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The hand of man.

When I was a young man, I wanted to fell tall trees with a single blow. When I was a bit older, I wanted to fell tall trees where I wanted them to fall. When I was older still, I wanted to fell the right tree in the right place and for the right reason. Now, I'm not sure I even want to fell tall trees at all.

When we first moved to the country and became stewards of five acres of virgin Ponderosa pine, I, like my pioneer forefathers, hurried about with saw and ax to clean up the place and make it livable. On the north side of the acreage, my sons and I took out the sick old trees, thinned the crowded stands, stacked and burned slash and downed wood until, when we'd finished and the spring grasses again glowed green among the black trunks, the land we'd worked looked like a city park. Very handsome indeed ... if a city park is what you're after.

But times change. Knowledge expands, science advances, and attitudes about forests and woodlots and what's good for them change. People change, too.

A few years after beginning our cleanup program, I was sitting on the deck with an iced tea admiring all the hard work we'd done and, in truth, dreading all the hard work still ahead of us. Suddenly, I felt my attitude change. Snap. Just like that. One attitude zipped out, and a new attitude zipped in.

"Where," I wondered aloud, "did the quail go? Why don't we see more deer? And how come the place was loaded with golden-mantled squirrels when we were building the house, but now there are hardly any left?"

Then it hit me. Man's hand (actually a man and three mostly unwilling boys) had changed the forest in front of me. From a confusion of unruly Ponderosas in every stage of life and death and deep decay, the woods we'd tidied up were now very different from the original. Where the lot had once been a tangle of windfalls and old snags and porcupine-topped imperfect pines, now the place was neat as a tree farm. Picture perfect. If five undeveloped acres can be a natural forest, this one had, before we came, at least been itself.

In keeping with the nature of our species to subdue, tame, control, and manipulate all that is wild, we had, my sons and I, manhandled half the woodlot. Putting down my drink, I stood and surveyed the work we'd done (man's work) and the work still to be done (fixing up God's work). Reflecting on the contrast, I wasn't sure which section of the woods I enjoyed most. One tame, ordered, neat, and predictable; the other wild, uneven, disorderly, and unpredictable. It suddenly dawned on me that if I were a deer--or a rabbit or a squirrel or a tree frog--I'd find more housing in God's neighborhood than in man's. And if I were a great horned owl hunting breakfast, the choice of restaurants would be obvious.

Sitting down again, and with my new attitude locked into place, I sipped my tea and made a different decision about the remaining two acres. Like the Beatles' song advises, I would ... let it be.

Well ... almost let it be. We humans, like it or not, are a part of the forests, however large or small those forests may be. And I am part of this little one in which my house sits. But, for the first time, I asked myself: Is this my forest? Or is this a forest? The answer, as regards this little stand of pines, is anything but inconsequential.

Consider the philosopher's remark that "there is a very thin line between what's me and mine." If these woods are mine, then they are mine to do with as I wish. I can log them, trim them into marvels of topiary, clearcut them, or even burn them down. But if they are a forest, they are not so much mine as I am a part of them. Attitude is all, and my attitude toward these few hundred trees makes all the difference in how I will be with them, how I will treat them, and how they will treat me and the creatures with whom I share this little corner of this little blue planet.

But now things get sticky. Sitting down again and taking another sip from my tea, I studied the as yet untouched timber to the south. As there have been no natural fires through these woods for decades, fuel lies deep on the forest floor. Too deep. We've had our share of wildfires hereabouts, and seven years of drought, so only a fool would leave it up to Nature's Cleaning Service to dust the place. Mama Nature, when she gets up a head of smoke and fire, just naturally cleans up everything: downed wood, old wood, new growth, houses, outbuildings, the works.

What to do?

Short of moving out of the woods altogether, it seems to me that man has to work on his attitude and learn to take a lighter hand with his forests. In my case, for example, it seems right and just to pick up and burn the excess fuel to keep me and mine safe from the lady with the torch. And it seems natural enough to pick up downed limbs and fell a dying tree to saw for campfire wood.

But should I tamper with the old log rotting along the hillside that once sported woodpecker holes and now reaches up with its bleached-white branches to offer bench space to perching birds? I don't think so. The old log--home to salamanders and voles and a nest of cottontail rabbits--feeds the soil and the cycle of life from which we draw our very breath. No, the old log should rest in peace.

As the sun began to set that day on the deck, I wished the impossible wish: to be wise. Or at least to be smart enough to know which trees should stay and which should go. Because, you see, I have three young sons who need wise counsel and who, as near as I can tell, all want to fell tall trees with a single blow.
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Title Annotation:man's effect on forests
Author:Quinnett, Paul
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Ecosystem management: a leap ahead.
Next Article:Lending a hand in Dade.

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