The trees that grace and root us

Trees cover about one-third of our 80-acre farm, and much of the wooded acreage is a mixed-deciduous forest at the very back of the property that hasn't been timbered in half a century. It's not old growth by a long shot, but it's got the potential to be someday, thanks to a conservation easement that protects our land from development and commercial timbering. There are some good-sized trees back there already, and barring disease or forces of nature, they can only get bigger.

Besides the deciduous forest, the farm encompasses a stand of cedars dense enough to blunt midsummer sun and winter storms. On most days, light falls cool and dim over its fern and moss floor, and the cows have always known to hunker down here in extreme weather.

Thinner stands of cedar lean out over the streambed, clinging steadfastly to the rocky ledges along its banks. Together with white and Virginia pines, they also help stabilize our steeper hillsides, gripping the thin, pebbly soil to their own - and the fragile land's - advantage.

We are grateful for the soil-saving evergreens, and for the food trees. Persimmon and pawpaws provide us fruit, if we can get to it before the cows do. The pawpaw bears what is known regionally as the "Indiana banana," and it is the first tree my son successfully identified at a very young and taste-discriminating age. He still enjoys the pulpy treat.

Some years we tap an even sweeter harvest from the sugar maples growing in a ring at the north edge of the back pasture. Other years, including this one, we let the sap rise fully to the trees' advantage, reaping only the welcome knowledge that winter is finally on the wane.

Certain trees speak to us for other reasons. Sassafras grow here and there along the pasture hedgerows, but one in particular stands apart, even from a distance. Encumbered in its early growth by wild grape vines, it developed a bonsai twist in its patient quest for the sun. Free now, its beautiful curvature seems full of artistic purpose, as if it had been deliberately sculpted to complement field and sky.

Other trees - survivors of past land clearing and logging - embody the intrinsic value of all things large and enduring in nature. When we built a sugaring cabin back among the maples and near our expressive sassafras, we used old logs salvaged from former pioneer cabins.

We briefly considered felling one of the farm's elder oaks for roof shingles, but that tree still towers in a small wooded valley just a stone's throw from the front pasture. We finished the cabin with a metal roof. It seemed foolhardy to cut that oak, whose natural architecture beat anything we could make from its lumber.

In the same valley grow the "twin towers," closely rising tulip poplars so perfectly paired in their magnificence that we cannot imagine one without the other. Almost a century old, they move easily with the wind, not just at their distant sunlit crowns, but all along their considerable, supple lengths. On breezy days, they seem almost to slow dance together.

We worried about these trees when an unexpected gale swept the farm on the final day of last summer. Charlie and I had just driven a load of newly baled hay under the eaves of the storage barn when the wind began to gather. It rose with a swift, sweeping force that sent the calves scurrying behind their mothers and under the draft horses.

Even back-end to the blast, Doc, Jim, Ben, and the cows swayed for long moments as great walls of horizontal rain swept over us all. Charlie and I scrambled to tie tarps over the exposed edge of the wagon, becoming drenched and wind-whipped in the process.

The storm seemed to have tracked right up from the valley where the big oak and twin towers grow, and the damage we reviewed in its aftermath left us breathless. The uprooted trunks and splintered limbs of a half-dozen sizable beech, oak, and cherry trees crisscrossed the streambed and littered the hillside. Yet the giant oak we could not cut still stood amid the wreckage, and so, to our added relief, did the twin tulip trees.

We'll use some of the lumber from the fallen trees for our own projects, and we'll sell some, too. Lumber is always in demand, and the income - truly a windfall - will be welcome.

We have other storms to thank for the ruddy cherry floors of our sugaring cabin, and for the dark walnut bookshelves and poplar trim of the farmhouse. Charlie transformed a fallen ash into a writing desk for his middle daughter.

One year, a heavy snow fell on the first day of spring, snapping overladen cedar limbs and topping off dozens of the mature trees. If we could wish them back, we would. Instead, they have provided rafters, sled runners, porch wood, fence posts, and hearth fires.

Each time it storms, we hope that our special trees will be spared - the big oak and bonsai sassafras, the twin towers and a certain venerable sycamore that overarches a small valley pasture. If one of these go, we'll be hard-pressed to use the wood wisely enough to make up for the loss even partway. It would take a cathedral, or a carving as implausibly lovely as that sassafras to do its source justice.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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