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For Mojo Man

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

This essay aired today on All Things Considered, in honor of Earth Day. You can hear me read it here. I couldn't have written it, much less felt it, without a letter that Mojo Man, a self-described frustrated forester, wrote to me more than a year ago, when I was complaining about selective cutting. In essence, he said, "Get over it. Think of the alternative. Logging is a sustainable use of a forest. Forests are dynamic systems, and even logged-over woods beat a housing development."

Sometimes we don't know the impact a few well-chosen words to a friend can have. Mojo's letter got me through the logging, got me through the snarling chainsaws and the shrieks and cracks of dying trees. Did I enjoy it? No. Would I allow it to be done to our forest? Never. But I repeated Mojo's wisdom to myself over and over throughout February and March; I repeated it to Bill and the kids; kept it in my head as I spoke respectfully to my neighbor, and it truly got me through. This old earth is a renewable resource, bouncing back after unthinkable injury and insult. Think of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the healing that's gone on in those diesel-soaked beaches. We owe her so much more honor, love and respect than we'll ever give her, but like a good wife and mother, she keeps coming back, taking care of us even at our spoiled, self-centered and destructive worst.

Our neighbor is logging his woods. We listened as the bulldozers and chainsaws moved closer each day. One by one, the big trees fell. The loggers were taking everything over 18” in diameter, leaving the smaller trees to mature. After three weeks, there was only one giant left, the tulip tree we called the Privacy Tree. We called it that because it shielded our house from the road, made it feel like a secret.

I knew the logger was saving the biggest tree for last. He couldn’t have overlooked it. It was time to say good-bye. I walked out through the snow, meaning to wrap my arms around it, and had to spread them for a good-bye hug. I know, I’m a tree hugger. But it’s something, in this cut-over, degraded forest, to find a tulip tree that’s 36” at breast height.

“Can’t we ask them not to cut the Privacy Tree?” asked Phoebe, her voice plaintive. “Doesn’t the logger have a heart?” Well, no, honey, we can’t ask him. A 36” tulip is worth money, and it’s on our neighbor’s land, and that, dear, is that.

While she was at school, I did call my neighbor and offer to compensate him for the value of the tree if he’d leave it standing. It was a reckless act, born of a mother’s desire to fix what’s wrong. I had no idea what it was worth, figuring I’d either be able to meet the price or not. I just wanted to buy it, to leave it standing, so the tanagers and wood thrushes could still perch in it and sing. He turned me down flat. “Nope, I’m gonna cut it. If it dies and falls down, I can’t get anything for it. And I don’t want it lying on the ground. Trees are a crop, just like anything else, and you need to harvest them before they fall down.” I suggested that trees might have another value as habitat, even after they fell down, and we hung up, agreeing that we saw things differently when it came to trees.

Two days later, my husband and I watched in silence as a chainsaw snarled into its base. The Privacy Tulip trembled, groaned, spun slowly, and smashed down, taking five other trees with it.

Four years ago, I watched with dismay as another forest I loved was logged just like this one. I’d drive by every day, watching it get thinner and thinner. The loggers took all the big trees, piling them like Lincoln logs on a flatbed truck, hauling the forest away in a cloud of diesel fumes. I ground my teeth and muttered as I passed. The next spring, underbrush sprang up in the newly opened woods, from seeds that had been waiting for decades in the soil for just such conditions.

Within three years, new, strange bird songs rang through the opened stand: Wild turkeys, American redstarts, blue-winged, prairie, hooded and Kentucky warblers flocked to the thick young growth that sprang up in the wake of the cutting. Come spring, I’ll park my car where the logging truck once sat, and watch jewellike birds fetching insects and nesting materials in the flickering sun, in the new growth racing toward the sky.

For birds like these to survive and thrive, some trees must fall, some sunlight must strike the forest floor. Even as I mourn the Privacy Tree, I know that my neighbor’s is a changed woodland, and not necessarily for the worse. Come spring, I’ll be listening for new songs.A postscript:
Even before the branches had settled, five hawks appeared in the sky directly over where the Privacy Tree had stood for so many years. Two red-shoulders and three redtails circled and screamed, keening an unearthly chorus in the space where the tree had been. Their cries tore through the pearly sky. Who can say why? I think that we are not the only ones who mourn it.


An interesting and thought-provoking post. Let me offer an additional perspective.

There are two major natural carbon sinks that have been more or less effective until now in saving us from ourselves--the oceans, and northern hemisphere forests. (For a variety of reasons, southern hemisphere forests contribute very little to carbon sequestration.)

There is pretty good evidence that the oceans are near capacity in their ability to dissolve and hold carbon dioxide. The further problem is this: owing to the timing of northern hemisphere reforestation, a very large percentage of the forests of North America, Europe and Asia are at or very near maturity. Mature forests are at equilibrium in the carbon cycle, and can even be net emitters of carbon dioxide when decay rates exceed growth.

While there will always be sound arguments for retaining adequate reserves of mature forest habitat, an argument can be made that it is now an absolute necessity to selectively cut a certain portion of second-growth northern hemisphere forests each year, in order to maintain vigorous forest growth and permit these forests to continue to serve as carbon sinks.

And on earth day for them to be taking down that tree! I do love birding in some of that early succession habitat though! Mourning Warblers, Canada Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers!!

Making me think . . . and mourn. And celebrate my forest -- redwood. It was logged 100+ years ago but it is alive with redwoods again that are huge and amazing. There is always hope.

Oooohhh...I don't know about the Exxon Valdez analogy. Mother Earth has healed somewhat from that, but not all the way. I'll take you places that still have visible tarring from that spill. It was so bad. Folks in the Lower 48 really have not grasped the full impact.

A moving post in so many ways...
Decades ago where I live 1000s of woodland acres were destroyed to put in a large man-made reservoir, necessitated by human growth. From a birder perspective it brought in species not previously seen here, including bald eagles... a listers' delight! But still it's hard to imagine the disruption/destruction caused to the lives of those birds and forest creatures present at the time... akin to dropping a bomb on a human city. One can always find upsides to the sudden abrupt changes we humans wreak upon the land, but I dare say that's little compensation to those creatures most directly affected at the time, even while yet other creatures move in to take their places... and life goes on.

There may be an argument for logging and the new growth it allows--but, nevertheless, sadness at the passing of a beautiful giant.
We lost a huge old maple to disease in the front yard of our old historic home. We tried everything we could to save it--the gap it leaves changes the safe, secure feeling old stately trees provide.
Too bad they couldn't have left just one--for the specimen it was.
To think that years upon years of growth can be extinguished in a matter of minutes is chilling.

Human activity affects wildlife habitat everyday--new subdivisions, shopping malls, new roads, fence row to fence row farming etc--and we no longer tolerant fire and other natural forces to create diverse kinds and ages of habitat. Therefore without logging and other habitat management action, we will end up with very uniform and monoculture habitats. For example, in Ohio, the age of the forests is increasely old growth which favors only some kinds of wildlife. The amount of early successional growth (young brushy woods) has dramatically decreased. The numbers of neotropical birds, woodcock, ruffed grouse, etc has decreased as a result. Early successional habitat is on the list of the most endangered habitat in the US. Change was the natural, ordinary course of habitat and wildlife will easily adapt if there are diverse kinds of habitat always available.

Therefore, I argue that it is counterproductive to argue against the timbering of any trees. What we must do is carefully manage our forests to maintain diverse kinds of habitat since we our lifestyles to do not allow nature to accomplish this.

I do recognize that my understanding of forest ecology is confined to eastern forests and I have little knowlege about western forests.

Mark Jones,

Mark makes excellent points, and much more articulately than I ever could make them. We bought a small parcel of wooded property next to our house that had been left on its own for several decades. After spending a little time in there we noticed that the trees had grown spindly and crowded, and several were diseased. By selectively removing some of the trees, we've opened up the understory and, only a few months later, we're seeing improvement in the hardwoods that had been strugggling for so many years. I cried when the trees came down, but now I understand it was for the betterment of this rare bit of habitat.

Consider yourself blessed that your neighbor is managing his land and maintaining it as a natural area, and not selling it off to developers who would strip it down to bare earth. If he can make a bit of income from it, that's more incentive for him to keep it as a natural area.

Bernd Heinrich's book "The Trees in My Forest" was very encouraging to me while we were thinning our woods. If he finds selecting logging beneficial, both monetarily and ecologically, then I can find some comfort in it. I hope you can, too. Still, like any loss, it's important to mourn and then move on and enjoy what comes next.

As Iris said, the loss of your tree is sad, but at least you still have the forest. You could be staring at a mini mall. I hope you will see new birds in your area now and can take pleasure from watching the smaller trees blossom into giants.

I'm OK with the logging, Julie, but I understand your attachment to the tulip tree. At least the removal of a large tree is an opporunity for new! What fires me up is to see a clean sweep of young and old trees to be replaced by a strip mall. I see it every day here.

Mary, that's exactly why I had to leave the South. I was raised in Richmond, Virginia, where any small remnant of forest is guaranteed to be leveled or marked with a "Coming Soon" sign. It makes me SICK. But it is the South. City planners from the Southeast should be made to come and live in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire for five years, and get their perspective adjusted.

A very important post and discussion here, Julie. I needed to read this to be reminded why it's important to reconsider long-held beliefs. The pain of seeing a tree fall is dwarfed by watching an entire eco-systems fail. Good lessons.

Oh, Julie, I'm sorry I came late to this post, but I was away from home and missed it.

Yes, I believe that if forestry helps pay the bills and keeps land from being developed, it is a wonderful thing. Also, not every environmentalist has the wisdom you have to understand that forests are dynamic and that disturbance - either man-made or natural - creates a variety of habitats.

One thing I hope I stressed in my letter was that forestry operations should be planned and supervised by well-educated and experienced foresters. These are college-educated specialists with a broad understanding of science, economics, history, and social values and they manage land for all values, not just the dollar value or "stumpage." Every harvest is planned to leave the woods improved and in a condition to increase in value, not simply to "high-grade" and take only the most valuable trees, leaving a mangled mess behind.

The loss of your big poplar saddens me. I would like to think a wise and caring steward would make an exception for a tree of such intangible worth.

My mother is 85 years old. Though she has had 2 types of cancer, doesn't see well, and has trouble walking, she still nourishes my family and many community members of Charleston WV. People will not and should not live forever. Our earth couldnt sustain us all. My mind grasps this fully, but my soul rebels. When my mother passes, I will mourn the end of a life that gave life to others and sustained a community for many years. I cry each time the logger's saw drops a tree whose life I have shared.

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