Saturday, October 01, 2016

Oops! I forgot my pants!

Once in a while, on a summer day, with a pair of shorts that is near the end of its useful life, I'll have a momentary stab of anxiety a few seconds after I start to ride, because I can't really feel my shorts and have no distinct memory of putting them on. We do so much by reflex, without focused attention, that I wonder if the right distraction could lead me to forget them.

If it ever did happen, they would send large people with big nets to whisk me away to a nice facility, where I would not disturb the public.

I was distracted this week, because I actually brought one of my own nightmares to life. Ever since I moved to my little shack in the woods, I have had regular nightmares about neighbors doing destructive things that spill over onto my land. These dreams often involve bulldozers, skidders, chainsaws, excavation, deforestation, and utter disdain for property lines.

About three weeks ago, whoever now owns the little cabin next door turned loose a logger on a lot that has been peacefully forested since before I moved here 27 years ago. I heard the chainsaws,  the skidders. I ran out several times to check the property lines. They were unviolated.

A little over a week ago, I got a note. The logger working the neighboring land was someone I had talked to about removing some trees that threatened the house and garage. The Eastern White Pine is the tree most likely to drop something on you. With a height of 80 feet easily in reach, these lovely forest monarchs  are basically a time bomb near your house. I had two actually leaning toward the house from about 20 feet away. They'd been good -- more or less -- since I'd lived there, but one of them had shed a couple of major limbs during snowstorms.

Pine trees can develop majestic structures when they have plenty of space around them. When they don't, they form an interdependent grove. The two leaners near the house were the outliers of a group of four. Cut two and you'd be well advised to cut them all.

I started scrutinizing all the trees in that area and realized that one was falling to pieces, and another pair were immensely tall. Not record setting, mind you, but the taller of the two would easily hit the house from more than 50 feet away. Even if it didn't, it could drop a major chunk on things that would suffer for the impact, such as the leach field.

In a natural forest, clearings occur by cataclysm: fire, hurricane, tornado, major ice storm. These are notoriously hard to schedule and direct. Trained people do controlled burns in managed forests, but not when the stand of trees comes within twenty feet of a house. And the burns are to control undergrowth, not remove full-sized trees.

I realized as I surveyed the grove that I had managed this area like a timber stand, not a yard. When I moved here, I quickly developed a New Englander's clinical practicality. When I had to clear a bit of space for various things over the years, I thinned the stand to favor larger trees. Ultimately, those have to be removed before they start to age and really fall apart.

If I had it to do over, I would have cut more 20 years ago, and started managing it for hardwood trees that hold together better and don't get as tall. It would have made the change less wrenching.

Somehow in the years after 1999, I lost more and more of the hard practicality that survival in northern New England requires. The big pines became familiar. I knew they could literally break bad on me at any time, but they were also soaring and majestic and made that beautiful sighing sound in the wind. That's why I wished I had dealt with them decades back, when I was more human.

On the eve of the logging, I cried. I sat in my dark house and felt waves of loss. I had unleashed the Death Star. Each of these trees is a natural community. I've seen the interdependent plants, birds, and animals that work with the tree throughout its lifespan. Who was I, an ephemeral creature that would be lucky to surpass a century on this Earth to kill off something that could live four times that long? If I truly love nature, I should burn down my own house and live in a little hut of cast-off branches.

True as that may be, I remain too much of a child of civilization to take that drastic a step.

Twenty-seven years ago some of the trees were already quite large. Others gained in stature, subtly enlarging until I looked up in astonishment last week at the potential energy hanging over me. They were the scenery to all that was good and bad in my life here. Even though the practical New Englander in me knew not only that they had to be pushed back but that the space could be managed to nature's advantage as well as my own, the actual destruction filled me with an ache that replaced my appetite and my ability to sleep for several days. I replayed the reasoning over and over.

The logger had said it would only take a day. It took three. He may have done this on purpose. He'd told me that he had stopped short on the neighbor's land, so that the guy could see it and call a halt or permit it to continue. His first break point let me see the grove half cut. I could see that my reasoning had been sound. Saving the remaining trees would not leave a strong stand, nor would it allow light in to promote successional growth. We had to continue.

It was the morning of the third day when I forgot my pants. The clearing that had been a tall forest was a raw cut, sweet with the smell of pitch and scarred by the passage of skidders. This was a logging operation, not the surgical ministrations of an arborist. And the trickiest cuts were yet to come. Trees, commercial size trees, next to and behind a building and overhanging a power line still had to be cut. This was the ultimate trust.

I had been getting up around 5 a.m. and bolting out of the house as close to 7:00 or 7:30 as I could manage. With the shortening days and the fact that I didn't want the loggers dropping a tree on my car, I've been doing park and ride commutes. That meant loading the bike and driving away.

For a normal park and ride, I'll wear my bike clothes to drive to where I park. Even the shoes, uncleated, are fine for driving. But there's no one to see me on a normal day.

I'm a reasonably secure person, but I just couldn't bring myself to wear lycra in front of a bunch of loggers. So I would put cargo pants over my shorts, stuffing the other bike clothes in the car to put on when I parked to begin the ride.

By day three, jangled by all the stresses, my system broke down just enough for me to forget the tights on the coldest morning of the week. I had the shorts, just not the warm tights to put over the shorts.

I briefly considered wearing the rugged cargo pants for the ride, but I knew the climb back up from Wolfe City in the evening would be a chore. I went ahead and chilled my kneecaps, and picked up a new pair of tights when I got to work. There was no exciting indecent exposure.

I got home to find that the precision cutting had turned out perfectly. Precision with chainsaws, skidders, and trees that probably weigh couple of tons apiece still leaves a pile of debris, but that was never in doubt. This happens when you hire someone to be a tornado for you.

The vast majority of the 13 acres under my control will remain undisturbed -- at least by me. Natural cataclysms are nature's business. In the new clearing, we hope to encourage some berry bushes of various types that had been working the margins. And the sky is a welcome sight.


Janice in GA said...

We took down the trees on our much smaller lot, but for the same reasons. Pine trees in GA can be dangerous. In a rare ice storm years ago, we had a branch fall and punch through our roof/ceiling in the kitchen. That was exciting. Another tree fell the other way and hit my neighbor's house. It only caused a bit of damage to the siding, but still...

We're still a bit imperiled by the big pines around us in the neighbors' yards. But, like you, I miss the wind soughing through the pine needles. But I'd miss my house a lot more if a big tree fell on it. :(

Steve A said...

Ditto for our Ocean Shores pines, though these haven't been taken out yet. We've got some firs that will fill the gap. For some reason, our Texas pines don't get as big.