Sacred Groves

3-The lone and dreary world

Dear readers, thanks for sticking with the series! Please pass the word along. Here are the links for the first two posts: Post 1 Post 2 .

Warning! This post is a little heavy on forestry jargon but I wanted to fill in the details of my forestry experiences thus far. I would love more feedback, discussion, challenges and stories especially relating to how you perceive of forests and/or your experiences with the sacred grove in New York, etc.

A harvester cutting trees at the Yale-Myers forest

Last week we visited a timber harvest that was measured and marked by the previous year’s apprentice foresters. As we approached, one could hear the sound of heavy machinery through the forest. We stood in the clearing while our instructor, a local logger, lectured on how to identify a merchantable saw log. After three long days of crashing through wiry Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), swatting mosquitoes, and digging ticks out of my arms and legs while marking the boundaries of our groups section, the forest was quickly losing its mystical attraction. Yet, standing in the openness of the harvest, watching a claw-like harvester mechanically chomp trees and strip them of their branches, my heart sunk. For all my talk of subverting the separation between people and nature, it was still painful to see the freshly dismembered cylindrical carcasses of 100 year old trees being tossed into neat piles. That morning they adored the sun in blessed photosynthesis and now they were on their way to the mill as blocks of wood.

We were witnessing what in forestry is called a disturbance. In this case, the disturbance was anthropogenic (human caused). The premise of forestry is that human caused disturbances can to some degree mimic “natural” disturbances such as wind storms, fire, flooding avalanches or insect outbreaks. It was once thought that disturbances such as these behaved like pathogens, attacking the forest from outside like a virus attacks a body. In fact, in one school of plant ecology begun in the 1930s by Frederic Clements the forest is a body; a body which develops through predictable phases toward equilibrium or climax. In the 1950s, this view fell out of favor thanks to the theories of another plant ecologist named Henry Gleason. Gleason proposed that forests were nothing more than assemblages of individually adapted trees. Gleason was partly correct. Forests do not always move through predictable phases toward static climax, and trees are adapted to respond to disturbances that occur in their native range. Yet the intricate interconnections between the trees, soils, microorganisms, fungi, insects, mammals, birds, lichens, mosses, reptiles and amphibians that coalesce to become what we call a forest blurs the distinction between part and whole. Perhaps, as some have suggested, American culture had something to do with Gleason’s ideas being favored over Clements; after all, Gleason’s individually adapted trees look an awful lot like utility maximizing consumers. Yet, the body remains an irresistible metaphor for those ecologists who would emphasize the importance of the forest’s intricate interconnections, harmony and equilibrium. Like these ecologists, I am often guilty of perceiving the forest as a place solely of mutualistic interconnections between organisms and a place of divine immanence. But in the forest there is no life without death. Trees compete for light and water, insects devour, predators prey, and all decay. Just as visible as the mutualism and divinity is the ugly, the cut throat, the profane. Does sacredness obscure as much as it illuminates? If the forest is sacred, does that include the violence and death that also occurs there?

Walking atop the smashed down brush and limbs of trees, we peruse the approximately 30 acre harvest while the logger takes a break to repair his machine. On the day of its death (by anthropogenic disturbance), I begin to wonder about the circumstances of this forest’s birth. From the moment a disturbance clears new growing space, a forest is an explosion of movement and change. The natural disturbance regime of Southern New England forests is heavy windstorms. But by far the most catastrophic disturbance to ever occur here was the European plow. Settled in the early 1700s, the townships of Eastford, Ashford and Union were, at their peak, twice as populous as they are now. Subsistence farming left only 25 per cent of the Northeast in forest by the mid-1800s; today it is close to 70 per cent. This astonishing fact is because as the United States expanded westward and the fertile plain states were settled, farmers began to abandon New England in droves. When they did, the forests slowly began to reclaim their fields and pasture. Their disturbance of the forest cover has determined the succession of these forests for the last 250 years. For example, when areas that were fertile enough to plow where abandoned, mixtures of hardwoods would grow with less shade tolerant species such as birch, oak and hickory being followed by more shade tolerant species such as a maple, hemlock and beech. In pastures where animals were grazed, the hardwood seedlings had a hard time germinating in the thick grasses. Here, provided a somewhat close by seed source, white pine would dominate. The forest we saw cut today was an old farm that had been reclaimed by the forest like countless others.

Tornado damage near Sturbridge, Mass.

On another recent field trip, our group toured the damage of a recent tornado that touched down in nearby Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The tornado destroyed hundreds of acres of forest, several homes and killed four people. The damage looked a lot like the harvest we were standing in with trees torn from their stumps. As we walked through the wreckage, one could already see oak and pine seedlings working their way toward the sun.

So why not do harvests of individual trees? Wouldn’t it be more sustainable to just cut the big trees and leave the rest? The answer is no. Take oak as an example. Oak is a very valuable timber species because of its strong wood. But because oak is intolerant of shade, selection cutting would not only degrade the forest over time (leaving only small suppressed trees), it would eventually extirpate oak from the forest. This is because when the oak is cut, the surrounding trees rush in to take up its growing space and light. An oak seedling may germinate, but it won’t last long if there isn’t enough light. Thus, if we want to cut oak and keep it in the forest, we must also to provide an adequate environment for its regeneration.

The preferred method for doing this in the Northeast is called a shelterwood harvest. Once a stand has reached 80-120 years old (the approximate return interval of a windstorm), it usually contains enough trees at large enough girth (measured in diameter at breast height—DBH) to be harvested. Much of the forester’s work is measuring trees to get a better understanding of how much volume (measured in square meters or board feet) is in the forest. This is called forest inventory. We do this by surveying random plots throughout the forest and collecting the DBH and heights of the trees in the plot in order to calculate volume. These measurements and observations help determine the actions taken in the forest. To be honest, inventory work has been very difficult for me. It has been a dizzying onslaught of formulas and steps that convert the forest into numbers and tables. Collecting data and analyzing it, I have felt totally lost in the abstraction of statistics and excel graphs. Walking through the forest during our inventory exercises reinforced a total disconnection to the forest itself; I felt rushed and tired, no time to stop, stare, pray or daydream.

The shelterwood harvest continues when the forester marks the trees to be harvested (we start marking trees next week). Only, in a shelterwood, you don’t cut the largest trees with the best form, you cut everything but. This is because the largest and best formed trees become the seed source for the next generation. No planting is required because the “parent trees” will provide the seed source. Then, all the remaining trees are harvested and sold creating a light environment that will if all goes according to plan regenerate a healthy mixture of trees. Once the new cohort of seedlings has been established (5-10 years), one has the option of returning to cut the parent trees.

Shelterwood harvest several hears later

Despite my commitment to sacredness as being inclusive of human work, it was hard to feel anything spiritual in the middle of a harvest. Even the tornado, a natural disturbance, only inspired awe at the tremendous power of sometimes destructiveness of the earth. Yet, I have also visited shelterwood harvests five, ten, fifteen years after they have been cut, and witnessed the regenerative power of the earth and stood among the parents trees towering over a thicket of young trees.

Even in a sacred forest, there is no life without death. The beauty will always be accompanied by the ugly. Perhaps this fact allows the sacred to overcome the profane. For after all, it is in Jesus of Nazareth, hung from a tree, that the Christian world sees the promise of life and even in death.

Hemlock stand


5 responses to “Sacred Groves

  1. Karmen July 8, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Jason, these are wonderful posts for many reasons– intellectual, spiritual and educational. I have a deep love of trees and forests and am learning much about them from you here. My only experience with tree harvesting is as an observer, timber harvest of the largest, most stately pines in southern Utah and clearcutting in the northwest, both of which give me a deep sense of loss with little of the “promise of life”.

  2. Amy July 8, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Jason, this is beautiful, especially your last paragraph. We have missed your presence in the branch–your insights are always so valuable and sincere. Thank you.

  3. cummeld July 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I’ve loved this series! Please write more.

    I’ve also been struck by how foreign, almost incomprehensible, an existence without the force of aging and death would be, especially while walking through the old growth forest in the swamp plain forests of the Carolinas. Death and life seem so indivisible, the two sides of a coin in our realm. The killer kills to consume the energy needed to lay eggs, produce life, expand. That life can exist without death, in Eden or after the resurrection, is miraculous, divine, and other worldly, a blind man’s colors.

  4. SNeilsen July 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Old growth forests strike me as a mausoleum for a meadow.
    I marvel at the vibrancy of a meadow. And my act of worship is to take my cheap camera and try to take photo’s of pollinators
    So it seems to me that what is called disturbance is liberation and can also be called resurrection.

  5. Pingback: Sacred Groves « Our Mother's Keeper

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