This morning I shoveled snow from in front of the garden gate. The little fenced vegetable plot will be home for a pair of Percherons for the next couple of days. Jacob Obletz, our logger, assures me they’ll be plenty warm in their thick coats, and happy to respect the flimsy fence as long as they have plenty of hay to eat.
I’m looking out the windows, trying to imagine how things will look different without the tall old popples with their skeleton branches reaching to the sky. I call them popples; they’re aspens. For me, “popple” is a derogatory term, a put-down of this weed that grows everywhere in our part of the world. They sprang up in the clear-cuts left after loggers cut down the tall pines that graced northeastern Minnesota at the turn of the 20th century.
They’ve been growing here ever since. That’s because loggers keep cutting them down and taking them to paper mills and oriented strand board mills, every 30 to 40 years when they get big enough. Very few stands are allowed to die naturally to let the forest progress to the next stage, which in our area would be spruce, fir, and pine. Or it would have been, until climate change.
This history seems a sorry one to me. So why do I seem to be repeating it, having Jacob cut my old popples? Some of them are starting to shade my vegetable garden, and it’s hard enough to grow tomatoes around here without losing the sun. Others are poised to fall on the house when they die. I’d like to remove them and at the same time manage the forest responsibly. There’s also a story about black ash. But more about that later.
Jacob has cleared brush from the side of the driveway to make a landing spot for the logs. Mark Adams has arrived, Jacob’s partner on this job, himself an experienced horse logger. I follow them around as they discuss the best way to lay the trees down, what routes to take to bring them to the landing, and where to widen the trails.
They consider a lot of factors as they decide which trees to cut and which to leave alone. One tree near our driveway is growing in the embrace of a spruce of the same height — it’s surrounded by the spruce’s branches and will be a challenge to bring down. Just behind it is a medium-sized maple, which would get more sun if this popple were gone. But Jacob and Mark show me how the maple is already diseased, and only one of its three connected trunks is probably going to survive for long. On the other hand, someday that big popple will succumb to a big wind and crash down on the driveway, so maybe it’s better to struggle over bringing it down now. Near the house, I point to one popple we might want to save because we’re used to seeing it from our bedroom window. No, they say: the wind will eventually blow it right onto the house; in fact, removing most of the big popple on that hillside will give the wind an advantage, so perhaps we should leave several small clusters of middle-aged trees to break the wind. There’s a lot to think about.
Once they decide on a general plan, Mark mutters, “Well, I guess we’d better go kill something.” And they start to work.
It’s 14 degrees, with a vicious wind. I’m bundled up in as many layers as I can fit under my warmest jacket. As they work, they peel layers until Mark is wearing wool pants held up with suspenders, a plaid cotton shirt and a red bandana around his neck. Jacob wears a tattered wool sweater and thin snow pants over thick sweatpants. Orange Kevlar chaps protect their legs. Mark’s leather gloves have a hole in the thumb, but he confesses that his chain saw has a heated handle.
Mark cuts down the trees while Jacob and his lead Percheron, Diamond, haul them out of the woods. Diamond is big — 17 hands — with a belly bigger than our oak rain barrel. He leaves prints in the snow the size of dinner plates. He’s very black, with a white blaze on his forehead.
Jacob talks to Diamond, coaxing him into position with commands such as “Yope” which seems to mean, “Go!” Once Diamond is in position, there’s “Whoa,” “Stand,” and “Back,” while Jacob wraps a chain around the end of the log. Then it’s “Yope” again, followed by “Gee” (turn right), “Haw” (left), and variations such as “Gee Over” (for a slighter turn), “Gee Around” (all the way around), and “Good Boy!” which is self-explanatory. Jacob walks behind, dancing nimbly in his work boots to avoid stepping on the log, the chain, the reins, and the bumps and debris in the path. Diamond’s hooves crunch on the packed snow; the chain and the harness jingle cheerfully.
Mark is a master woodsman. He knows how to fell a tree where he wants it – not where the tree is inclined to fall based on its lean or its angled branches. After studying the tree, Mark cuts an open notch at the bottom, on the side where he wants it to fall. Then he noses his chainsaw straight through the center of the tree, behind the notch — this is called a “bore cut” or a “plunge cut.” He uses a maul to tap a plastic wedge into the bore cut; this coaxes the tree to lean the way he wants it to. Then he moves around to the back of the tree, shouts out “Tree coming down!” and cuts a delicate slice through to the bore cut. For a moment the tree balances, then it tips slowly, slowly, and crashes through nearby trees, sinking with a boom against the frozen ground. Using a bent horseshoe nail, Mark taps the end of a 65-foot-long tape measure into the butt end and walks the length of the tree, marking eight-foot lengths with the chainsaw and climbing the tree in practiced, easy-going strokes. Then Jacob and Diamond come to haul it to the landing.
As dark closes in, Jacob settles Diamond and Daisy into our little garden, hauling hay and buckets of water to make them comfortable. The loggers go to stay with friends nearby; we check on the horses before going to bed. The night is dark, and the horses are so black, I have to walk right up to the gate to make sure they’re there. They seem glad to see me, nosing right up against my hand.
Headlights in the driveway. A giant St. Louis County sheriff’s deputy tells us someone has called about a pair of black horses on the loose. We go out to check the garden. Sure enough, Diamond and Daisy have crashed through the fence and taken off. Several phone calls later, Jacob tells us they made their way to a neighboring farm where a horse-loving woman has captured them and put them in her paddock; she’s happy to keep them for the night. Huge relief.
It’s only 8 above, but the wind is letting us alone today. We watch from the window as Mark works to fell a tree that some time ago split high up and tipped half its branches into a big oak. It’s very dangerous. Mark studies the situation from all sides. He does his usual notch cut, then the plunge cut, and then the slice in the back. The tree shifts a bit, but it’s too tightly caught in the oak branches to fall. Mark looks at it for a long time. Then he walks some distance away and starts working on another tree. Is he giving this one more time for weight to do its work? But no — he fells the new tree right smack on the stubborn one and they both crash to the ground, without damaging the oak.
We get better acquainted over dinner. Jacob has wavy brown hair tied in a ponytail and the long, sensitive face of a rabbinical scholar. He grew up a city boy in Milwaukee, but always loved horses, and dreamed of living alongside them someday. He moved north and partnered with a friend to buy a portable sawmill. His first team was a pair of Belgians named Dolly and Sherry. When they got old (20 years) and less enthusiastic about the work, he found a retirement home for them and bought Diamond and Daisy. He says Percherons are “more uppity” than Belgians.
“I like their uppitiness,” he says. “They have a lot of enthusiasm.”
I tell him I’ve never understood why any horse would do what any person told him to do.
“Horses are totally lazy by nature,” he replies. “Somebody has to be the leader, and the others follow. It’s a big responsibility to be the decision-maker; it’s easier to follow someone you trust.” I guess he’s saying they trust him to be the leader. “If it’s too hard they’ll look back and wait for me to help them,” he says. “They never stop trying; they give it their all.”
The whole approach of horse logging is different from the much more common system, in which loggers use a harvesting machine the size of a small tank that can cut the tree, limb it, and cut it to length while the operator sits in the relative comfort of a heated (or air-conditioned) cab. Loggers who have invested in these expensive machines are forced to work in big volumes. They can’t afford to bring their operation to a landowner who just wants to cut some trees around the house. Jacob has created a niche of helping small landowners harvest and use their trees to make a finished product, like a cabin or home.
Mark has a bushy beard that’s starting to turn gray. He grew up in Ohio and learned the ropes in an urban tree-care business. Since moving to the Hovland area north of Grand Marais, he’s done it all in the woods — planting trees, fighting fires, horse logging, and tree care. He also supplies neighbors with vegetables from his small farm.
I ask Jacob what he would call the work he’s doing for us. He calls it timber stand improvement. We’re removing old aspen, most of it starting to rot inside, which “releases” the other trees — providing more sunlight, reducing competition for nutrients, allowing them to grow faster, contributing to the value of the forest.
“We’re speeding up natural selection” Mark says. Apparently little maples can languish on the forest floor for 20 years, never getting any thicker than a pencil, but when a nearby tree that’s been shading it is removed by a windstorm or a logger, it indulges in a massive growth spurt.
Which reminds me of the black ash. A lot of our 80 acres is low land along the east branch of Amity Creek, which flows into the Lester River and then into Lake Superior. The swampy land produces a lot of black ash. The tall, straight trees make hot-burning, long-lasting, sweet-smelling firewood, and the grain of black ash is like oak on steroids. This wood can be made into beautiful paneling, cabinets, and furniture. In addition to the pleasure of picturing “our” trees making nice things, I like knowing that the cabinets and furniture would continue to store carbon for years into the future. As long as it’s not burned or allowed to rot, wood fiber stores much of the carbon it consumed as it grew. I was happy knowing the ash were growing, getting bigger and more useful for furniture.
But here comes the emerald ash borer, a green beetle from Asia that has wiped out ash trees from Ontario to Arkansas. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, people are inoculating some ash trees against the pest, cutting down others near known infestations, and facing the prospect of replacing thousands of boulevard and park trees.
We thought we’d have a few years before the greedy green beetle made its way this far north, but last year it showed up across the St. Louis Bay, in Superior, Wisconsin — skipping miles ahead, probably with the help of someone moving firewood. So we had a serious talk with our forester. Two years ago Matt Tyler, owner of Nadarra Forestry, walked our woods, mapped the land, and made a plan for how we should keep the woods healthy. The first step was to control small patches of buckthorn, which we work at in the fall. With the emerald ash borer coming closer, Matt agreed we should move ahead with harvesting some black ash, and follow up by planting young cedars, white spruces, pines, and tamaracks in the clearings. But we’re starting with the big popples around the house.
We’ve taken the weekend off. Now it’s minus 4, with windchills from 20 to 30 below. Mark’s tape measure has broken, two of the chainsaws are not working, and the wind is challenging his expertise. To control the fall of every tree, he’s had to use at least two wedges, sometimes four. The trees are frozen so solid, they’re more like rocks than trees, and the wedges can’t find a purchase. On top of everything else, the wood market has suddenly dropped. A few days ago we could have expected $120 a cord for pulpwood; now the mill is only offering $80. The sawlogs should bring $150 a cord, but we only have about six cords. (A cord is the amount of wood that occupies a pile four feet high, eight feet long, and four feet deep.)
We end up with about 12 cords of pulpwood, enough to fill a semi-trailer, which will take it to the Sappi mill in Cloquet. The mill produces paper and cellulose, which is used to produce rayon and other synthetic textiles.
On the other side of the driveway are the solid logs, destined for a sawmill in Sanborn, Wisconsin. Once cut into boards, the wood will be sold on to other processors to be made into pallets and other low-value items. Popple is not the best wood in the world.
We had hoped to break even on this project, but now it looks like we’ll be out a few bucks. So be it. We’re pushing things along, expecting to see vigorous growth in the trees newly released from the shade of the big popples. Jacob and Mark have a little income, which allows them to continue to practice their trade. And we can spend the rest of the winter hauling the tops of dozens of big trees into piles, some to burn and some to provide shelter for wildlife. It’s good exercise.