Sunday, February 20, 2011

Being Steward of the Wood

A view of my land from Google Earth. Viewed at 1760 feet altitude. Judging by my tree color I'd say this is early spring. The bermuda grass is just starting to turn green. This is a little over ten acres. Up is straight North. This is a couple of years old as we have planted more trees in the last two years that are not visible here.

Obviously, to anyone familiar with this blog, I am a pupil and lover of nature. Earth’s diverse environment (I find the Gaia concept useful) is great because of its diversity. Still, you never know how things are going to play out. There could be draught, or flood, or tornado. The world might heat up and make it too warm for certain trees and shrubs and other plants, for insects and birds, changing a holistic habitat.

Last spring we had no bees of any kind on our farm. Little things get amplified when they are connected to the land as a sense of “place” similarly to that found in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This coming spring I’m hopeful insect life will return to normal and will find honeybees in our prolific honeysuckle patch.

But, insects are diverse as well. And it is difficult to control their thriving nature. To do so is a kind of gardening in three dimensional space. Insects are weeds to the arborist. To garden a forest you must nurture it by weeding out diseased and troubled trees and branches. You don’t passively witness mistletoe. You attack it with selective branch trimming high the red oaks and the twin water oaks down by the mailbox.

Trimmed southern red oak.

I own 10 acres of land. When I bought this land in 1993 there were numerous short oaks, average pines, a half dozen large southern red oaks, and a plethora of dogwoods scattered all about. The trees were thicker and more numerous then. Overblown bushes really. 18 years pass. The trees are thinner and much taller now. Many healthy young oaks and maples, some fine tall pines, but most of the dogwoods are dead now. The woods change.

And I watch this change and I plant more trees and allow other trees to volunteer in places where, for whatever reason, we once piled dump trucks full of mulch. The average pines grow massive and tall. The oaks fan out to claim their part of the sky. The dogwoods disappear. I walk and read in these woods. I have beers with Jennifer and talk in the canopy of these woods. I feel part of that, that expanse of time on the 10 acres of land.

Most of my property is now a wood. It would be too arrogant to call about 7 acres of land a forest. It is a small preserve of trees. A “wood” (“two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”) seems more appropriate to me. Jennifer and I own these trees and care for them by cutting back pervasive wisteria and trimming and burning numerous piles of small trees and privet, mostly many years ago before my back went out.

I am a steward of this wood. One extravagance in the way Jennifer and I choose to live our lives is we allow ourselves to employ the services of a true tree surgeon. It saves my back a lot of problem and keeps the woods maintained as well. We’re lucky he is a native born to this county, like me but more redneck. Intelligent though, at least about what’s happening with our trees. Jennifer and I scout for signs of trouble and then call him in for an interpretation, and usually several hundred dollars worth of work. Good family, decent, honest and hard working for a fair price. Basically, a father and sons type operation.

Growing up as a remote teen (except for church, school and girlfriends) I was walking isolated fields that are now quarter-acre lots of houses; open fields with briars and tall sage in the fall. My dogs would walk with me. My dogs that didn’t live long for various reasons but they are all great field companions. But, I have always felt the need to be near the woods and listen to what they can teach me.

Through the years we have had all sorts of trees require either cutting or trimming, often hauled off our property because of the pine beetle infestation or some fungus in the oaks. Our tree surgeon has been cutting trees on our property for about a dozen years or so now. He takes the diseased trees and massive, decaying branches away and we try to protect the remaining ones as best we can.

One of the basic faults I personally find with mainstream Christianity is the idea that God gave Man “dominion” over the things of the Earth. Genesis 1:28-31, like every other word of the Bible, is interpreted many ways. In some versions God instructs that Man “conquer” the Earth, in others it is more mildly put as “subdue it”. But, the next verse tells Man to “rule” the fishes and birds and animals of the land. No matter how you slice it, whatever the original words are here (I admit I don’t know what the root Hebrew words are) they must be seen as enslaving the Earth. (Curiously enough, the Koran states that Allah “hath appointed the earth as a resting-place for you”, Surah II, 22.)

If this was an entrusting quality on the part of God toward humanity, if God meant to tell Man to take good care of the Earth and protect it, then it is not mentioned in the Bible. The Bible is about a humanity that dominates its environment. This is not stewardship and, unfortunately, my Christian friends who would acknowledge stewardship don’t realize there is no Biblical precedent for stewardship of Creation. Man is given a specifically dominant role in Genesis. This is clear.

I think Genesis is wrong on this point. A God giving Man dominion over the Earth is an insane god, not understanding His own creation at all. Man will destroy the Earth without intending to do so. I proclaim stewardship to be superior to “subduing” the Earth. Stewardship gives precedence to the Earth before Man, clearly not the way Genesis has it. Stewardship implies a respect for the land and for nature that domination simply doesn’t ever consider.

I tend a 7 acre wood. That is my cosmic contribution in terms of the environment. Whether this is a worthy endeavor, or even the highest, I do not know. It comes naturally for Jennifer and me. It is who we are. The trees deserve our respect and we often walk among them talking of individual trees. We don’t name our trees. Much. We do call the two water oaks by the mailbox the “Twin Oaks”. A relationship of specific trees in specific space through decades of specific time.

Even though we have no ponds on our property I observe the nearby ones. All around our land the pasture ponds are rising, filling up. They are not at capacity yet but I’d say they are at least 80% full. This has all happened here over the past week. They were still noticeably low until recently. The funny thing is we haven’t had rain here in that time. In fact, we have had unseasonably mild, low humidity days with lots of sunshine. It was 70 degrees here yesterday. In February. It rained almost two-weeks ago and we had a one-inch snow the week before that with some drizzly rain in it. Otherwise it has been dry here.

But, when we got our last lite rain here it meanwhile rained very heavily about 30 miles south of our land. Over the course of the last two weeks the excess water from that heavy rain has flowed through the many underground rivers of Earth and is raising our water table. The ponds rise like boats in a harbor with the tide. Thanks to the heavy rain 30 miles away, two weeks later we are enjoying a deep rise of ground moisture. Nourishing all roots. Connecting vast stretches of land in ways few people ever consider.

We all should be reminded of that lost connection, or at least that subdued connection. They’ve found strangely fused debris from last year’s Gulf Oil Spill off the Georgia coast. Fragments of the spill are in the Atlantic now (see the Georgia Outdoors episode "Dark Waters Ahead" for what has been found). Things are so connected over such great distances. It is like the stars. Their very existence makes our place in the universe so small. Even the great workings of Gaia show humanity who’s still in charge, despite the impact of our pollution.

If I compare our human needs and desires with that of the holistic Earth, the complex web of endless systems of life and Being, I cannot place myself above it. To do so is human arrogance. Perhaps this is our natural tendency, perhaps a God-given right. But, I choose to oppose such a tendency in us. I and my kind are but a tiny part of Gaia. If we upset the imbalance out of Gaia’s favor we give ourselves too much weight in the natural scheme of things. That is why I fundamentally think humanity must never elevate Man over Earth and, further, Man must take good care of Earth, know Earth’s ways, and Be with that special knowledge as Man’s guide.

My great-grandmother's flowers on the bank of our land.

My great- grandmother decorated the rock wall surrounding her house with hundreds of daffodils which used to stand across the road from us when we first built our house. Her house had been semi-abandoned for years. A place of storage mostly. I once stored most everything I owned there. But the daffodils died through the years, more so in the last decade or so.

Across the road from her house, in the ditch of the road, was where she would burn her trash. That’s the way we did it when I was a kid. All kinds of things got thrown into the burn pile, weeds and old plants among them. Through the years my grandmother’s daffodils migrated into a small spot on the bank of what is now our property under where the Twin Oaks stand. Each February they are the first sight of spring and they were beginning to bloom yesterday.

Today I sat on the bench in the wood in the afternoon. It was overcast and breezy but warm. Jennifer and I watched dozens, maybe hundreds, of geese flying directly over our woods, over my bench on two different levels, which is a rare sight. One level was maybe 500 feet up. The other maybe half that. The two groupings circled, one underneath the other, and croaked out to one another not in unison but certainly choir-like. It was a highlight to behold, a special moment of Now.

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. The surface of mystery is not smooth, any more than the planet is smooth; not even a single hydrogen atom is smooth, let alone a pine. Nor does it fit together; not even the chlorophyll and hemoglobin molecules are a perfect match, for, even after the atom of iron replaces the magnesium, long streamers of desperate atoms trail disjointedly from the rims of the molecules’ loops. Freedom cuts both ways. Mystery itself is as fringed and intricate as the shape of the air in time. Forays into mystery cut bays and fiords, but the forested mainland itself is implacable both in its bulk and in its most filigreed fringe of detail.”
Annie Dillard

Jennifer's crocuses started blooming. Photos of them by my daughter.

Just for fun. My land compared to Turner Field, same altitude on Google Earth...same orientation, same scale.

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