Murder in the Forest

January 7, 2013 § 11 Comments

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As winter weekends go, this past one was about as quintessential as they come. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the snow rarely stopped falling. It didn’t accumulate much; these were the fat, lazy flakes of an unserious weather front, falling and floating so ponderously that one could only assume they didn’t really want to hit the ground. And really, who can blame them?

The weather was perfect for lots of things, and one of those was killing trees. After a few weeks of semi-hibernation and restorative activities including, but not limited to, skiing, sledding, and socializing, I was feeling the call of productive labor, with the freshly cleared barn site and idle sawmill standing as reminders that, in fact, barns don’t just happen. Trees don’t just throw themselves to the ground, tear their limbs from their trunks and drop them in a neat pile, drag themselves out of the woods, and heave themselves onto the rails of the mill to be shorn and sheared and ripped into lumber. And again, really, who can blame them?

So I fueled up the tractor and the saw and puttered down to a copse of balsam fir I’ve had my eye on. There are some fine specimens down there, some nearing two-feet at the base and 100 or more feet tall, straight and proud with minimal taper. Most of last summer, I milled sub-premium sawlogs, trying to utilize whatever materials were on hand, the byproducts of our pasture clearing efforts and the occasional blow-down salvage operation. I didn’t really mind; indeed, there’s a particular satisfaction to be gleaned by polishing a turd until it shines, but still and all, I was plenty eager to skid some real sawlogs.

It is amazing, really, the degree of havoc one man with one chainsaw can wreak in a few short hours. By the time I’d cooked a couple tanks of gas, and stopped to sharpen my chain and change into the pair of dry gloves I’d tucked into a jacket pocket, the landscape was transformed. It was shocking, really, and despite how much I love this work – the smell of fresh cut wood and saw exhaust, the physicality of rolling logs with the peavey and pulling winch cable, the ever-present danger and with it, the absolute necessity of staying unwaveringly in each and every moment – I felt a small sadness creeping in.

For a while, I just stood there, surveying the destruction and trying to justify it. I reminded myself that the trees I’d dropped all suffered, in varying degrees, from the heart rot that afflicts the majority of mature balsam firs in the region. I told myself that I was doing the right thing for our wood lot, the very thing our forester friend had recommended. I tried to convince myself that harvesting our own trees and milling our own lumber was the honorable thing to do, that purchasing lumber at the local mill is, in a sense, the same as purchasing neat, shrink-wrapped packages of meat at the grocery store. It externalizes all the difficult aspects inherent to the process.

There is a Native American proverb that says All plants are our brothers and sisters. They talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them. I do not doubt for even a second that this is true, and as I stood there in the midst of all those fallen giants, the saw ticking cool atop the fragrant, fresh-cut stump where I’d set it, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s really any difference between taking the life of a plant and that of an animal. Is it possible that we only believe there is a difference because our beliefs are founded in the self-important frailty of our anthropocentric view, which can’t help but empathize with beings that most closely resemble ourselves? Just because a tree does not have a recognizable heart, lungs, and legs, does that mean it doesn’t have a soul?

This is the uncomfortable, deceptively simple truth as I see it: Other living beings must die so that we might live, and this is true whether those beings are pigs we have raised from birth, or the countless creatures and even entire species that fall victim to the industrialized economy upon which we all have come to depend, or the pests that must perish for our vegetable gardens to prosper, or the trees that are brought to the ground so that we can shelter our families. The fact that we might think differently, that we might somehow believe that our continued existence is not dependent on death, is the direct result of a commodified economy that conveniently shields us from this reality.

We can live with this truth by attempting to deny it, remaining blissful in the ignorance of our contemporized misunderstanding that life and death are finite conditions, somehow separable from one another. Or we can live with this truth by acknowledging and perhaps even embracing it. Of course, this is no excuse for wanton killing, or the mistreatment of the living creatures in our care. But the tragic irony is that the more we attempt to segregate ourselves from this reality, the more likely it is that these creatures – be they sentient animals or towering evergreens – will be treated with the contempt and unkindness driven by profit motives and hidden behind the opacity of the globalized economy.

By late Sunday afternoon, I’d accumulated a nice stack of sawlogs. As I steered the tractor out of the woods, fat snowflakes still drifting reluctantly toward the earth, I looked back. I no longer felt sad, perhaps in part because I was simply too damn wet and tired. But I think it was also because I knew that whatever killing I’d done had been acknowledged and carried out in gratitude for gift of the lumber and for the simple luxury of the labor, itself a satisfaction deeper than I can rightly explain.

I knew something else, too, because I’ve seen it time and again: In only a few months, when the snow has melted and the sun is bathing the forest floor from its perch high in the May sky, fragile seedlings, the offspring of the trees I’d taken, will emerge from the ground. Many will die, but some will not, and in time – perhaps not in my life, but certainly in my children’s – they will grow to heights that can hardly be imagined.

§ 11 Responses to Murder in the Forest

  • Susan says:

    Hi Ben,

    I have been following your blog (and books) for awhile and am continually inspired by your writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, insights, and experiences with the world…I know they have helped shape some of my own in the past year or so. I also wanted to say that this post is incredibly timely because my family and I were just discussing the possibility of harvesting timber from our own land to build a small barn come spring (lucky for us our neighbor has a portable sawmill)…we are adding a family cow to our homestead and are so excited. But, like you, I was torn by the prospect of felling trees in the forest. So thanks for wrestling with it and writing about it here–it has helped me clarify my own thoughts on the issue! Also, if you have any advice re: building livestock shelter, I am all ears…we really aren’t sure exactly what to build for our new cow!!


    Susan, a happy reader from Williston, VT

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. Advice for building livestock shelter… I’ll say two brief things.

      1. Most animals don’t need as much shelter as folks tend to think they do. All of our livestock buildings are simple and thrifty. Foundations are either field stone or cedar poles. Roofing is recycled tin.

      2. The best, small piece of advice I can give regarding building a shelter that will be milked in is this: Make sure wherever you will be milking has good eastern exposure to catch the morning sun!

  • Vonnie says:

    Indeed, Ben, life is precious in all forms. I am always saddened when the garden gets put to bed for the winter in much the same way. I enjoyed the fruits of the labor of preparing and planting the garden and the fruits of the plants themselves. However, I understand that the plants are destined for death when I plant those same seeds. Circle of life, I suppose. I love the picture of you and your son, using a saw so young. I think this is your oldest, is it not? His face has not changed much, cutie pie. ~Vonnie

  • Nice post. I have a volunteer quivering aspen in my backyard that is in a bad place. I can’t seem to bring myself to cut it down. It “volunteered” to be there after all. That should count for something right?

  • Doug W. says:

    The other part of this is that at some point our own lives will come to an end and will lay our bodies down to be food and sustenance for other life forms. In that light, “leaving this world” is a strange formulation. We have always been here and always will be–just not in conscious form. Somehow as a civilization we have lost sight of how much we are a part of the web.

  • Colleen Forno says:

    I love your posts. Your thoughts and way of writing. I wrote this poem over 20 years ago about a single gum tree. I just thought I would share with you. I live in Outback Australian bush on 40 acres of land. I have thousands of trees. I promised every one within my boundary fence they will be safe for my lifetime.

    The Old Gum

    “It just isn’t fair” sighed the century old gum,
    With a thud she crashed to the ground,
    “I’ve committed no crime, I’ve stood stately and tall,
    And till now never uttered a sound.”

    ” I must tell my story whilst someone can hear,
    Of the days before bus, car and train,
    When families held picnics beneath my cool leaves,
    And sheltered from dust, heat and rain.”

    “Safe in my branches, the birds built their nests,
    My protection they sought every year,
    Frightened, wee finches took first faltering flights,
    Till they soared through the air without fear.”

    “Young lovers carved names, deep into my trunk,
    Then cuddled and kissed and make vows,
    To return with their children, and show them the place,
    They declared their true love, “neath my boughs.”

    ‘Twas during the war, world war two I recall,
    A shady refuge I became to the men,
    They’d sit in a circle, play two up and laugh,
    Share secrets and find peace now and then.”

    “Folk called me a landmark, I was proud of that name,
    I thought progress would not involve me,
    I felt loved and protected, but it wasn’t enough,
    I guess they were too blind to see.”

    “To widen the road, the old gum tree must go,
    I shuddered, I just could not believe,
    My death sentence was carried by two votes to one,
    No protests, no last minute reprieve.”

    “Red sap has drained from my once healthy veins,
    A landmark which is no longer there,
    Part of history destroyed, never more to return,
    Now I’m gasping, It’s just isn’t fair.”

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Thank you, Colleen, for your warm words and for the poem. Penny spent a year in the Outback on a many-thousand acre cattle farm. This was somewhere around 1990. Terrible drought, but she loved it, and especially the people.

  • Karen from CT says:

    Ben, I really loved this post. I live in the suburbs and am seeing a rash of tree murders taking place following the storms over the last 2 years. People are freaking out and cutting down beautiful healthy trees and it is painful to drive by and witness this. I feel sick in my soul. It is a comfort to know my feelings about trees are shared. Thanks as usual for sharing.

  • Peter Burke says:

    I remember the first trees I cut down trees. When I revisted the site soon after I was amazed to see the stumps wet with sap still pumping up from the tree roots. I couldn;t help but feel the twinge when I thought it was similar to bleeding but then on revisiting the stumps there were sapling growing hale and hardy. There is no choice- life must be sustained and maintained by life- it can not be otherwise. I know as a vegetarian I have been challenged “but you take the broccoli’s life when you eat it” and it is so…and at some point my ashes will feed the broccoli in return.

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