Chief of Operations writes:
Death of Innocence
I’ve owned a 120-acre woodlot for almost 50 years. This spring I will have sugared this hillside of Vermont for 44 years. Like anything else in the natural world, this woodland is by no means a static entity. Some of the changes have suited my needs and others haven’t. I love the way it has slowly evolved into a mature forest with large stately trees and open space between them, making hiking there so enjoyable.
There are forces in action which thwart this evolution, though I always considered my sugarbush immune to any of their longterm negative effects. It was logged just before I bought it, but as I’ve used it only for sugaring my climax trees have never been cut down. We’ve experienced problems with insects, notably the forest tent caterpillars which love maples, but their damage has been short-lived and rarely do they kill a tree. Thankfully, large-scale forest fires are rare in Vermont and have never been on my worry list.
High winds that could cause extensive damage to trees are also rare and were never a big concern for me until Halloween 2017. On that date a microburst storm leveled an acre surrounding our driveway. It took my neighbor and me, along with four young men and three chainsaws, three days of clearing to make our homes accessible. Fortunately most of the sugarbush damage from that storm was a demolished acre above our sap shed where many mainlines passed through. A state forester looking at the damage said it was a five-hundred-year storm. I naively believed in that assessment.
And then the day before Christmas Eve 2022 a bomb cyclone blew through, causing destruction to our driveway and sugarbush that I wouldn’t have dreamed possible. I have never been so discouraged as I inspected our property above the sugarhouse where I encountered devastation best described as brutal. Lower down in the softwood band countless centuries-old hemlocks and spruce trees were piled on top of each other, creating debris fields twelve feet high or more.
Higher up in the hardwoods, kingly maple and ash trees were blown over like dominoes. Crawling over massive tree trunks and zigzagging around heaps of intertwined branches and root balls that towered over my head, I felt like I was entering a bombed-out war zone with mangled carcasses lying all around.
I came to the prone remains of two trees Audrey had named Jan and Dave. They were a mixed marriage of hemlock and yellow birch and grew as close as two mature trees possibly could. They always appeared to be in an intimate hug, though they were obviously in a fierce competition for ground nutrients and sunshine. There they lay in a tortured embrace.
Nature, though so often lauded, can at times like this be savagely hostile. It proceeds on its own agenda with no regards for the needs of its inhabitants. It’s especially unsettling to think that human activity has played a major role in the increased frequency of severe weather. Until we humans can find a meaningful solution to what we are creating, we’re left to accept and adapt to whatever is dished out.
At my age I had to ask myself if it was worth trying to clean up such a colossal mess. This property is too steep to access easily, and I have never owned a tractor or any motorized vehicle that would make such a cleanup more manageable. I had been living in a dream world, and this disaster was the death of my innocence. I could have sold this ravaged piece of land, retired to a condo in Florida, and lived happily ever after. The problem was I knew all too well that a happy ending would never come to pass. Overcoming hardship is what defines fulfillment, and had I avoided this challenge I wouldn’t have felt fulfilled.
Cleanup took three weeks with help. The maple tubing lines have mostly been restored to a state of decency and the main access roads are cleared wide enough for at least foot traffic. The good news is that the Morningside section on the south side of the sugarbush and most of Maresan on the north side were relatively unscathed. The state land we tap on the western side received only spotty damage.
I am grateful the severe damage was limited to a minority of the overall acres, and amazingly out of ten thousand taps I lost less than a hundred. A few acres of my woodlot will never be the same in my lifetime, but I’ve slowly adjusted to the way it looks and can now handle its ‘new patina” without getting teary-eyed.
January 18, 2023