Seeing the Forester and the Trees

Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers our readers the fourth in her series of essays on natural resource experts. In this thoughtful and sympathetic profile, she re-introduces Nature Change readers and viewers to District Forester, Kama Ross.

Kama Ross

Part way though July, on a humid, sunny day, Kama Ross, the Leelanau, Benzie, and Grand Traverse Conservation District Forester, came to visit my wooded Kasson Township acres.  We had met before, and I’d been impressed not only by her professional commitment and experience, but by her concern for the Earth, her good will, and her bright energy.  To become better acquainted and to get her perspective on the forest and the trees, I’d asked if she could come by for a walkabout.

Mine is not a working or even a workable forest, not even a woodlot. A patchwork of gracelessly aging conifer plantations, untended for many years, it’s sequestering carbon, holding the ground and hosting some wildlife, myself included.  The trees are mostly scroungy Scots pines, alien but beloved. Under story plants are vanishingly scarce. It’s a trail-less welter of looming trees, fallen timbers, and a few hardwoods lurking, biding their time for their moment in the sun.

Ross, pretty and neat, brisk and friendly, arrived with her big terrific smile. As we made our way over hill and dale, she noticed much and gave a running knowledgeable commentary on all the vegetation. My notes, taken on the move, were fragmentary, not verbatim.

Samplings:  Oak seedlings volunteering all over the place told her “somebody’s been planting acorns.”

A little white pine coming up in some deep beech shade stood a good chance of dodging the pine weevil, which flies in the open, and perhaps coming of age.

It became clear that Ross knew the character and habits of the different kinds of trees we met as familiarly and affectionately as one knows one’s community or a circle of family and friends. She was also remarkably tactful about the unkempt condition of my woodland. “Popple is beautiful,” she said as we passed an unruly aspen clone bordering a wall of blue spruce.

Leelanau County Forest Land

Ross and I share the feeling that trees are to love: beautiful, capable, hospitable and useful beings. Knowing that tree planting and forest preservation are two of the most obvious low-tech actions we can take to arrest and possibly reverse the biosphere-threatening buildup of CO2 , I have a real hesitation about cutting down any trees for any reason, so I’m a Druid tree-hugger crying “Woodman, spare that tree!” Ross with a deep-rooted faith in the possibilities and providence of trees, maintains a professional optimism about trees being a renewable resource. As she said, “A forester is someone who utilizes trees.” Although the red squirrels and jays might dispute it, in practical terms, mine are pretty useless, while Ross’ two northern hardwood farms in Otsego have satisfied her that trees are a wonderful long-term investment. Good foresters, like Ross, counsel landowners in approaches to timber harvest that don’t undermine their woodland’s resilience. This confident pragmatic engagement with a natural community isn’t preservation—still a necessary aim–but forest management as Ross espoused it, grew in my esteem.

Several years ago, unduly fearing wild fire, I overcame my reluctance to kill trees and managed to afford the artisanal removal of three score of big Scots pines immediately around my house.  In summer, I’m enveloped in a wall of green, the foliage of the young, liberated maple, beech and cherry trees lavish as they luxuriate in their newfound wealth of sunshine. A locust tree    that sprouted from some leaf litter I hauled in years ago for mulch towers over them. It’s showing expansionist tendencies.

Inspecting Beach Scale Disease

Considering that at this point of climate crisis it’s probably better to have an abundance of trees growing rather than being too purist over native hardwood species, several of which appear to be doomed anyway, I asked Ross what she thought about the locust which is a target of some particular invasive species removal efforts. Her mind leapt, practically, to the growing demand for locust posts in organic vineyards and gardens.  (It’s an incredibly durable wood. If you put a rock on top of a locust fence post, they say, the rock will wear away before the post.) Locust, being a legume, said Ross, really does improve the soil.  Furthermore, as climate ranges move north, more typically southern species like locust and catalpa may come to be members in good standing of our forest. “We’re going to start looking at non-natives in a whole other light,” she said.

Nature abhors uniformity and the human relationship with land precludes formulaic approaches. Energetic, not to say frantic, interventions to bar or eliminate invasive species, while satisfying the urge to do something in a state of emergency (which the sixth great extinctions crisis in Earth’s history surely qualifies as), may not be the most adaptive response. However, my 35 acres under a regime of what Aldo Leopold termed “therapeutic nihilism”—doing nothing—is not the picture of ecosystem health.

Logging Operation

Logging is seldom pretty yet it need not be devastating.  Nature abhors uniformity.  for millennia Extensive unbroken forest ecosystems evolved with natural fire and wind throw .  Nature opens the canopy, allowing the tree species that demand full sun to spring up, and mixing up the community’s age structure. Thus large patch clearing is integral to the dynamics of forest. Nowadays however landscape fragmentation, clearing, and roads leave our smaller tracts of woodland desperately vulnerable to disturbance, so the scale of the natural or man-made disturbance makes all the difference.

We traveled on through hip-high bracken fern covering a gentle hillside, looping north through a scant acre of hardwoods where the beeches are showing the white grizzle of scale infestation and the ironwoods are enduring. We trespassed in the open alleys of the neighbor’s red pine plantation ‘til we found our way to the fantastic old beech tree at the edge of my property. It’s a vast, twisty sprawling tree, now slowly succumbing to age and disease, losing limbs but still magnificent. There was green moss growing in the jack knife letters scribed by “Lauren” or her lover along a low-lying limb.

“Oh, wow!” Ross exclaimed as it came into view.  She guessed that it might be a century old, and speculated about the cause of its spreading growth habit. Perhaps it was a major path marker, or maybe cattle grazed out its competition. Whatever accounts for its form, it’s not purely natural.

Wind Throw

It was impossible for us not to talk about the unhappy prospects for the many northern hardwoods and conifers under mortal threat from insects and diseases.  “Nature’s going to figure out what’s going to be left,” said Ross.  “We’re going to be missing some things that we hold dear.”

Foresters necessarily take the long view.  They work with organisms that can live hundreds of years.  Not only can they see past the damage inflicted by wild weather or even the most skillful harvest to the regrowth and flourishing of the woods to come, they look beyond their own lifetimes. With curiosity and hope Ross said “I wish I could be around in a hundred years from now to see how the windstorm turns out.”

Given climate change, habitat fragmentation and conversion (for instance, subdivision and land-clearing for various purposes), along with the arrival of opportunistic plants, insects and microbes showing up to take advantage of these major disturbances, preservation of a particular ecosystem—say the Northern Hardwood forests as they’ve developed since the last Ice Age—is simply impossible. Yet meaningful actions remain to us, and good forestry, with its longer view and faith in the life of trees and the Tree of Life, will be fundamental to the Great Work.

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