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Mark of the trespasser.

There's a man in my country neighborhood who has perfected the economics of desolation. First he buys a hilly tract of wooded ground, which in that poor region of the northern Ozarks can be had for little enough in the best of years. Then he has the loggers come. They take the oak, hickory, ash, and cottonwood to saw for pallet lumber. After the loggers, it's the cordwood cutters' turn.

That's rough country, and in some ways still lawless. But he's tough too. And watchful. The woodcutters cord up what they've cut. He counts the cords in place and is paid before the loading. Not one stick passes off the property except under his eye.

When the firewood cutters have finished, the land is all but barren. And, if he bought it right, all but paid for. A few passes across it with a 'dozer, and the stumps, brush, and other flindered debris are shoved up in windrows. For a fortnight or so in spring, a plume of smoke spreads across the sky from that direction. In August, driving his pickup truck with a tailgate planter behind a heavy disk, he sows the hills to rescue.

He has changed the landscape forever, and it has taken not quite a year. By the next spring, if moisture comes and the stand of grass is good, he can turn the cattle in and go prospecting for another stretch of woods, the next addition to his growing empire. People of the neighborhood count him hugely successful. But he's a kind of man I believed-in fact, was absolutely sure--I'd never be.

Then my daughters, born only a year apart, came of age and left home to have their minds perfected. Suddenly I found that my correspondence was mainly with college bursars and various lending agencies. I decided we'd have to drive our old cars another couple of years, or maybe another 10. I lay awake nights, listening to the paint slide off the house.

And I began to inventory assets. Ten years earlier, during a transient spasm of prosperity, I'd bought a farm-680 acres, about 150 of those cleared to fields, the rest a glorious mix of forest and wild meadows. I fancied I could make it pay, without damaging the best of the land's values, or my own. I tried-- really tried. I fenced around the place, then fenced the fields to contain cattle. Finally, I farmed the few patches of level lowland where the soil wouldn't wash away in the first rain.

Cows rode the fences over, strayed into the woods, and foundered on acorns. Drought burned the crops to dust. Men I hired betrayed me by their feckiessness or malice. And in the end, of course, I failed. Meantime, the economy slid away into recession, and the market for country land collapsed, meaning I couldn't even pass my failure along to someone else. And then the college nightmare was upon me.

Need corrupts as surely as does greed. I decided to hold a timber sale--not clearcut the farm, you understand, just harvest sawlogs selectively from the inner 160 acres of the place. The oldest, finest oaks on the steepest ground would not be touched.

The district forester came, and we walked the area together. He marked the trees for market, calculated the volume of the sale at 170,000 board-feet, and advertised for bids. The offers varied wildly, from the low bid of $4,000 by a religious sect to the successful one of just over four times that amount by a local sawmiller about whom I'd heard good reports.

He was an honorable man who paid what he'd promised, then went about his work with about as much regard for aesthetics as such an operation permits. He waited until the winter ground froze hard, so as to avoid churning and rutting the land. His crew felled the marked trees with minimal damage to the standing ones nearby, Except for an occasional plastic grease bucket or empty oil can, they left hardly any trash behind. I had no cause for complaint.

But afterward, my woods was astonishingly changed.

Where before I'd walked in unbroken shade, on earth spongy with the layered duff of 50 or 100 autumns' leaf falls, I had to clamber over or make my way around a maze of tops. A good many den trees, their hollowness undetected while they stood, lay where the saws had dropped them. But they weren't my trees; another man had bought them, and they were his to take or leave.

Like that neighbor I spoke of at the start, I planned on having firewood cutters do the rest. They would pay me to clean away the mess. The logging roads would grow up in sprouts and forage for the deer. The brush piles would make cover for smaller wildlife. In a season or two, all reason for regret would disappear. It would be as if the thing had never happened.

The woodcutters did come. But I wasn't there to watch them. A man's authority, as a country friend once put it, reaches only as far as his shadow, and my shadow just then was falling in another place. The cordwood men took the easy tops first, the ones nearest the woods' edge, and only the better parts of those. They cut all that next fall and winter, and I don't know how much firewood they actually trucked out. I only know what they paid me for: $50, or 10 cords, in one whole month--the best month; $15 the next.

By that time the handy stuff had mostly all been gotten, and spring was coming on--tick season, when Ozark men won't do work of any kind in the woods. The cutters returned briefly the next fall. But after two years, they said, the wood was losing its bark and starting to go punky. So they pulled out and left the rest to rot.

In looking back at this experience, two things amaze me.

The first is the astonishing power of Nature to heal itself. Four years after the start of the logging, the slow burn of time has begun to consume the wreckage. Branches snap, and the abandoned tops noticeably subside. Vines creep over them. Deer have found the ways of easiest passage, making trails a man can follow again without too many dead ends and detours. In summer, especially, when the forest is in full leaf, you have to have known the land before to notice what was done to it.

Even so, my second amazement is how anyone could have imagined such a thing would not have consequences-- and by that I mean consequences for oneself.

In spite of the grief it has caused me, I have loved that farm. Every fold of the land I know, every seep and spring, every hillside where the berry thickets fruit and mushrooms can be found. I used to sit on the foundation stones of the three vanished settler cabins on the place, considering the headlong rush of years and the mystery of how whole lifetimes can leave so little mark.

I don't do that anymore, because I would be apt to think of the single mark I've left. And that makes me somehow uneasy.

I know, and at some level can accept, the argument that trees must fall. "If you don't take them," the forester had said, "time will." And of course it's true. I have seen a good many in my woods, often the most splendid, broken by wind and split by lightning strikes. But Nature's predations are random and, well, natural. Mine was deliberate, and done for gain. And whether my misgivings are reasonable or not, I find myself avoiding--or at least going less often--to the area where the harvesting was done. A stranger might call that tract lovely still, but I miss the loft the crowns of the largest trees gave it. I see it as it was.

When I walked alone into the wreckage four years ago, after the loggers had gone, something changed. The place seemed less mine than it had been, and I felt myself different only in degree from that man who turns woodlands into cow pastures. I had the curious sensation of having forfeited my entitlement as owner and become instead just another dangerous trespasser on the place.

The bills, naturally, keep coming. And our daughters now speak of graduate school. The greater part of the farm still is forested with stands of oak untouched by saw or ax for a century at least. Enough timber for three sales like the first one, maybe four.

But the next man will have to take responsibility for that. Some things a trespasser hasn't the right to do.
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Title Annotation:psychological consequences of forest destruction
Author:Gusewelle, C.W.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:The Columbus white oak.
Next Article:The public forests of tomorrow.

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