We cut about 10,000 feet of white pine last winter off a little nob in the south end of the sugarbush. This summer we’ve been turning the logs into lumber for the home we’re building. By the time you read this in September, it’s a safe bet that we’ll still be milling.
Part of the allure of building with your own wood is the pioneer spirit of the whole endeavor. From a structural perspective, I’d be much better off buying kiln-dried, dimensionally accurate lumber. And while I’m quick to delude myself into thinking of all the money I’m saving, really, this math only makes sense if I don’t put any dollar value on my time. Still, taking a tree to a board to a building is soulful, a value not included in traditional economic accounting.
The other thing that makes the whole endeavor satisfying is the idea that these trees were growing on a family woodlot, meaning we’re building with “our trees,” the lumber a by-product of managing “our woods.” And yet even as I put those grammatically suspect quotation marks around the phrases, they seem silly. The trees are around 80 years old, which means I wasn’t alive for the first half of their lives. And it’s impossible to miss the fingerprints of other people as you walk through the stand. We were skidding the logs out through old stone walls constructed when Able Webb owned the land in the 1870s; on farm roads probably constructed when Gertrude Bates owned the land in the 1920s; through a sugarbush that reflects the management efforts of Fairfax Ayers in the 1940s and 50s.
And these are just the landowners; the human fingerprints in these woods begin to resemble a touch screen on an ATM when you consider the loggers, hired hands, and work crews who played a part over the last three centuries creating the forest we see today. While gathering art to illustrate Joe Rankin’s story on white pine blister rust on page 42, I came across an old map showing blister rust control efforts in the exact stand of timber where I cut the pine trees; a treatment prior to 1933, one between 1933 and 1940, and then a spot treatment after that – probably in the 1950s. If the trees were seedlings around 1935, they may have owed their very existence – I may owe their very existence – to these skirmish lines of ropy, Depression-era men, six yards apart. Bursting through the thick growth of a patchy, starting-over forest, hand-pulling pasture gooseberries, calling out loudly with every plant they pulled.
Whether you grow and harvest trees yourself, or simply work with wood, it’s impossible to escape the history that’s tied up in every fiber. And as any social studies teacher will tell you, what we really learn by studying history is how to move forward into the future. Over the past century, humans in the Northeast have developed an environmental ethic that celebrates biodiversity – the ethic serves as an angel on our shoulder who reminds us, when we fire up our chainsaws, that we’re not the only creature in the woods and we’d better make harvest decisions that reflect this. But there’s another, more anthropomorphic, ethic that gets less press in environmental media – call it the management ethic; it’s another little angel who reminds us that we owe somebody for what we take. In the 1930s, there was a crew of guys who are probably dead now who helped white pine flourish on a little cobble in Shaftsbury, Vermont. And 80 years later I come along and cut some of these trees down and turn them into a roof over my family’s head.
You better believe I’m thinking of ways I can pay this forward.