Thinking Like A Spruce
Article #339 October 2022
By Bill Cook
On my old farm there exists about four or five acres of a sphagnum-bedded stand of black spruce and tamarack. Working that stand has generated some thoughts. Some of these thoughts might be on the money. Or not.
The black spruce stand runs around 130 square feet of basal area per acre, and was painfully maintaining 30 cords per acre. That level of basal area means that there are way too many trees for the amount of light available, not to mention available nutrients in an already impoverished soil type. A fungal mycelial network helps, but it’s not enough. According to the growth rings, and the fact that I’d been watching this stand stagnate for too many years, thinning was the answer.
So, I began on one side of the stand and cut the short trees, the weak trees, and opened the canopy around the bigger trees. There were lots of small dead trees, too. What to do with the wood? Well, a sale would be nice, probably around three truckloads, maybe a thousand bucks. But, there wasn’t reasonable access and it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Among many things, I thought about that lost revenue as I worked most of the summer on the thinning. I’ll be working into the winter, too. I limit myself to two tanks of chainsaw gas. I don’t need to fatigue and then hurt myself. OK, sometimes I burned three tanks. I haven’t been in my twenties for decades.
Working in the woods, on a project such as this, frees my mind to ponder random thoughts, that too often become mental flotsam in a busier world. As they are random thoughts, I’ll express them in random fashion.
I walk a third of a mile to get to my black spruce. About half the distance is through an old field, filled with milkweed. I thought about monarch butterflies, as they flitted around me. There’s so much hoopla about them these days, deservedly so. Much of their habitat has been compromised. But not here, not in the north, where they breed. I expect the breeding habitat remains in pretty good shape. So, why plant milkweed in these parts? I don’t know. I guess it’s a ”thing”.
Most days, a goshawk flew over to chastise me for disturbing its turf. The feeling wasn’t mutual, as I like goshawks and enjoy seeing them fledge a chick or two. My goshawks do not inhabit the sort of forest they supposedly prefer. In fact, I was thinking, most of the goshawks that I’ve seen don’t inhabit their so-called preferred habitat.
I remember many years ago that goshawks were considered threatened because their numbers were down. However, the researchers only looked where they expected to find goshawks, not where the goshawks actually were. Apparently, nobody asked the goshawks. Audubon is credited with saying; “If the bird and the book disagree, believe the bird”.
As I cut down my spruce and tamarack, I can sometimes hear the city folks crying in anguish. Trees save the planet. They sequester carbon. They provide oxygen. They grow habitat. I think, now there’s a mix of misinformation and poorly applied science. Urban myths abound. Not that trees aren’t important. They are. Then why do the media and various publics get the science wrong? Why not accurately focus on the many positive attributes of trees, rather than making-up garbles and garbage? I dunno. I just keep cutting trees.
As I move around the stand, I am surprised by an abundance of fresh hardwood seedlings, paper birch, red oak, red maple, beech. Where are the parent trees? And, how did they survive in the sphagnum moss? Most seem to be growing just fine despite the dry summer. But will they become saplings? I think not. My land has far too many deer. I think, now there’s a controversial subject.
Unable to sell my cut trees, I decided to buck the larger ones into seven-foot lengths and build a rail fence on the property line. My neighbor stopped-by one day to see what I was up to. He mentioned his buddy likes to hunt back there but is probably too old to negotiate a fence-hop. “Good to know”, I said. Instead of building a continuous fence, I left gaps for access. Heaven knows that I would not want to interfere with someone willing to shoot deer. And, good neighbors are treasures.
Lastly, but far from the last of my random thoughts, I needed to herbicide a band of regenerating buckthorn, a nasty exotic species. Once again, I hear the cries of horror from the cities. Pesticides! They’re destroying the planet. Well, maybe, but not my part of the planet. Here, the glyphosate works really well in knocking-back the dreaded buckthorn, giving my native trees and shrubs half a chance. If the seedlings can only get past the deer! The herbicide is a valued component in my forest management tool kit. I think to myself, I’m such a social radical.
Good forest management is a stand-by-stand affair that doesn’t precisely follow the “rules”, and shouldn’t.
Green hyperbole from the media, and even some conservation groups, might have some validity at one scale (maybe just because they sell subscriptions and ads?), but are quite often simply false where the rubber meets the road. Perception ain’t necessarily reality.
As I sit on my newly-built fence rail, sweating, I ponder some of these inconsistencies (insanities?) and the world of human foibles. Harumph. I’ll not figure them out. But, I can go back to work. What I do know is that my black spruce are sighing with relief. And that makes me feel good.
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Cut spruce and tamarack poles for a fence. Not the unthinned black spruce on the other side of the fence.
Thinned spruce is on the left, unthinned on the right.
TRAILER- This website was created by a consortium of forestry groups to help streamline information about forestry and coordinate forestry activities designed to benefit the family forest owner and various publics that make up our Michigan citizenry. This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Retired Michigan State Extension Forester/Biologist. Direct comments to email@example.com or 906-786-1575.