Rural Ramblings – Winter 1986
by Ralph Miller
Being a certified rambler means that you encounter things from time to time that lead you down some of the murky lanes that only exist in your mind. Not exactly coincidence, more a happenstance, sad, funny, trivial or important; you find yourself getting lost in the dim maze of memory. This column was triggered by one or more of those encounters.
In the first place I happened to be pouring over some material in the back of an old Atlas. Any Atlas gives the names of states; this one had a list of nicknames as well – an ‘old’ list. Somehow just the name of anything isn’t enough, is it? We’ve got to hang a moniker on it as well, which, of course, carries over to those associated with it.
I’m a Beaver now, I guess, being from Oregon – the Beaver State. I was born a Badger, have been variously a Jayhawk, a Pelican, a Volunteer, a Hoosier, a Tarheel and a resident of the Golden State (did that make me a nugget?). All of those handles as listed, showed up that way in the old Atlas, except that they called Kansas the Sunflower State, which I guess is the official nickname, although we Kansans preferred Jayhawks.
Sometimes the popular sobriquet doesn’t match the one some past legislative body thought would add a little prestige. To the followers of the national Football scene, Nebraska is surely the ‘Cornhusker’ State. So be it. I wouldn’t care to argue the point with anyone (especially with one of those huge linemen, offensive or otherwise), however according to my list that large land mass in mid America is officially the ‘Tree Planter’s State.’ That sent me wheeling down one of those mental back roads I mentioned.
Nebraska – The Tree Planter’s State? If you aren’t familiar with Nebraska let me assure you that I find that an anomaly. I’ve been running back and forth across Nebraska for more than 48 years and, although I have nothing derogatory to say, I can’t help feeling that those tree planters must have gotten side-tracked somewhere.
Maybe they used the same sort of upside down logic that sometimes designates a 300 lb football player as ‘Tiny’. Or it’s called the Tree Planter’s State because there exists such a wide open field for that occupation. Not to say there are no trees in Nebraska; definitely some do grow there but as a representative of the Great Plains Area, there are vast sections where any dogs will have to form a line. Like Iowa, Kansas and the rest of the Breadbasket, they hold the land too valuable to raise trees, except for orchards, windbreaks or parks. But it is the Tree Planter’s State, so we’ll dedicate this column to the noble ambition implicit in that title.
We just crossed Nebraska again last Spring; ducked across the Missouri River just above the Iowa border and took a short cut I know into the back door of Lincoln, the State Capitol. I don’t know how badly the farm economy slowdown has hurt them there but the land was certainly not neglected or deserted. Not many trees, but they were ready to finish plowing and planting as soon as all the snow was gone. I think most of them were hanging on and hanging in hoping for the upturn.
This latest bill from congress may not do too much for now, but it may contain the kernel of a good idea for the future and a scrap of logic. As we here at SFJ, among others, have been saying for a long while, you can’t cure a broken leg with a band-aid. Nor with FarmAid, either, if it doesn’t provide the means to turn the whole thing around.
Isn’t it curious that after all these years of being fed that snake oil panacea that the only cure was bigger farms, bigger loans and more costly equipment, many of those who followed this prescription have come to the jarring conclusion we’ve advocated all along: Bigger isn’t necessarily better?! A rude awakening, and in some cases tragic. Like Nebraska, Iowa has few trees. That farmer near Lone Tree, Ia., was buried under more than $600,000 in debts when he cracked under the pressure and used a shotgun to try to settle the debts. Now he, his wife, his banker, ‘and a man who won a land case judgement against him, are all buried there permanently. Tragic and unnecessary.
There have been other suicides, other tragedies, too many; these are only the reportable evidences of a much larger, deeper distress. These farm families were betrayed by those who counseled them. There is a pattern and a recurrent theme in all these cases. The agribusiness tenet, “Produce more, buy more – the secret of getting rich, of getting out of debt is to borrow more and get bigger”. Pretty soap bubbles dancing across the sky and when we ask where they went the soap salesmen say, “No more soap”. (While I pen these lines, the radio announces the projected resignation of Agriculture Secretary John Block; even the soft soap and snake oil salesmen are feeling the bite.)
To make this relevant to our theme, buried under a lot of other rhetoric about the new farm bill I saw one nugget that I hardly think will ever be refined – it makes too much sense. As a help for those burdened by farm debts they spoke of possibly delayed payments in return for the farmer living up to certain obligations. One proposal was that, under predetermined circumstances, farmers might be able to withdraw land from production by planting it with trees. In such cases there would be a moratorium on those particular debts until the trees could be marketed; as long, perhaps, as thirty or forty years.
Taking land from cultivation for forests is not a new idea in many areas. Extensive new forests are growing in the South and East where once were farms, fields and plantations. If you’ve never been in those areas and grew up on the historical fiction that it was all one vast plantation from tidewater Virginia all the way around to the Mississippi, you might be shocked at how little of that is now in cultivation.
Even those farmers who ran through the fields of Lexington and Concord would have a very difficult time finding a field of fire to shoot a redcoat today. Anything that isn’t built on is heavily wooded. It’s my considered belief that there are more woods in the whole revolutionary war area today than there were in 1776. The tide of farming swept West; the land wore out and the East industrialized. The South is now catching up to that situation.
But that is not a minus in any sense of the word. Early farming mined what was often thin soil. Where it ran deeper, intensive cash cropping, tobacco, rice, cotton, indigo … all these and more spent the rich land with the prodigality of the proverbial drunken sailor. The time came when the bill came due and the land no longer supported such lavishness. In the beginning of those tough years, fields and plantations were simply abandoned. First came the vines, the brush and the thorns, then gradually the forest began to reclaim its own. Later wiser heads saw the benefit in replanting.
It was healthy for the economy, healthy for the land and the people. Trees aren’t like the cash crops; they don’t mine that top, thin layer of the Earth which is all that stands between us and extinction. Trees are different; their roots go down deep in the subsoil and bring up minerals and nutrients that are otherwise not utilized. Then they drop leaves, needles and other detritus onto the forest floor which becomes humus, enriching the soil and providing a home for earthworms and a medium for beneficial bacteria and microorganisms. Trees soften the soil store moisture; streams and springs are restored or renewed, benefiting not only the forest, but the surrounding countryside as well.
Small animals return, and birds. The entire food chain benefits and although this may include the predators, they are less likely to ravish farms and livestock when woods are teeming with their natural prey.
By the nature of trees, be they for timber, pulpwood, Christmas trees, sap products or the fruit and nut species of orchards, they are a long term proposition. For those anxious to get in and out with quick profits, trees are not the answer. As we have said, such folks are not the best stewards of the land over the long run anyway.
With even the fastest maturing trees, it means that we’re looking at 5 to 10 years – Christmas trees, fruit trees, will start returning some rewards in that time. For those wanting to earn a living in ‘tree farming’, that’s probably the way to go. Trees for lumber, paper pulp, wood, sap products – as maple syrup or turpentine – all these will take longer .. The plus of all this is those concentrating in the growing of trees will have to be around a while, settled, stable folks who will not only add to the land but to the community.
In spite of the fact that our Northwest lumber industry is depressed at the moment, I’m not discouraged about the future of trees. Remember the goof in ‘The Graduate’ who wanted to give Dustin Hoffman one word – ‘Plastics’. Since that there have been other words, like ‘video games’, ‘computers’, now is it ‘video tapes’?
I have one word for those coming up – ‘Wood’ -, I think it is the wave of the future as it has been in the past. I think we have only tapped the surface in the use of wood. People have been looking for substitutes for wood since the Garden of Eden but it’s more essential and more relevant than ever.
A wood beam will hold more, longer, will give and not break, is more fire resistant, than a comparable steel beam. Wood, will last for centuries under the right conditions, yet is biodegradable, and if necessary may be burned with little harm to the environment. (All the while a replacement is growing somewhere in the forest.) Plastics, on the other hand, use up finite reserves in their manufacture, they become brittle with age and fail to stand up, yet when discarded they will be a problem for generations. When they do break down by fire or acids they release toxic and deadly gases.
Wood is relatively easy to work with, to build with, even for the amateur, as opposed to metal, plastics, stone or ceramics. Wood is a virtual necessity on the small farm. Lumber for buildings, fences, posts, chutes, stakes. Wood for loading ramps, stanchions, cribs and mangers. Wood for tongues, double-trees, wagon boxes and racks. Wood for the smokehouse, to pen up the chickens, pigs and calves. Wood for the hot beds for the gardener, for hives for the beekeeper, wood to house the hay and grain, wood to house the dog and even the tractor. Even the so-called metal buildings are built over a wood framework.
One more important use for wood around the world, on the farm and elsewhere in cities in many areas – is as fuel. We boast an electric range and oven, an oil burning furnace in the basement. Still these past frozen days of Winter, much of our heat and a great deal of our cooking and baking takes place on the model 1889 wood cook stove which, faithfully restored, purrs warmly in our farm kitchen. From the woodlot I wheel in the blocks my chainsaw carves from dead trees. Some of them I don’t have to cut down. My resident engineer works on the Alders from around the pond and when he’s eaten all the bark and green shoots he wants from them, I work them up for wood.
So think about planting trees, even if it’s only for a farm woodlot. Over and above the reasons I have listed, if you want a real lift, want a long term charge of satisfaction, try planting a tree or trees that you never expect to get any monetary return from. A 19th century poet wrote, “a man does not plant a tree for himself; he plants it for posterity”. That’s not always strictly true, but there’s enough fact there to justify it. I know of a number of trees scattered over a half a continent over the last 60 years that I planted or assisted in the planting. I expect a lot of them will outlive me. Even today there’s a feeling of awe in looking at trees 60 – 80 feet high that I planted as saplings. What an honor to be able to say that in these certain aspects you have left the world a little better than you found it.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if everyone had a tree in their name when they were born and every birthday as long as they lived? How much better off we’d be as a race if the world could be richer by three score trees for every human alive.
There are many places around the globe where no trees exist. Many of those never had any; other sections once boasted forests but lost them by virtue of man or other natural disaster. Many other animals are hard on forests as well, domestic and in the wild state. Changes in weather patterns can cause deserts, but these are often augmented by overgrazing during critical times. To reforest Afghanistan, the Sahara-Sahel or other such areas is probably a more monumental undertaking than the race is able to consider, and yet it is not necessarily impossible.
Some time after I wrote something about trees in the Fall 1980 SFJ, one of our readers, Michael Lang of Condon, Montana, sent me a little booklet translated from the work of a French author, Jean Giono. It is or was published in this country by the Friends of Nature at Brooksville, Maine. He got the book at the Log Exchange, Box 1041 in Condon, MT. It is called ‘The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness’ and is both interesting and inspirational.
Giono was a young man still in his teens when he ran across this man in 1913. He, Giono, was traveling across an arid and desolate section of France near the Southeast corner. It’s an area where the foothills of the Alps fall towards the Mediterranean. It is an old, long settled area that had known many civilizations, not least the Romans. As happens, and as we have been discussing, the land had been worn out, discarded and abandoned like an old shoe. The trees were so long gone as to leave no trace. The charcoal burners had moved on to work their havoc on more favored sections. Springs, streams and wells had dried up. The land was parched with only scant vegetation, wild lavender and some coarse tough grasses mainly in the vales and sheltered areas.
Giono had traveled this desolation for three days and found no humans, no habitation, only the fallen remains of a tiny village where the only thing that moved was the shrieking, unceasing wind. He ran out of water there and encountered none until the next day when he ran across the aforementioned man – a peasant shepherd with a small flock. He got water from the man and spent a couple of nights in his house. He also learned that the shepherd was a French version of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ – sort of a Jacques Acorn as it were. For the man was planting White Oak acorns as his dedicated avocation.
Elzeard Bouffier, the shepherd was then fifty-five years old; a solitary man who had lost wife and son over the years and retired to the hills in consequence. He had been planting acorns then for three years. One hundred hand picked acorns a day – more than 100,000 in the three years. 20,000 came up and 10,000 of those survived; a very sizable forest in the making, and this on land he didn’t own or even know if it had an owner.
Giono was caught up in WWI for the next several years and returned to that area again only in 1920. By that time the slow growing Oaks were taller than a man and covered a considerable area. Bouffier was still there, still industriously planting trees – acorns for Oaks, and from his own nursery project, seedling Beech trees and White Birch clumps in areas where underground water gave them a better chance.
Already by 1920 water was flowing in long dry streams. Willows had returned along the streams carried in by birds who now nested in the new forest. Flowers and other vegetation carpeted stream banks and forest floor. Giono kept track of the project, went back several times – was involved in getting the area recognized and protected by the responsible forest agency (who on occasion warned Bouffier to be careful of fire as it might destroy this ‘natural’ forest.) They did provide assigned foresters and a ban on charcoal burners, even though few of them ever learned how the forest started.
In the next 25 years 10,000 people had returned to the area of Bouffier’s forests. Several of the villages had been rebuilt. There were neat and viable farms. People had begun to take pride in their section. Fountains, flowers and ornamental trees showed that folks not only lived there but valued that life again. On one trip back Giono found he could now take a bus to one of the villages in the area near Bouffier’s cottage.
Bouffier was still planting and caring for his trees with that selfless dedication. He gave up most of his sheep flock and went to beekeeping since the bees did not damage seedling trees as the sheep did. Eventually Bouffier had to build a different home some 10 miles distant since all the land around the first was already planted. The man lived until he was 89 in 1947 and was still working in his woods when Giono visited him last some two years before. He was a silent, undemonstrative man whose solitary efforts had altered a section of the earth and made life possible and rewarding for thousands just as a matter of satisfaction and personal dedication for himself. In his lifetime, probably not a handful of people knew him or how much the area owed him, yet the difference he made in his corner of the world is awe inspiring and seldom equalled.
Most of us never accomplish anything like Elzeard Bouffier but there are tree planters around. This (Western Oregon) is an area of forests, largely dependent economically on aspects of the timber industry. In the foothills and more remote slopes there is still some virgin timber but the bulk of our woodlands have been cutover at least once. Back in Northern Wisconsin, in the area once denuded of forest, a great deal of it was replanted – mostly by the Civilian Conservation Corp of the 1930’s. A lot of this Northwest country knew the CCC as tree planters then, as well and like Northern Wisconsin, this area now is reaping a harvest of timber planted back there a half century ago.
It definitely worked then and lumber companies and forest service alike have continued the practice to this day. Private landholders also have seen the wisdom of replanting acreage as soon as it is cropped. When I bought my small acreage in early 1971 there was a substantial clearing across the road and back behind the creek where a crumbling foundation indicated where a house had once been.
I had a neighbor who was a tree planter – 3000 acres including that clearing across the road. He and his crew planted it at that time and now you can no longer see that there was a clearing there. It’s a forest with Fir trees 20 – 25 feet high and before many years it may get so high I won’t be able to see the mountain behind it. Jack was unmarried and knew he was living on borrowed time even then – he died in 1974 – but the last time I saw him, three days before his bad heart felled him, he was still planting trees.
Appropriately in 1972 he was named Oregon Tree Farmer of the year, which gave him a great deal of satisfaction. However, even more than the award, I think if he could or can see how his trees are growing, he’d be even more proud. The next generation or several generations reap the reward for such dedication. Of course the corollary is that they also suffer when we neglect that opportunity.
In so many cases if we even give nature half a chance, she’ll restore and restock herself. Most of the replanting that has gone on in my patch is from seedlings that have sprung up naturally. Most are Douglas Fir but I have young Alders, Cascara, Red Birch, Madrone, Chinquipin, Oak and Vine Maple as well. What I have planted has been only fruit and ornamentals. I don’t look to get much monetary gain from my woods, but they provide me with poles, posts, some wood and with thousands of dollars and hours worth of satisfaction. They provide shade and air conditioning in Summer and protect me from the icy winds of Winter. Not everyone feels as I do about trees but I don’t want to be without them.
Not that every farmer or country dweller can or should keep something that doesn’t pay its way. Trees can be a valuable cash crop. Today we have learned to use most every part of most kinds of trees. Bark, leaves, needles, sawdust, all find their way into mulch, ground cover, fertilizer and/or humus. Even seeds are harvested and sold for nurseries. Sap makes sugar, syrup, turpentine and glue. Through the wonders of modern technology the industry can make laminated beams, plywood, chip and wafer boards that are lighter stronger and more durable than the original lumber. (Of course, if man had to start from scratch to build something as monumental as a 200 year old Oak, a 700 year old Sequoia or a 4000 year old Bristlecone Pine he might well agree with Kilmer that “Only God can make a tree”)
The Great Plains states, the high plateaus and the mountain tops may never have borne trees in any great amount. That isn’t true in much of America’s heartland; Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the prairie country of Southern Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri would again support any amount of woods. Already there are many sections where the soil would benefit enormously for a 50 or more year hiatus from extensive cropping.
The question seems to be are we dedicated and thoughtful enough to let them fallow through a few decades of forest growth, while the farm economy benefits from their being taken out of production. There is no reason or need to feel we have to feed the world’s population. The smug and virtuous self-satisfaction we express over our efforts to do that always falls short and the resultant drain on the prospects of our future generations is not in the best interests of the world’s continuing expectations.
If we planted a large percentage of our marginal lands plus 20 to 25 percent of the heartland, our production would stabilize and we’d reverse our terrible drain on the tiny skin of topsoil on which we are so dependent. Make that a contingency of farm support all across the lower 48. A quarter of all production acreage planted in continuous rotation to forest or, where it wouldn’t support trees, then deep-rooted, woody plants like sweet clover. What a legacy for future populations in soil restoration, in production control and in all blessings of beautiful forests.
Just one question – Who’s going to start planting it? Elzeard Bouffier, where are you?