Friday, January 28, 2011

Full Circle in the White Forest

Remember when I said I had used my snowblower to make some trails through the garden for walking purposes?  I still use Snowblower Trail every day, several times a day, for exercise, but last weekend, I got really lucky!  A friend of ours, Cody, owns a snowmobile and stopped in for a visit.  I asked him if he would kindly ride around out in the Back Eight Acres for me, making trails for my walking and cross country skiing enjoyment.  Cody took me up on it and made me an awesome network of trails so now I can walk several different directions every day.  The dogs love it, too, they can run off-leash and are having the best time. (Ok, snowmobiling is not overrated, like I said in my last post)
Walking by the campfire ring on Snowblower Trail, uh, I guess it's gonna be awhile before we have a campfire.
So, here we are, on our way to the Snowmobile Trail.
This is so nice, I can walk through the 'White Forest' (what we nicknamed the white pine plantation my Dad and Carl and I planted almost 20 years ago) on windy days.  It's so much warmer in the White Forest as the wind is cut down to almost nothing.
We did some 'limbing up' of the white pines this past fall, taking off the dead branches so we can walk through more easily.
The White Forest has an ironic background:

When my grandfather bought this 98 acre farm in the late 1890's, it was a woods.  Much of the land is sandy, especially the higher ground, and white pine trees grew like weeds all over the place.  When my dad was born in 1913, the woods were not cleared yet, so he spent most of his childhood and young adult life in the process of sawing down trees and grubbing out stumps with an ax and a team of horses.  And the trees my father hated the most were white pine.

In the neighbor's woods across the road from our house that has never been cleared, there is a stand of large white pine still remaining.  My father used to look at the pine trees and grumble, "If I never see another pine tree, I will die happy.  Do you know how much work it was to try to get those pine stumps and roots out of the ground?  We used to dig and dig to kingdom come and still not get to the bottom of 'em.  And then we'd start fires and try to burn the stumps out, but it took forever.  They just don't seem to rot after they're cut down, either.  I hate those %#% trees!"

I remember we hired some guys with dynamite to get rid of the last of the stumps when I was a little kid.  That was dangerous work too, and many farmers lost their lives to stump-blasting as far too often the charge wouldn't go off and the hapless farmer would check the connections only to fall victim to a delayed detonation.

Dad's opinion of pine trees did not change for decades; he continued to detest them.  That is, until our barn blew down in the tornado in 1980 and he quit farming.  By this time he was 67 years old and was very happy when a neighboring farmer agreed to rent our land so Dad could fully retire. 

Now here comes the ironic part; the farmer who rented our land had trouble growing crops on the high, sandy spots and in 1992 suggested my father get into a 'tree program' being offered wherein a landowner plants a set amount of trees on set aside land for reforestation purposes.  Dad agreed, it sounded like a good idea, and eight acres was put into the program.

The only catch was, he had to plant trees.  And, according to the government agency,  the trees he had to plant were Pinus Strobus.

White pine!?

5000 of them.

When Dad came and told me what his plans were for the eight acres directly behind our house I nearly fell off my chair.  After hearing him kabitz for my entire life about how much he hated them and how impossible it was to get rid of the stumps, and how many years it took to clear this farm, now he was here asking for my help in planting five thousand of them?  Say what?

By this time, my father was 79 years old and my mother was 71, so of course I would help them plant the trees.  I was a stay-at-home mom, Joel was six and Dave was two, so what could I say other than ok, let's do this thing.  I still kept a close eye on Dad, though, checking for signs of heat-stroke or a head injury....this was so bizarre.

 In late April 1992, Dad rented a tree planter from a nice neighbor which was actually pretty easy to use.  It hooked up right behind our 574 International tractor and was raised and lowered out of the ground hydraulically.  There was a seat for me (and Carl, who took the day off to assist and hand me trees).  The machine had a large disc that cut a groove in the ground as it was pulled forward by the tractor and I had to get a rhythm going by separating out the 6" tall pine seedlings and their gangly root systems and lightly setting them in the resulting trench as we moved along the field.  There were two wheels behind the trencher that pushed the trench back shut after the tree was dropped in.  It is an ingenious machine and not too hard to do.  You just have to get the hang of the timing and kind of sense when the next tree should be stuck in the ground.  You don't want them too close together or too far apart, or too deep in the ground, or too shallow.  Just right.

We had a bucket of gel on the tree spade that the pine's roots were soaking in and Carl would separate the trees and hand them to me one at a time so I could stick them in the trench.  This system worked out fairly well.  We got started at 8AM and by noon had about 3 acres planted though you couldn't see them just looking at the field.  The poor things were so tiny.  It was early spring and the field was very wet, and we got stuck several times.  I had to call our neighbor farmer and borrow a tractor from him so we could pull ourselves out.  In fact, the first time, the neighbor farmer came and pulled us out, but when he saw how wet it was, he simply left the tractor there so we could use it when we got stuck.  Which was often.  And, as fate would have it, we got HIS tractor stuck too, so he had to bring yet a third tractor out to the field.  (He told us we'd better not get this one stuck, because it was the last one he had.)

My dad did all the driving that day and Carl and I did all the planting.    The worst part of it all was the  lowering of the tree planter at the beginning and end of every row which was bone-jarring to say the least.  Dad wasn't able to adjust the rate of descent on the very heavy planter for some reason, and instead of being set gently down, the whole planter hit the ground with a WHOMP which made for a very long twelve hour day.  Both Carl and I were covered in the tree gel stuff because it would fly out of the pail every time Dad dropped us.  Ah, that was a long day, all right.  We were finally done about 8PM with the eight acres and five thousand trees.

As fate would have it, we then went into a drought-like period.  For weeks and weeks, there was no rain and the temperatures were above normal with a lot of windy days.  Dad obsessed over the little pine seedlings; we should water them!  We filled up my rain barrels and any other water receptacle we could find and headed out to the field.  For weeks Dad and Mom and I and our little boys tried to water them the best we could, but eight acres is a lot of land to cover and the water soaked into the sand so fast that it really didn't make a difference, especially when the temperatures soared in August.  After the rough summer, we had a brutal winter, with little snow cover that basically sealed the seedling's fate.  We lost about four thousand trees.

Dad was order to stay in the tree program, we would have to replant, and we did, the following spring.  But it was no use, the weather was against us one more time and the tiny trees just couldn't handle the nearly pure sand.  Dad gave up and had me drive him to the government office where he officially turned in his request to be excluded from the tree program, thereby receiving no payments for having set aside reforestation land. 

The farmer who was renting our land thought Dad was being too hasty in getting out of the tree program and should replant a third time, but Dad was adamant, if he was going to be paid to have five thousand trees on eight acres, then there had to BE five thousand trees on the eight acres.  Any less than the requirement would be dishonest and Dad was not one to take money for nothing.  He was so sure a Government Man would come out and count the trees one by one and heaven help us if we would be found to have only 4,999.  And the dang trees were constantly dying off, so to ease his troubled soul, Mom and I agreed with Dad, let's just get out of the reforestation program and leave it be.  From that point on, the Eight Acres has earned no revenue.

We had about a thousand trees still struggling on the eight acres and it was to these that Dad turned his attention for the rest of his life. The man who was so filled with hatred of white pine trees now had come full circle and spent the last decade of his life trying to nurture them on the exact same piece of land he had struggled so hard to clear.  I don't know if he ever saw the irony of it all...but Mom and I did.  Where the trees did survive was in the better parts of the sandy loam, the same loam that our garden is on, and also land that would have been put to better use being farmed, but Dad was pulling out all the stops to see these trees live no matter what.  On the pure sand on the northernmost boundary of the farm, only four trees had survived. 

Dad bought a Bush Hog, which is a lawn mower that is pulled behind a tractor and can cut just about anything you care to run over with the tractor, and spent his summers mowing the Eight Acres one swat at a time.  When the trees were very tiny, he would go out with a hoe and actually hoe around each little tree for hours on end.  The neighbor farmer who got Dad into the tree program in the first place told me the trees actually kept Dad busy and gave him 'something to live for', but that was not the case.  Dad would have lived just fine (and Mom, too!) if they had never had those trees hanging around their neck.  It was Dad's obsession and not a good one.  Mom got so sick of hoeing the trees and carting water to them, and I didn't blame her one bit. 

I was glad when the first five years passed and the trees were finally a little more self-sufficient.  I think the last time I did a rough head-count, there's about 600 left out there.  And, wouldn't you know it, the ones that lived are way too close together as you can see by this aerial photo from the windmill taken in 2005:
The lane just north of the windmill and the west half of the Back Eight.  Our land ends up against the deciduous woods in the background.  

In response to wanting to thin out some of the trees on our own property, for we had gone hog wild planting trees on our 2.5 acres and had over 500 mixed spruce and pine here, Carl designed and built his own tree spade (the process of which would fill another three blog posts, but I won't bore you today) and we used the tree spade to transplant some of the white pines out to the clear sand area up by the woods in 2001.

I went out with the 574 and the tree spade every morning after the boys went to school and moved a few trees a day until winter came on.  The trees were about six feet tall by then, and I wasn't sure if they'd survive the move, but I think I only lost two or three.  We had just enough rain to keep them going and I staked every tree so the wind wouldn't blow them over.  There's about fifty of them up by the woods now. 

And this all brings me back to my new Exercise Snowmobile Trail:

Here we are, walking down the lane on the snowmobile trail, heading north to the boundary of the Back Eight. 
Turning the corner, and heading's usually very sheltered walking here with no north wind to contend with.
Some of the fifty trees I transplanted ten years ago.  Now I wish I had never planted them in straight rows, duh, they would look so much nicer scattered about.  Nature NEVER plants trees in rows!  Oh, well, live and learn.
This little group of trees on the left is the last bunch my father planted before he died. 
Old hay rake waiting for still works, and we still use it
What are those??  Cactus??  They do kind of bear a resemblance to Saguaro Cactus, don't they?  Ok, maybe not, they are mullein plants...weeds my father disliked very much.  I should not have let them stand this past summer, for I will be having a hard time getting rid of them, but they looked so desert-like I couldn't resist taking a picture of them. 

Queen Ann's Lace...resembling a sparkler on the Fourth of July

Now we are on our way back south again towards our garden and home,  that's my Pudding dog out in front......Shih Tzu's are not the tiny little wimp dogs that most people think, they LOVE snow and our two little dogs accompany me for walks in all weather, up to three miles a day. When I first got Teddy eleven years ago, I thought I'd lost my mind, we'd only owned big dogs up to that point, but Shih Tzu's are tough for their pint-size.
 Here we are, back where we started from.  We've just been on a three-quarter mile walk.  I walk or cross-country ski this trail twice a day.  No, it's not ten or fifteen miles, but it is relaxing, and to my eye, beautiful.  I love the solitude and the sound of the snow crunching underfoot and the whisper of the wind in the pines and my dogs scampering about with Screech Kitty usually bringing up the rear.

This post became ridiculously long, but I needed to write the story of the ill-fated reforestation project and my father's life-time struggle with white pine trees.  I can still hear him, "Ugly things, with their stupid, long needles, what's pretty about them??"  He much preferred spruce trees, and planted a lot of them on his lawn after he retired. (I never told my dad, but my favorite coniferous tree is the white pine...I think they are so beautiful, especially when they are grown in the open and develop character unspoiled by crowding.)

I have mixed feelings walking through the 'White Forest' now.  Lots of memories.  My dad was born on this farm, in a log cabin.  I have memories of what the land was like before we planted the trees, and how the farm looked so different then. I'm thinking if I live long enough, these white pines may grow to be nearly the height they were when their ancestors were being sawed down by my ancestor.  What will happen in the future, who knows?  I hope to leave this farm horizontally, just like my Dad did in 2001 at the age of 88.   

The eight acres itself has come full circle in nearly a hundred years. Dad worked so hard to get rid of the trees and then to restore them.

  I wonder what he'd think of his trees now...


RainGardener said...

Karen what a great story, I enjoyed reading all of it very much. And yes, how ironic in the end. I use to love riding snowmachines when I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska. Never had more fun unless maybe horse riding.

Hocking Hills Gardener said...

Man that wore me out just reading about all of those White Pine trees. I can say you all have gumption. I would have mowed them all off. LOL! You have such beautiful property. Lots of flatter areas to walk on. It is all hillsides and giant boulders here. I have had two a Shih Tzu's in my lifetime. They do make wonderful pets. Thanks for the pretty walk about your acres.

lifeshighway said...

Karen, I enjoyed you story so much. You bond with the land, your Dad's quest both early in his life and later in his life. Lovely.

Shirley said...

Karen, thanks for the trip down your lanes of memories. I really like white pine and have two in my garden trained to topiary style. It is sweetly ironic how something your father loathed became of such importance to him. Lovely story.

Gatsbys Gardens said...

Karen, your stories are captivating and I get into them like they are not a world I have experienced since I grew up in the city.

I really am a farm girl at heart finding a prairie by my house when I was young and digging a foxhole with my friend and cooking our lunch over a fire.

Can you imagine us doing this with public transportation running by on the corner?


Sall's Country Life said...

Wow, another great story of strong will and hard labor! Your Dad was a great man! We can relate (sort of) we've struggled 7 years on our farm to grow trees, however we don't have that many acres. But, if we did we would've been hauling water to each and every one of them. Sometimes I wonder how many people can really appreciate the significance of a tree as we do? Oh my to have all of those trees surrounding our farm now! There would only be a foot of snow around the house instead of 3!! Your father would be very happy with the size of the trees now. We look out our window all the time and marvel at how much they've grown and how much they improve this old farmstead! Great post, really enjoyed it!

Beth said...

Thanks for sharing your history, Karen! I really enjoyed reading about the White Forest. You have such a great property and I have enjoyed every minute I spend reading about it.
Blessings and hugs, Beth

Anonymous said...

Again, I really enjoyed your trip down memory lane. Your dad was really a hard worker, honest and very determined. I like white pine and have a post ready on them coming up. The tree nursery has them by the hundreds and they are such a majestic tree. I was just photographing them today by coincidence. I thought your dog might not like the snow, but that is not the case by what it looks like.

xoxoxo said...

Perfect timing! I brought my cup of coffee with me and always love our time together :)

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Hi Karen,
How cool that you are able to live where you grew up! I enjoyed reading about your memories of your parents, the trees, and the land. That was a good idea having the neighbor give you more trails to walk and ski on.

Your dogs sound like fun walking companions.

Oh, did you know you can moderate older comments without doing so with newer ones? That way all those spams you are getting could be rejected and never appear on your blog?

Tootsie said...

that is a great story. Your property is absolutely gorgeous in the winter as it is in the summer...just in a different way.
I love the way you take us along each time you go for your walk
thanks for the visits this past week!

Rosemary said...

Great read...the work involved with the trees amazing but what a result even if only a third lived.... Wonderful trail thru the 8 acres......