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My 50 years in a woodlot.

Like the rings of a tree, Henry S. Kernan adds successive layers to our understanding of and appreciation for a well-managed woodlot. This is the third time he has shared with the readers of The New York State Conservationist his love affair with his land. "Thirty Years in a Woodlot" appeared in our December 1977 edition. In October 1987, it was "My 40 Years in a Woodlot." We look forward to his report on his sixth decade.

Between the seasons of green and white, between the fall of leaves and the fall of snow, the forests of northern Delaware County are not at their visual best, and they were much less so on a bleak November day when I first saw them on Quaker Hill in the town of Harpersfield. The valley fields were bare of corn and cattle; the last Canada goose had long since passed by, honking overhead; chickadees and blue jays had replaced the robins and the redwings on the wintry, gray-brown landscape.

Six years of war and post-war years of turmoil and travel had made me long for a way out to a slower pace and wider bounds of forest and field; far out, well beyond the suburban fringe encroaching upon the woods where my brothers and I had climbed and camped.

I found that day some woodlands much to my liking. Among the stands of hardwoods (maples, cherry, oak, ash and beech) was a scattering of conifers (pine, spruce, fir and even diminutive juniper and yew). A group of huge old hemlock somehow had escaped felling and peeling for the tannin in the bark. A remnant of the Wisconsin glacier was a 12-acre sphagnum lake, a "vly" in local parlance. The outlet was tumbling through a rocky ravine, down 600 feet to the valley below.

Quaker Hill overlooks an upper branch of the Susquehanna River, where, in the quaint words of a 1751 document, "the Germans of the Scohare once built canoes to go to Canestogey." Nearby were the house of an Indian, Shenowasey, and the "crik," Adagaghteingay. Shenowasey and his house are gone long since; and the "crik" has become the Charlotte River, named for George III's queen. Nearby the Scohare Germans might also have seen a red oak seedling which has since become the largest tree in my forest, 12.5 feet in girth.

The then New York State Conservation Department helped me with a management plan and and type map that described the current land cover and its potential uses. With them I set out to explore my 1,176 acres of forest and field, all of them formerly farmland. Over them the wave of settlers had come and gone. Remnants of those old horse-drawn, ax-wielding, lantern-lighted farm days were the cellar-holes, barn-ramps, abandoned lanes and stone walls enclosing fields where lately the harness had jingled and the scythe had swished. The type map showed some 300 acres of such former pasture and cropland still open for planting and nearly twice as much heavily cut-over woodlot.

Before I had planted more than a quarter of the open land, wind and wildlife had seeded in new forests on the rest. Many of their species still adorn the landscape with their flowers and leaves, and feed wildlife with their berries and buds. Among them are shadberry, hawthorn, pin cherry and aspen. Of less adornment and use are the multiple stems of red maple and white pines stunted and deformed by weevils.

The long-term spontaneous trend of such forest leads towards a climax of sugar maple, beech and hemlock. During the process of change, the owner can, to some extent, fit the composition and spacing of the new stands to his preferences and even whims. Among them may be maples for sugar, aspen for woodcock, hornbeam for grouse, oak for turkeys, old snags for woodpeckers, timber trees of high quality, or perhaps the beauty and interest of growth and change without intervention of any kind. The variety of our northeastern forests makes such choices possible even on woodlands far less extensive than mine. As long as the manager does not exceed the bounds of ecological resilience, the combinations and choices possible are numerous, and they tend to compensate each other. Piles of brush are safe havens for rabbits but hindrances to hungry hawks.

By the late 1920s, most of the salable timber had been removed from the 579 acres indicated on the type map as saw timber. The result was the dominance of low-grade trees. I have removed such trees insofar as markets and my needs for firewood allow and have worked extensively in the understory to replace them with a better timber crop. The selective favoring can extend to species of no timber value; shadberry and dogwood, for example, over striped maple and beech suckers. More wood than ever before is growing upon trees that increase in volume and quality each year, while more warmth and light are reaching the forest floor to hasten the recycling of nutrients. Those stands where I have worked the longest and hardest give me the greatest sense of pride of ownership and accomplishment. Some day they will be sold and cut. Some day bowlers will be bowling on my maple, and hitters will be hitting home runs with my white ash.

About 800 acres are timberland growing at least 20 cubic feet of wood per acre per year. The rest are open water, hilltops, ravines, steep slopes, swamps and areas of beech sprouts and alder. I also choose to remove from harvest roadsides, streamsides, den trees, peckerwood trees, trees rare on my property (such as the dozen white oaks and the single hickory) and those which because of size, beauty, or sentiment are out of the harvest schedule.

Such preferences for caution and restraint are quite obviously not a formula for profit. Tax bills are three times the revenue derived from the woodlot. Perhaps I should sell off half the standing volume of timber and invest in Amalgamated Horsefeathers.

Nevertheless, such questions have become of less concern to me as rewards other than profit have multiplied. They began with my first visit and have continued over time as knowledge, associations and memories build up. The rewards of ownership are greatest where links of use with the woodlot are strongest. Firewood is an example, but my list has grown to 90. Included are edible plants; 14 edible meats and fish; and six species of trees and shrubs. They also include such experimental oddities as acorn flour, wild ginger root and maple burls, and such routine harvests as maple syrup, blueberries and wild apples.

The most numerous products of my forest are the 26,400 white spruce seedlings I have given to neighbors far and near. Neighbors also hunt, fish and trap on my land with permission. The results have been plenty of venison and friendship rather than hostility. I have no livestock to shoot, gates to leave open or threatened plants to steal. Whitetails are beautiful animals, and beaver are models of hard work and family values. Nevertheless, they destroy trees and my woodlands could well do with fewer.

Half a century of close associations with woodlots has given me much knowledge of their management. They have enabled me to participate in the Coverts Program of Cornell Extension and the Ruffed Grouse Society, thereby sharing my knowledge with others, and to conduct 26 woods walks through my woodlands.

I have no reason to regret my visit to Harpersfield on that blustery November day. Rewards have been plentiful, and have fulfilled the hope of Virgil, my favorite poet:

Nobis placeant ante omnia silvae

Before all else may our joy be in the forest.

Henry S. Kernan of South Worecester, Otsego County, has specialized in international since his graduation from the Yale School of Forestry in 1941.
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Author:Kernan, Henry S.
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Words:1306
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