Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I Hate to Cut Trees

Every tree is a community. Even if it overhangs the house or shades the garden, each tree supports all kinds of life.

It's easy to stand there in the summer, when I wouldn't cut them, and plan the major clearance I will do when the weather turns cold, the birds stop nesting and the hummingbirds aren't using the protected airspace the tall pines provide. The resolve might even last into the fall. But this fall was warm and wet. Not the best time to cut. We had some pretty strong winds. I would be working alone. Better to wait.

January is here. The ground is frozen. I stand there, looking up the trunk of each intended victim. From the canopy, little pick, pick, scrabble, scrabble noises drift down from where birds and squirrels forage in the upper branches. They would take off in a hurry if I fired up the chainsaw, but they remind me that a tree is a place, not just a thing.

Trees fall over naturally. Wind, snow, ice or lightning can topple them. Fire can take out acres of them, though that's rare in the eastern United States. Our entire forests are smaller than some clearcuts and wildfires out west. I laugh when I hear an eight-acre brush fire called big. But around here it is.

When trees fall over naturally, they lie there and rot. The canopy stays at least partially erect. The tangle of branches provides cover for small animals and birds. As the trunk decays, everything from microbes to woodpeckers can get something out of it. Small mammals can live in and under it.

When humans cut trees, they slice and dice the treetop into small slash, or even run it through a chipper. They cut the trunk into lumber or firewood, or use it for pulp or biomass fuel. It goes away.

The trees I would cut do not represent endangered plant species, nor do they host rare wildlife in and on themselves. Of course as humans chew up more and more habitat, more species come under siege, but not around here any time soon. I don't think terribly globally when I look up the trees and do not want to cut them. I just think that what I do cannot be undone. I far prefer my plant and animal neighbors to most of my human ones. Someone just up the road seems to find an awful lot of noisy work to do with heavy equipment, day after day. Next door to that is the hunting preserve, where people can pay a tidy sum to blast away with shotguns at a bunch of exotic fowl raised in a pen and flushed out for the fun of killing them.

I will lay a serious bet none of those people ever gave a second thought to cutting a tree that even mildly inconvenienced them.

As a chainsaw maniac, I have taken down dozens of victims. It never gets easier. They're not sentient beings. I don't give them personalities. I just think about all the time they have existed. I wonder whether my own short-term interests are really worth destroying something I could never have made.

Then, of course, there's the work. We don't cut trees just to cut them. I will have to process that great whale of a carcass by myself, dragging slash into the woods, cutting and stacking logs to be split and burned later. Forget what you've read about not burning pine. Dry it well, mix it with the good stuff and burn it hot. I clean the chimney every year.

Every part of the chore is unattractive. Some of the trees will take my puny chainsaw to its limit. Some of the placements will require some tricky cutting if I don't want to crush the garage or the house. It's easy to keep putting it off. The living prefer to keep living. It's hard for me to deny them that.

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