Weekend essay: Into the wood

Weekend essay: Into the wood


The sun is shining but it is a bracing and wind-whipped afternoon on this mountaintop outpost as “The Wood Project” commences.

The first order of business is to begin working from the perimeter into the thicket of an old wood long in the tooth, long neglected and long strangled by great vines.

Just to see what is what, that is.

Out comes the tall, manual, pole saw to remove “low hangers” from a half-dozen or so sugar maples. It’s tough cutting, not because the blade is dull but because the limbs are saturated – with rising sap.

Once cut, that watery nectar runs out of the remaining stumps like a badly leaking facet; all creatures great and small will love it.

It’s easy to see this wood is in critical condition, in dire need of a heavy thinning and replanting. And, that low entrance canopy removed, it’s also evident the scope of the project is far greater than first imagined.

Scores of trees, diseased and or wind-toppled, lie on the wood bed. And at least half the trees that are standing are in perilous shape. Some are broken off 50 feet in the air. And some of those fallen timbers are lodged in the high forks of other trees.

Still other trees have been nearly disemboweled by colonies of bugs that have been prosecuting a sustained invasion with little resistance for years. Save, that is, for the sizeable population of pileated woodpeckers, which feed as gleefully as they do freely on those pests, giving this wood a prehistoric feel, in sound and in sight.

(And speaking of sound and sight, there’s a bobcat in this wood. His call was heard this very day, carried by the stiff breezes magnified by a shallow ravine. Normally nocturnal, he has yet to show himself but covered scat affirms the tenant. There could be a brood of kits to come.)

Many others trees on this tract have been strangled by a prodigious crop of great vines, some as thick in diameter as motorcycle tires. Shockingly, some of those vines, acting as large natural cranes, are the only support for many of the trees they’ve killed.

Thus, this de-foresting job will take more than a bit of engineering prowess. What will be felled first? And in what direction? And if one entangled tree is cut, how many more might fall like dominos? Much of the felling will require rope assistance. After all, safety is a paramount concern.

This will not be a job that takes a few weeks. Years could be the more appropriate time-frame.

That’s the challenging news from the Jones Mountain Wood. The good news is that there should be enough timber to feed the coming stone fireplace for years.

And the better news is that far more trees will be needed to replenish this wood. Which will allow for a greater variety of species. Which should translate into a more diverse wood. Which will create a far better and balanced eco-system.

For as Emerson so adroitly reminded, “Nature hates monopolies.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).