from a one-two punch-out by both invasive bugs and pathogens that kill our native and very valuable trees, and then by a following host of invasive vines, shrubs, trees, and other plants that are filling the void left after the big natives are gone.

Today yet another bulletin arrived from PSU plant pathology / forestry researchers, noting that ‘sudden-oak-death disease’ was detected on a shipment of rhododendron from Oregon.

Oregon got it from Asia.

Pennsylvania’s forests are becoming full of non-native, invasive plants, bugs, and pathogens. Each of our valuable tree species now has its own specific attackers. God knows what our native forests will look like in ten years.

The Asian emerald ash borer is literally making ash trees go extinct as a species. I see whole stands of forest, hundreds of acres, where not one ash tree is healthy. Dutch Elm disease killed off most of our elms in the 1980s. An Asian fungus killed off the once incredible and mighty American chestnut tree. Forget pathogens and bugs, because lots of aggressive, fast-growing invasive plants are taking up room on the forest floor, pushing out and overwhelming needed native plants. Few if any animals eat the invasives, which are often toxic and low value.

Human-caused climate change?  It is a sexy political issue, and it is highly debatable. But forest destruction from non-native invasives is a real, tangible, non-debatable, non-politicized issue we need to address immediately. So many people and wild animals depend upon our native forests, that without them, our rural economies could dramatically fall and our wildlife could disappear.

Forester Scott Cary had this to say, tongue somewhat in cheek: “With the 1000 cankers disease in Walnut now in southeast Pennsylvania, that area is quarantined…maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on black birch and red maple [low-value native species long observed to be acting like aggressive, non-native invasives, and therefore harvested aggressively by responsible forest managers], that may be all we have left to choose from. Of course, Asian long-horned beetle may get the maple, so that leaves us black birch, the tree of the future.”

That is a sad place to be, folks.  And to think that so much money is wasted selling the phony issue of human-caused climate change, while real environmental disasters are actually happening…it shows you just how dedicated the environmental Left is to political dominance, not useful solutions to environmental problems.

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight; bring goats

It is a fact that forest owners and land managers are increasingly engaged in a gunfight of sorts with noxious invasive weeds.  Ailanthus, mile-a-minute, multiflora rose, barberry, Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive, Asian bittersweet, Angelica, and new non-native invasives are in many ways taking over and altering Pennsylvania’s native forest.

If you think this sounds like a bunch of environmental hooey, then stop using paper goods right now.  No more toilet paper for you!

Paper is a product of pulp trees like black birch and red maple.  Once upon a time, these two aforementioned tree species were the scourge of well managed forests.  With little seed to feed wildlife, and little valuable wood to make furniture or flooring, these trees displaced the oaks, hickories, hard maples, poplars and cherries landowners have historically relied on to pay for their land and which consumers have relied upon for everything wooden they take for granted.

Now, the formerly “junk” trees we waged war against seem positively benign when compared to the newcomers.  Foreign invasive weeds and trees not only bring nothing of nutritional value, nor anything of economic value, they rapidly displace those native trees we rely upon to feed deer, turkeys, bears, and on which America depends for furniture.

Herbicides like Glyphosate 41 have worked for me for many years.  But I am now finding myself running around playing catch up with these pesty plants in too many places, more than anyone can keep up with.  Like many others in my role, I feel like I am losing the battle.  When I see yet another thicket of ailanthus and mile-a-minute, I feel like the guy who showed up at the gunfight with a knife – outgunned, helpless.

It is time to trot out the goats.

Goats eat pretty much everything, including the invasive plants we abhor, with relish.  Goats are not cheap initially, but a $100 goat can earn its keep in displaced herbicide expenses in about three or four days.

Goats take more time to maintain than a spray pack and wand.  At night they must be penned up, or they will be eaten by a bear or coyotes.  They must be tethered in one place and then moved every few hours, or they can quickly damage the native trees and shrubs we want.

The big benefit of goats is that they can be eaten at the end of the project.

I will report back to you on the success of the goats at the gunfight.