“Timber!” I called the word out in case there was anyone within falling range, and it echoed through the understory of a blackened forest. It took one swing and smack from the back of my hickory handled brush axe, and the 3 pound steel head made purchase on the plastic wedge inserted in the back-cut on the large Douglas-fir. The gap of the back cut began to widen, at first almost imperceptibly.
Glenn cutting branches from a fallen tree last week as the dust from the fall settles. Photo by daughter Melanie.
I slid my hot and smoking Stihl chainsaw out of the wide cut, and went through the trained muscle memory motions of the safe exit from a tree on its way to the ground: 45 degrees from the back, no less than 10 feet, do NOT look up until safely away. I’ve had firefighter and faller friends who did look up, turning their face skyward from their hard hat covering only to meet a falling ‘widow maker’ branch with their face—and eyes. It’s pretty common when falling burnt timber.
I was glad to see the behemoth come down. It had taken a long time, and dulled one saw chain. This tree alone had easily a cord or two of wood in it, and would keep us warm for awhile this winter. Fire-killed timber like this is unusual. Most of the thick-barked Douglas-firs in these forests normally survive fire, but when the 33,000 acre Rabbit Foot Fire roared across our grazing lands in 2018, the flames reached the thickly foliated conifer ‘crowns’ of the trees, and when that happened, a cataclysm commenced. The crown fire created its own weather and wind, and fully took on a completely unpredictable life cycle. The Rabbit Foot tore across miles of high-altitude forest, churning up 300-foot flames and ash skyward to highs of over 50,000 feet. At this point, it could only be controlled by acts of God like snow or rainfall.
Firefighters, helicopters, air-tankers and smoke jumpers stood down and watched.
The fir tree fairly exploded when it hit the ground, leaving a cloud of ash and dust in its wake. Across the black forest, I could hear the scattered Alderspring Ranch crew cheer with another big tree down. Soon, daughter Annie would be by with our brush pickup, a short-bed four-wheel drive with big lug tires and high clearance, dragging a clinking gaggle of log chains, ready to tow the next tree out to the road, where it would be cut into pieces and loaded by the trailer loading crew.
Here Annie and Linnaea are removing the chains from a few logs they just towed over to the trailer.
We were all gathered for a sort of picnic and work party in the Salmon River Mountains. It was firewood time, and every year we make a pilgrimage and ascend to lofty timbered heights near the top of our grass ranges. Endless ridges of pine and fir-covered mountains march on for hundreds of miles beyond where we work in this tiny section of timber, dwarfed by the vastness of Idaho wilderness, and as has been the story for most of time here, much of it was exposed to wildfire.
Scott heading to cut down another tree against that remote mountain backdrop.
As a result, there is plenty of dead wood for us to take home. We heat all of our homes with it exclusively. Most of it will someday reburn naturally if left on the mountain anyway, so the carbon actually comes out about the same. Besides, our removal of timber often leaves the surface of the forest floor exposed, and allows pine and fir seedlings wide open to sunlight and moisture.
Glenn walking past some timber the crew has just cleared.
I knelt down to take a look at the how and why, written in the tree ring story of this particular former patriarch. Now, on the ground, as I cut through the bole with my saw, I saw that it had been through some trying times, for certain. Large channels of wood-boring worms had chewed through the dense wood, and many fire scars rippled through the rings. And how dense they were! There were sections of the tree ring count that read like the pages of the edge of a dictionary. Scattered through the pages, fire scars indicated that this particular Douglas-fir had survived countless scorchings before this one. Looking around, it was clear why this one wildfire in particular was the tree-killer.
It was all completely torched small diameter lodgepole and subalpine fir—a perfect recipe for an extremely hot all-encompassing, timber stand killing crown fire. And ironically, it was the lack of fire that made this crowded forest happen.
Starting around 1910, Theodore Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, the newly appointed head of the infantile organization called the US Forest Service, enacted a ‘no burn’ policy across America’s forests. Every fire would be put out immediately, if possible. It seemed like a good idea after several great fires had plagued much of the West in the previous decade.
Josh, chainsawing amid a sea of burned forest.
And since then, the Forest Service and other government agencies have been fairly effective. But in recent years, their efforts have been derailed by a fuel-loading situation gone amok. The exact policy of ‘no burn’ had allowed forests to self-regenerate to a point that wasn’t sustainable. Water, sunlight, and soil resources were getting taxed to the point that many trees started dying, hastened by native insects and disease that took advantage of weakened trees.
And so, crown fires—those catastrophic forest killers—have become the norm instead of understory-cleansing non-lethal fires. And ancient trees like the one at my feet that could normally resist fire would succumb.
I knelt down and counted rings. It took a while, but I reached the ripe old age of 403 years. No wonder it took some time to cut and got my saw overheated! Dense rings mean hard, hard wood. It cut like black walnut. Time to sharpen my saw chain.
And that gave me time to reflect on this day 403 years ago.
That year was 1620. The place I thought of was on board a ship, now on this exact date of September 22, six days out on the high and tempestuous Autumn storm-ridden North Atlantic. It was a small wooden vessel, known as the Mayflower. She is bound for a place recently named “New England” (noted as such in 1616 by John Smith, English explorer). More specifically, their destination, in today’s mapping references, is known as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The then-current inhabitants of the landfall they were seeking called the land by many other long-standing names, as the land was life and living for 15 to 20 loosely confederated indigenous tribes associated mostly by various dialects of the Algonquin language family.
This lone wooden sailing vessel would make landfall at last, despite loss of life on the stormy ocean crossing. On board were 41 Englishmen, women and children who came seeking a new life and religious freedom. With them came forty other non-parishioners, seeking opportunity in the new world, 23 workers (servants and hirelings) and about 30 crewmembers.
The ship was packed with humans, supplies and stores.
And it would never be enough for life on the Cape in December. Their mortality rates that first winter would be staggering. It was ironic as in that very same year, England itself was subjected to some of the worst winter weather it had ever experienced. The Thames froze solid. Hundreds of thousands of livestock perished. It was a sort of polar maximum, and it was repeated in the New World.
My Mom and Dad were immigrants from Europe as well, but they came to an America significantly different from what the ‘Pilgrims’ came to four centuries prior.
But I’m wondering if the human attitude toward the land has changed much in all that time—those 403 years in which this one Douglas-fir lived. We marvel at how ignorant toward the land the Pilgrims were. There are stories at how astonished they were to meet their first native peoples who walked in the typically snowy and frozen Massachusetts wearing almost no clothing at all, seeming incredibly at home in their wild habitat.
It’s a picture of contrast between two peoples. The Pilgrims couldn’t wear enough clothes. They were simply maladapted to keep warm. And they lacked all knowledge of how to obtain sustenance in their new homeland. They brought with them tools and knowledge of how farming worked in England, instead of adapting the native knowledge to how it could apply to their own existence.
Similarly, I feel like even after 403 years, we still have a lot to learn about how land—and nature—functions. We humans let ancient forests (trees like the one I just cut down) burn when they rarely did before. We let soil blow away by killing all of the life in it and literally farming it to death. We remove the cycles of native animal grazing from short term-high intensity events to long-term continuous ones that completely remove native plants and animals from ecosystems.
We have become desertifiers, or maybe we always have been.
But I believe hope is on the horizon. The first step toward a solution is acknowledging that we have a problem. And I am seeing more and more people on the land asking those questions—and desiring a restoration approach to farming, ranching and life with and on the land.
I think that rather than a regulation or rule, it has to start with a heart—a passion for the land—in not so much what it can offer us, but now, what we can do for it to reestablish functional ecosystems. And instead of us imposing our “knowledge” on the land, perhaps we could stop long enough to listen to what it can teach us.
And perhaps if we learn from organisms like this tree–those ancient denizens of the forest—they will not have died in vain.
Happy Trails to you all