January 28, 2020

Utilizing the Land Means Respecting It First

Janine Pineo Photo

Janine Pineo Photo

• By John F. Chisholm •

Scott Engstrom of ABS Construction is building a road for us.  He does a great job, painstaking and gentle with powerful equipment. The idea behind it is access through the pine lot west of our house.

I’m of mixed mind about the entire project.  I stand on the new road and look around, remembering.

These woods have provided for us for years.  Of course there has been firewood, but there’s been lumber, safety, a buffer zone to the world and the resulting solace, too.  How can I value any of that above the other?  But reality is closing in.  We’re aging.  Our daughter is building a home on the far side of these woods.  In addition, we hope to tap the sugar maples scattered throughout for maple syrup.  Kim’s vision for this land is close to mine but still varies in detail.

Age, sugar and progeny are  dangerous inducements.  Whichever chooses you, access is the first requirement of utilization.

Utilization, in turn, is a harsh master.

It’s a matter of degree.  I cut a trail through these woods years ago.  It was rough going.  Between the stumps, boulders and soft soils, it was of questionable value.  The route was most useful in the winter with frozen ground and snow solidifying and leveling the working surface.

That was a narrow window.  Too much snow closed it.  Even the bulldozer thrashes in six foot drifts.

Melting snow, rain and saturated soils closed the trail in the spring unless you wanted to stay however far you reached before getting stuck.

Fallen trees and distraction elsewhere ― usually hay ― made it inaccessible and impassable in the summer.

In the fall, even over carpets of  yellow, orange and red leaves, it remained a rough, kidney-pounding ride.

Despite these truths, I’m uncomfortable with the new road.

That’s because untouched and untrampled these woods are inspiring. Soaring pines line the southern edge.  Maple, beech, ash and yellow birch trees populate the high ground.  Hemlock softens the boundaries between the conifers and the hardwoods.  New York, interrupted, and Christmas ferns carpet the shaded ground beneath.  Underlying it all, continental glaciation left bare, poorly-drained, rock-laden soils behind.  The trees and undergrowth, deer, coyotes, raccoons, foxes and mice along with thousands of other residents, living and dead, have softened the outlines since.  They’ve created a cathedral of life from just mud and water.

That’s an incredible achievement, demanding respect.

I look around in wonder, imploring leniency and understanding from not just the felled trees, removed for the road, but from the secret, tipped-but-still-living cedars lining the brook, the quiet star moss wishing nothing more than peaceful, dappled sunlight and from all the other residents, too.  I go further.  I beg forgiveness from the land, itself.

I promise, it will be shaded and quiet here again.  Trees will arch once more over the open breaches of woodland necessary for access.  Deer will graze, undisturbed.  We will be proper and responsible, interacting gently with every other non-human, indigenous resident here.  Respect and awe will be our guidelines.

I swallow past a lump in my throat.

Utilization might be a hard master but a promise is a promise.

I close my eyes and swear it.