Ruminations of a Small-Scale Forester

By Russell Kirk

As I hope nearly everybody knows already, our American woodlands continue to diminish alarmingly. It is not only the big forests of the Pacific slopes, harvested by the great lumbering companies, that dwindle, or the swamp forests of the Gulf states and lower South: in every state which once had many trees, the number of wood lots and groves grows less year by year.

And in the surviving woodlands, through most of this country, the value and beauty of the woods often is impaired by neglect. Here is one sort of conservation and ecological restoration in which a good many Americans might engage directly.

Yesterday I took a stroll through my 40-acre wood lot, less than a mile from our village. That land has been in the possession of my family for nearly a century. The big pines of the primeval forest here were cut in the 1880s; stumps of many of them remain on my acres. On much of my 40, a second wood of elms, maples, oaks, and birches arose—something of a jungle, increasingly, because it was not brushed out by man, and the “natural burn” of Indian days was prevented.

Recently I permitted enthusiastic snowmobilers to cut a trail through my swampy woods, so that they could avoid the risk of riding their machines through the village by the road. This snowmobile trail facilitates a tramp through my acres, portions of which had become almost impenetrable.

Hundreds upon hundreds of dead elms stand like corpses upon my land—victims, in recent years, of the dread elm disease. Not one living elm remains to me. I have three men with a chain-saw taking down these skeletons and cutting them into firewood for me, but there is far more wood than I can use or anybody seems to want, so it is a costly and laborious clearance.

Happily I commenced afforestation a decade before the elm blight struck our country, so that hundreds of young pines and spruces already are making my 40 acres more cheerful. Many birches, too, naturally seeded, have arisen: I am thinning them out, sparing the bigger trees, so that they may prosper. Oak saplings also are fairly numerous; there is one very big oak, probably a small tree when the lumbermen of the last century cleared off this land. And I possess a goodly grove of mature sugar maples.

Within five or six years, God willing, I should be able to make my 40 acres a handsome and valuable property once more—after considerable investment in labor. My children will enjoy this wood lot’s charm long after I am gone: a very heartening thought.

As an investment, reforestation of almost any fairly cheap land can be safe and lucrative. I don’t mean, ordinarily, the planting of Christmas trees: in icy Michigan, anyway, that market seems to be sufficiently supplied already. Besides, economically considered, long-term development of big trees is more profitable (as well as more satisfying) than the short-term harvesting of Christmas evergreens.

Amateur foresters tend to make certain understandable blunders. One of these is to plant evergreen saplings (very cheaply bought, in some states, from the conservation department or the state agricultural college) too closely together. This means that unless the little trees are promptly harvested for the Christmas market, they grow up far too thickly, and become worthless for anything except posts or pulp.

Another mistake of some wood lot proprietors is a misplaced affection for every tree, so that they fail to harvest trees past their prime and let them decay, producing a senile and rotting forest, in which young trees cannot flourish. City people sometimes are startled to find lovely birch logs burning in my fireplace: “Aren’t you ashamed to cut those?”

“On the contrary,” say I. “it’s my duty.” A wood is a kind of nursery, requiring frequent thinning and pruning—not an asylum for arboreal cripples and weaklings. Short-lived birches only spoil the woods if they are permitted to fall and rot, and their lives are short indeed if they grow too closely together.

Joyce Kilmer notwithstanding, I have seen poems lovely as trees. But I trust that my trees will outlive the ephemeral prose of this column.