A Shelter, a Home, and FortressPosted on : April 1, 2013
“I have such a love of Scotch pines that psychiatrists would probably find it pathological. I love the smell of them, the look of them, the feel of them, and the sound of them.” -Beverley Nichols, Sunlight on the Lawn (1956)
Friend Cara Day of Spring shared several books with me last year from the famous English author, Beverley Nichols. It turns out he was a conifer lover and shared the same love of pines that I have. Although his species were different, his quotes could have just as well been mine.
As usual at the university we took a week off for spring break in March. While many at schools headed to sunny beaches, I did they same thing I always did while in college; I went to the farm to work. I started the week with a long list of chores on a yellow legal pad and gradually whittled most of them off by the end of the respite. I put asterisks by the most important jobs and luckily got those select chores completed. These included painting and erecting a metal arbor going into my little chicken yard/orchard/rose garden, mowing the lawns at both dogtrots, tilling the vegetable garden, and most importantly, conducting my annual controlled burn on my tall grass “prairie” and my fledgling pine savanna.
Even though I put a sign by the road that says “control burn in progress” the smoke and fire behind my old house caused the usual parade of gawks and puzzled stares. I’vebeen burning it annually for about ten years now so they didn’t faze me a bit. Prescribed fire prevents catastrophic wildfire (like they had in Bastrop) by reducing the fuel load on the ground; serves as a natural insecticide, fungicide, and herbicide; and creates and open savanna habitat that favors turkey, quail, pine warblers, brown headed nuthatches, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and many others. My little 8 acres pine forest behind the house gets me plenty of comments, mostly from university trained foresters and timber folks who can’t stand the fact that I’m not growing it to harvest. There are about a half a dozen that offer regular advice on what I’m doing wrong and just as many loggers that have stopped by to offer to thin it or “clean it up” for me. Starting with another Beverley Nichols quote, this month’s diatribe is an open letter to my timber producing friends.
“For in my hands I held a forest…Every one of those pale threads of green was a potential giant. Each of them might one day grow higher than the house, and take in its branches the songs of the wind, and thrust its muscled roots deep into the earth. On its strong shoulders the snows would press in vain, and its shade would be too deep for the summer suns to penetrate; it would be a shelter and a home and a fortress, throughout the years, for countless birds and tiny creatures who would come to it for protection.” -Beverley Nichols, Merry Hall (1951)
Dear Timber Producer,
Welcome to the Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary. I know it doesn’t look like much bit it will one day. It’s an ongoing project that gives me endless joy. First and foremost, I am not producing timber. I have degrees in horticulture and agriculture. I’ve set through endless hours of timber management seminars. I work in the college of forestry of Stephen F. Austin State University. There are very few people around that know as much about producing a crop as I do. But I’m not producing a crop. I’m not even growing trees. I’m growing an ecosystem. Please don’t lecture me on the basics of thinning, selection, fast growth, etc. We invented those in horticulture. While timber producers have been practicing those things for the last several decades, we in horticulture have been practicing them for several hundred years, even thousands.
My “tall grass prairie” falls into this same category. I am well aware of how to increase production, how to increase tillering, how to increase the protein content, how to increase palatability, how to increase cold hardiness, and how to control any weed or insect that comes to reside there. But once again, I’m not producing grass. I’m producing wildlife habitat. Rules of agronomic and horticultural production do not fit here or in my pine woods.
Besides, the pines behind my house are on hallowed grounds. This is the same ground my ancestors trod and where I spent countless hours playing and exploring as a happy and inquisitive child of nature. I do not want loggers (or anybody else) desecrating my sanctuary. This place is for me and my memories.
The thinned trees on the ground are there to be recycled into organic matter just like nature intended. The standing dead trees that you see I have girdled are there for the woodpeckers and other secondary cavity dwellers. Nature never had loggers come thin her woods and produced the best lumber the planet has ever known. I don’t care if my trees are slow growing. Once again, I’m not producing lumber. If anything, I’m producing dead trees…on purpose. I have regular woodpeckers here including pileated, red bellied, red headed, Northern flickers, hairy, and downy. I love my woodpeckers! I also have a healthy population of pine warblers and brown headed nuthatches; so even though it doesn’t look that much like a pine savanna yet, the birds recognize it as one. The brown headed nuthatches sound just like my late Rosie dog playing with her squeaky toy on my foot. I wouldn’t dare disturb that heavenly sound for anything in the world. It is priceless. Plus they live in dead trees, generally in abandoned woodpecker roosting and nesting cavities, as do my beloved bluebirds. Therefore my dead trees are just as important, if not more, than my live trees. My production numbers are not counted in board feet. I do regular bird counts and species counts of herbaceous understory plants. So there is a method to my madness.
I’ve spent my life producing cops and teaching people how to produce more and more. That’s not what I want to do when I get home. I want to chase birds, and butterflies, and bees. I want to hear and see as many natural sights and sounds as possible. So please forgive me if I’m not following the timber production manual. It’s my choice. And besides, it’s my forest, not yours! It may not look special to you but it is to me. If I’m lucky I’ll go to my grave with my pines singing me to sleep. Until next month, -Greg
“I have an idée fixe – psychiatrists please note – that it would be pleasing to die to the sound of the wind sighing through the branches of a pine which oneself had planted.” –Beverley Nichols, Sunlight on the Lawn (1956)
Written by Greg Grant
Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, and writer from Tyler, Texas. Each month he writes an article for the Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he tends his grandparent’s restored dogtrot farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, and terriers Acer, Lizzie, Mollie, and Sonny Boy Desalvo Fontenot.