Listening To The Trees

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

There are many reasons why a woodlot should be an integral part of any garden farm or homestead but one of a tree grove’s most important benefits is seldom pointed out. Living in or near a bit of natural forest teaches us humans, who think we must always be in a hurry, the patience of nature. There is a limb on the oak tree right out our kitchen window that has been dead for 30 years but has not fallen off yet. Trees think in terms of centuries not years. Nor is this lesson simply philosophical. Listening to the trees could have saved midwestern states, trying to control the emerald ash borer which is killing lots of ash trees, millions of misspent dollars. When the metallic green ash borer, an import from Asia, was discovered in dying ash trees in Michigan and Ohio, state officials panicked. Without any effective, affordable way to stop the beetle with insecticides (thank heavens) the various state departments of agriculture in the infected and surrounding states decided to cut down ash trees, millions of them, hoping to contain the advance of the borer. This was madness, as many of us tried to tell the officials. There are uncounted legions of ash trees just in Ohio and there is no way short of nuclear annihilation to eradicate all of them (again thank heavens). There are many thousands of ashes in my two ten acre groves alone if you count the seedlings and saplings and I was not about to let lunatic bulldozers near them. Our objections were ignored. The state paid to remove ash trees by the hundreds of thousands, most of them not even infected by the borer. In the process the ecosystem of many forest stands was harmed. Finally the woods police ran out of money for the project and were forced to admit that the ash borers were still advancing. Not that I would want to, but woodlot owners are not allowed to sell the wood from the murdered trees in quarantined areas or take it along on camping trips, even though, as some of us tried to argue, the wood, split and stacked for a couple of years would no longer harbor borers because they eat the live inner bark not dead wood. I have no quarrel with the quarantine actually. It may help in some instances. But spending so much money cutting down all those ash trees was sheer ignorance. I ask you please to study the first photo (above) with this essay. You are looking at a branch of an ash tree in our woodlot, one of many. It is loaded with seeds as you can see. The branch is on a sapling whose trunk is no bigger round that my arm, much too young to be mortally infected with the borer. Before it dies from the disease— if it ever does— it will have deposited on the ground, uncountable millions of ash seeds. Many of these seeds will sprout and wherever there is sufficient sunlight down through the bigger trees, will grow to seed-bearing age before the disease can kill them, insuring better than any way man can devise, that there will always be ash trees in the woods. My woodlot floor this spring is literally covered with ash seedlings— not to mention elm seedlings. The elms underline the really shameful part of this tree-cutting frenzy. We have been through this situation before. A half century ago, Dutch elm disease struck. Foresters and scientists tried every possible way to combat it. All failed. Remembering what had happened to the American chestnut, the experts dolorously pronounced the death of the elm.

Then a few years ago, foresters began to notice something quite amazing to them. Despite all the dead red elms and white elms falling over in the forest there were lots of young elms coming along. These new trees were reaching seed-bearing age before they could succumb to the disease. (Above photo from our woods, an elm branch loaded with seed, from a tree also no bigger around than my leg.) The experts were jubilant. The elms were not gone after all. In fact it appears that the insect that carries Dutch elm disease, without zillions of big mature elms to feed and proliferate on, will die out or nature will generate a natural control while the elms survive from sapling to sapling until better times. Already various species of woodpeckers are proliferating because they love emerald ash borer larvae and the bug that brought us Dutch elm disease. Nor is even the death of the American chestnut necessarily a done deal. Nearly every year trees are found in isolated areas still bearing chestnuts. In the mountains of Pennsylvania I used to find hundreds of “dead” chestnut trees growing new sprouts from old roots and producing seed before they died. From these seeds, little chestnuts were growing. Also, researchers are coming up every year with new chestnut crosses that are more or less immune to the disease. I am still betting on nature, even in the chestnut’s case. The only place where Dutch elm disease and now the ash tree debacle is really tragic is where we, as humans, persist in growing trees in lawns and lawn-like parks. In these situations, the seeds falling from the dying trees are not allowed to grow in nature’s patient, slow way. We mow and mow and mow. I wonder if there is any way to count the limitless number of seedling trees that mowing has killed. We, more than the bugs, are the assassins. ~ See also Gene’s What Kind Of Trees Do Acorns Grow On? ~~ Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio. Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life Images Credit: Gene Logsdon | Gene’s Posts [Permanent Link][Top]


Hi Karen–Sheep milk is delicious, with a higher fat content than cow’s milk. It doesn’t acquire the kind of offensive “goaty” flavor that goat milk can, especially if there’s a billy anywhere nearby. My faborite cheeses are all sheep’s milk. I spent a day at Cindy and Liam Callahan’s Bellwether Farms watching the whole operation, from milking the sheep (using a mechanical milker like they use for cows)to making and storing the cheese. Fascinating, and a drink of sheep’s milk, still warm from the animal, was a revelation. Sooo good. –Jeff

Thanks, Gene. My source was some goats that I raised for a 4-H project, and I’m sure that I didn’t process it correctly – young and stupid. We wound up feeding it to the cats, who loved it. I’m making cheeses (not as difficult as I had thought!) and although we would love to get a cow, we travel too much and the milking commitment is difficult to cover. Sheep, however, would be a little easier and their lactation doesn’t last as long. Our fifty acres is too rough for enough good pasture for cattle also. I think I could butcher sheep (they are so dumb) but I know a cute little goatlet would live forever around here.

Karen, I have milked my ewes, to get milk for a lamb to weak to suckle or for orphan lambs. But I have not tried to milk them for our table use. Most of my ewes wouldn’t give enough to make it practical but a couple do. I an fond of a true story about sheep’s milk. A friend milked a ewe and put the milk in the refrigerator for later use. Her husband used it on his cereal and didn’t know the difference. As for goat’s milk, you don’t explain the details of your bad experience. I’ve never raised goats but have enjoyed the goat milk of other farmers. It should not taste bad. Milk of any source picks up odors and tastes very easily and one must be careful to be extra clean. Gene Logsdon

Gene, first I hope that you and yours are all well and dry. I see that you have kinda specialized in sheep. I am thinking of trying milk sheep but had some bad experiences with goat milk earlier in my life. Have you tried milking your sheep? Do you have any info on how easy is it really, and does the milk have a particular taste like poorly processed goat’s milk can?

You could also see parallels in the dairy, corn, and horse industries (just to name a few places where we have isolated one branch of the gene pool and bet everything on it.) Natural evolutionary forces (or God’s plan, which ever label you choose) works remarkably well when we don’t muck with the system!

Our current system of agriculture seems to ignore this completely.

When I lived in Kentucky, I saw ash trees dying en masse. I thought that that would be extinction for those trees.
Thanks to your writing, I raalize that natuire has a way to let them survive and pehaps eveolve a new defense.

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