Cutting Trees for Love of Forests
I was taught early in my life to love trees. I have been called a tree hugger many times and I have found a few occasions to actually hug trees. My love of trees led easily to a love of long uninterrupted forest. Forests, being harder to define, are harder to care for and sometimes that care is best done, not with hugs, but with a chainsaw and axe.
The first forest I knew well was the five acre lot beside my childhood home. The edge of the woods was thick and tangled with sassafras and sumac. Beyond that were larger maples, oaks and a grove of aspen. At the other end of the lot, the trees thinned and opened into neat rows of red pine, planted at predictable distances, row after row, with only an occasional beech tree growing in the space between.
There is something about these rows of trees that captures my attention. It could be the way the light shines through the trunks or the way the rows of trees converge into a point in the distance. It might have something to do with a deeply ingrained sense that safety is found in open spaces and only danger comes in the forest. I think there is also an unconscious human desire for the ordered neatness, the organized structure, the consistency. We built these forests like we build our cities. We made the forests like we try to make our lives.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Michigan was dealing with the aftermath of decades of lumbering. Nearly every acre in West Michigan was cut over and the landscape was sandy and barren and eroding at a quick clip. The red pines and scotch pines were the answer to that problem. They were planted in rows for efficiency of planting and for the ease of cutting them for timber later on. Over 80 years, while the trees grew tall and straight, these forests were sold, abandoned and the original intents forgotten. Now they quietly deceive us into thinking they are natural.
A forest is not merely a group of trees. Though the rows of red pines are quiet and stately, the quiet comes mostly from the lack of bird and animal life. The trees have few low branches and provide little cover or protection. There is little variety in food to attract the many kinds of birds that might be seen in a nearby woods. Disease spreads quickly having a bounty of a single species all within an arm’s reach apart.
Many of the our nature preserves still have remnants of the red pine plantations. Restoring the natural forests takes time and hard work. Over many years, row by row is removed, allowing light down to the forest floor where decade old seeds begin to grow. The native trees fill in the gaps. In the open sunlight, new invasive species thrive and must be held back from taking hold. It is long work and we, most likely, will not be around to see its end.
We yearn for the eclectic hardwoods, the mixed pine, fir, spruce and hemlocks, the noise of birds and the scurry of wildlife, to the neat row pines. With a love of trees we appreciate the beauty of a red pine. With a love of forests we cut them down.