Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

One with the Trees

Last week, I hugged a tree. Now, I’ve done this before - both as a joke and because I'm a hippie who actually finds it quite soothing - but this time was different. I was hugging this tree so that I could tie the ribbon that would mark it to be cut down.

Growing up, I slowly developed a love and appreciation of the natural world. I camped in it, I found peace and clarity in it, I engaged in activism to help protect it. In my adult years, I’ve taken that relationship deeper, marveling in the intricate wonders of bird songs and edible plants and fungi.

In many ways, natural spaces have felt like a home, like places to which I’m returning even if I’d never been there before. They’re where I find my greatest sense of beauty, awe, and divinity. They’re awesome.

And they’re almost always marked by the lack of a human presence.

This is confusing, because I really like humans, too.

I’ve been thinking about this contradiction a lot recently, as we’ve been diving into the world of wood here at Maggie's Farm. We’ve been listening to lectures on forest ecology, walking through the forest to read the natural history and ID different tree species, cutting down and dragging out logs of Eastern White Pine, working all day at the sawmill to make sixteen-foot long 8’ x 8’ beams for our timber frame project, using our nascent carpentry skills to build a pair of picnic tables.

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I’m trying to talk on this blog about transformations, right? Well, holy moly, there are countless transformations that are performed with wood, and they're fun and challenging and profoundly practical. But that wood, I’ve been reminded repeatedly, has to come from somewhere.

As a human, I like using things. I like books and computers and heat and lights at night. I like tables and chairs and a roof over my head. I even like traveling really fast from place to place. I especially like eating and drinking and dance parties.

All of those things, in one way or another, come from nature. I know this. All too often, they’re produced in ways that I abstractly disagree with, by polluting the water or clear-cutting the forest or blasting the tops off of mountains or washing away the topsoil or spewing carbon into the air. I know this, too.

All too often, I ignore (or decide not to see) those production methods. It’s too inconvenient or complicated or conflicted to hold in my head at all times. I like things, and the world is messed up. I try my best, but it is what it is.

Walking in the woods, though, with two rolls of tape to mark trees that will stay and trees that will come down, I had no choice but to see. I was a human, a product and a part of the natural world, completely intertwined, and I had to figure out how to value all these things at once.

In the future, in my dreamy dreams, I hope to have farmland with a substantial chunk of forest on it. The ecological benefits to the farm are large, and the aesthetic benefits to me (and my family) maybe even larger. But as with the rest of my farm, I want to be able to work with natural systems to sustainably get what I need, be it fuel or lumber or money, keeping all of us healthy.

And that’ll mean cutting down some trees. So I better become okay with it. And I better learn how to do it well.

On Friday, we hung out with a state forester who reviews cutting plans and monitors logging companies and advises landowners on how to do it all in a way that’ll protect the land for future generations of all species. We looked at trees that may have good lumber value now, those that’ll have better lumber value in 20 years, those that are crowding out trees with more potential, and those that are crucial for biodiversity and animal habitat. We talked about trees as a cash crop, how we might “thin” them out as if they were carrots. We talked about trees as beautiful, majestic organisms that we want to share with our children and grandchildren.

And then we made some hard choices.

As we walked out of the woods, a giant diesel machine carrying two huge trees made it’s way by us on the logging road that has been cut into The Farm School’s property. It was jarring, and a bit scary. It felt destructive and violent, the opposite feelings I usually get from a forest.

I don’t know enough yet to evaluate whether this was the right thing to do, whether this logging was being done well. I know the folks here are ethical and thoughtful when making decisions about the land, I trust them to hold it all at the same time.

But it’s confusing when things become less abstract. You gotta get down in the muck.

That afternoon we built picnic tables to be put in the new "Biergarten" by the main farmhouse, hopefully to be enjoyed and appreciated for years. Over the next few weeks, we’ll start taking all of the posts and planks that we've milled and slowly build a 16' x 25' timber frame structure. It is starting to consistently get below freezing at night, so all the wood stacked by our boiler will soon be turned into heat for our drafty house. 

I've felt the human-nature division fall away before, but this is something new. I'm an actor, a beneficiary, a steward, all at once. 

Trees are incredible organisms that are worthy of our reverence. I know this. But what if that reverence didn't mean that we had to take a purely hands-off approach to the forest ecosystem?

What if the greatest way to honor the forest is to rely upon it? What if we acted everyday with the realization that we need it to stay healthy and vibrant and productive for the centuries yet to come?

The decisions that come along with such an approach might be a little muckier, but maybe that's where selfishness and altruism come together. Maybe we need the muck.

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To see the rest of this week's pictures, click here... 

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