On the Blue Hill Peninsula, Katie McKy tends a woodlot until it bursts with life.
I started with a chainsaw class, bought my first chainsaw, helmet and Kevlar chaps, and then emailed my local Maine forester. He came the next day and we walked my 4-acre woods.
“Be a wolf,” he told me. “A lumberjack takes the best and healthiest trees. You take the weak ones.”
Together we taped trees that had lost the sunlight lottery, as indicated by their piddling leaves, as well as the obvious losers in the long-life lottery, the ones with mortal rot and split trunks.
But the forester confirmed what I’d suspected, that overall, I’d won the tree lottery, with hale spruces and pines up to 9 feet in circumference. He estimated them to be between 100 and 150 years old. These cathedral trees are holy, never to be touched by my chainsaw.
I shared my plan to ease my little ecosystem into a changing climate by diversifying it with native Maine trees that have long preferred the southern third of Maine, like sweet birch. That has a wood that takes a high shine, ideal for fine furniture, and is equally treasured by wood burners for its high heat. The forester liked my plan, my giving the morsel of forest on my watch a head start on the ever-changing normal.
I was self-conscious when I started dropping trees, because I wasn’t cutting them to heat my home. Instead, I sectioned them into logs that would fit into someone else’s wood stove and stacked them by the road, where they lasted a couple hours or days before someone squirreled them away. I was afraid that someone who was born in their Maine home might stop and wonder why someone from away was frittering their days with make-work. Sure enough, an old man stopped. For half an hour, he watched me cut and lug. Finally, I approached him with a tentative smile, afraid he might mock me.
He said, “You know, Mainers used to do this; Keep the woods neat. Shame they don’t anymore. Good to see ya doin’ it.”
“As I struggled with roots and rocks, I told myself, ‘Maine grows better when old women plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.’”
I was surprised that I was standing both knee deep in stacked logs and tradition; my Maine was in keeping with old Maine. At the same time, my planting scarlet oaks, American hornbeams, black Tupelos, sassafras and shagbark hickories—all southern Maine natives—was keeping pace with the changing Maine.
Keeping pace isn’t easy. I plant with three tools, a shovel, a lopper for tree roots, and a pry bar for rocks. I comfort myself with what an ancient, unnamed Greek once wrote, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” As I struggled with roots and rocks, I told myself, “Maine grows better when old women plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.”
But I wasn’t entirely right; I wasn’t just foresting for future folks. With the middling trees felled and carried away, sunlight now dapples the forest floor and sunlight invites life. The ferns rose like a spring tide, the few on the periphery of my woods launching their spores onto the now sunny forest floor. A scant three years later, tracts of ferns wave in the wind. Moss started creeping inward, too, helped along by my finding various mosses on walks and laying it on rocks, wood and dirt.
Then the animals came. There were always red squirrels, even when my woods was a scrum of trees choking off light, but now I see them with nearly every glance. Their burrows abound and their stacks of shucked seeds top every stump. Gray squirrels have joined them. There are deer and turkeys, too, both enjoying the winterberry branches. A wild turkey can eat 200 ticks a day, which might explain why neither I nor my dog host ticks anymore. I haven’t seen any bears, but I’ve seen their blueberry-stained scat, as blueberries now grow beside my ferns and moss. Raspberries, too.
This year, I saw two coyotes loping along, their bushy tails bouncing behind them. The forester told me that one can measure the health of a forest by the diversity of its wildlife. Fauna are the thermometer and blood pressure cuff for flora; my woods have earned a good bill of health.
I imagine one reason these creatures have come is because I’ve eased their way. It’s easy to walk between the trees now, easier for them and me, too. I see the same in Ontario, where I use logging roads to access lonely, lovely lakes. Those muddy trails are always freckled with scat and tracks, because it’s easier to trot down a road than burrow through the bush.
Birds now abound as well, from goshawks to woodpeckers to owls and eagles. I didn’t expect the rapidity of these feathered and furry arrivals, but I expect they’ll continue to make my woods a stopping off point, as I’ve planted trees and bushes just for them, the serviceberries, mold-proof chestnuts, Chinkapin oaks and black cherry trees.
The work is done, so my new job is to sit on my porch and witness. I won’t live long enough to tap the 17 sugar maples I’ve planted. There’ll be no liquid gold for me, but I still get to see their leafy gold each October.
I’m not the only one watching. One day, a landscape architect pedaled down my driveway to say, “I’ve biked past your woods many times and have always marveled at how perfect it happened to be. Then, just today, I finally remembered that nature is imperfect. This is you, isn’t it?”
I nodded, secretly thrilled that I’d fooled his expert eye into thinking that my mote of Maine just happened to burst with light and life.
Author and educator Katie McKy lives in Brooklin.