Matt on Winter Work, giving way to Spring...

With the arrival of March, I find myself shifting gears. Winter mode giving way to Spring mode. And to be honest, I'm always a little reluctant to leave Winter mode behind. For me, it is defined by greater introspection/reflection, increased focus on creative endeavors, and engaging in certain activities that are inextricably linked to the unique conditions that winter affords (frozen ground, dormant perennials, less daylight). For me, these activities include: working in the woods, tree pruning and planning for the season ahead (among others). As much as many farmer-types might revel in the notion of the winter being a time of greater leisure, I still regularly find myself faced with the task of choosing how to split my time amongst the aforementioned "winter" activities. And a hard task it is.

One thing I have been very grateful for over these last snowy months is the amount of time I've been able to work in the woods, both at my home in Mecklenburg and at the Good Life Farm. At home, the work consists of clearing trails, removing invasives and creating a felling plan in order to harvest valuable forest resources (firewood, building materials) while encouraging a healthier, more robust forest in the long term. At the Good Life, where the forest has been managed for five years now, my role in the woods has focused on working with the horses to skid logs for firewood and fence posts.

In both cases, I've been able to appreciate the forest in a way that is very different from that in which I experience it in, say, mid-summer. Instead of a dense canopy and understory, and all the sensory inputs whirring about in the height of the growing season, the winter woods offer us more light (at least in deciduous stands) and a greater sense of quiet. By quiet, I mean more than just the volume at which we hear things. I'm talking about increased space. A greater opportunity to read things for what they are. Bare bones, so to speak. There is plenty happening in the winter woods to be appreciated, but it is all happening in a quieter way. Compare this to mid-summer when the word overwhelming comes to mind (my mind, at least). Tangles of shrubbery, vines, saplings, leaves of myriad shapes, abundant wildlife and birdsong. Mosquitos in your ears. All of these things can make it hard to "see the forest for the trees," so to speak.

The quiet of this winter has gotten me thinking about a lot of patterns and cycles that are less apparent in the chaos of summer. Let's consider the notion of succession in regard to tree species by exploring the role of black locust—an exceptional resource in terms of it's quick growth rate, nitrogen-fixing ability, BTU content as firewood, durability as a building material in contact with moisture, copious offerings of wildlife forage and its eagerness to propagate itself in abandoned fields and forest edges. Pretty top notch. Sounds like a tree I'd want to encourage. One that would be nice to have around for centuries.

A closer look reveals the limited life-span of black locust, typically living to be about sixty years old. Loves sun. Shade, not so much. Black locust can't really stand up to longer-lived trees like sugar maple, red oak or beech. What this ends up looking like is locust trees that get shaded out, lose vigor and become susceptible to disease or insect pests. It is not so uncommon to see older black locusts half or fully toppled, hung up precariously in the branches of a neighboring tree.

The point is, this species has a lot to offer us, though the time span in which we have to take full-advantage of these offerings is relatively limited. Black locust will, at best, live to be 100 years old; a rare occurrence. Compare this to the aforementioned successors (sugar maple, beech, red oak) that can each live to be 400 years old and we see the value in harvesting black locust to make room for these other species. Certainly some thought must go into which specific trees are harvested when; it rarely ever makes ecological sense to clear-cut a stand of trees all at once. But in the end, even a perfectly straight, well-proportioned black locust must make way for the next line of succession. It occupies a niche in the landscape, pioneering old fields that are destined (as those in this part of the world are) to become forested, altering the soil community (beginning the change from bacterial to fungal), drastically impacting the amount of sunlight that reaches the groundcover and shrubs and paving the way for more resilient species that, if left alone, will see the landscape through many many generations.