Forest visit on a perfect June day

2018 at this time at this link

I feel much better now. I was feeling anxious, what with the covid-19, all the protests and the general political malaise. Then I recalled that I needed to separate the urgent (news, about which I can do nothing much) from the important.

I spent a long day on the farms, enjoying a perfect June day and doing some useful work, while letting the rest of the world go by. I have been cutting around the longleaf and oaks. I believe if I did not do it this year, they would be badly compromises, maybe killed by the brambles. The brambles not only shade them out and compete for water. They also physically cut them to piece when the wind blows and the little trees hit the thorns.
My ATV was a good investment. It lets me get to parts of the farms I did not before, since I could not drive on the rutted paths and it was too far to schlep all my equipment and fuel. The ATV can get there. I am much less exhausted and I think it will help me work longer when I get even older.

My first picture is my path between burning areas. Some local kids drive their ATVs on our land. They are well behaved and keep to the paths. I like to be a good neighbor and let them have fun. They also perform a useful task of keeping my paths from overgrowing.
Next is my ATV and cutter. I went through six tanks of gas with the cutter and finished an audio book, “The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost its Way.” Most importantly I “found and freed” several dozen desirable trees. The ones in picture #3 are white oaks. They are natural regeneration, but I am helping them out. I also trimmed the brambles off lots of longleaf, and decided to add hickory (picture #4) to the “favored’ list. I found a bunch 6-8 feet high. I think they are pignut hickory, but I cannot say for sure. Look in back of the hickory and you can see one of the longleaf.

This part of our forest will be oak-hickory and pine (longleaf, loblolly and shortleaf.) It might be a little while before that develops, however.

Freeman in June

For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. This is the time for the first big flush of wildflowers in Virginia. Many will bloom throughout the summer and some will come into season periodically until fall.

Flower seeds cost a lot when you have to cover a lot of acres, so my strategy was to plant patches and expect that they would be crucibles for the rest. I have been doing this for almost ten years now. I think it is working some, but it is hard to tell. I am coming to understand that if you just burn and wait, many of the flowers come back by themselves. The seeds are still there, waiting the chance.  

Fire is the key. The pictures you see with the longleaf is from an area burned in 2012 (my friend Eric Goodman did that for me; I was in Brazil), February 2017 and November 2019. I worked on those two. I compare this place to those not burned and the difference is remarkable.

I have been interested in prescribed fire for a long time. But my involvement was academic. I took the Virginia certified burning course in January 2009, and have been certified since then, but did not put my first fire on the ground until 2017. I have done five on my land since, including the first. The theory is important, but doing it different. Better to do both and have a long time to look at the results.  

The wonder of the longleaf pine ecology is that it combines the grass and forbs with the pine trees, and that combination exists only because of fire.

The longleaf ecology is man-made. It is true that lightning started some fires, but it was the Native Americans who brought the regular fires. They had the right idea, and we need to learn, relearn.

Cutting among the longleaf

I had the option of staying home and watching TV of rioters robbing liquor stores, or doing something useful on the farms.

I spent the day on the farms, mostly cutting around longleaf on Brodnax, but also just enjoying the beauty of the developing longleaf meadows on Freeman.

My first picture is me and my cutter. Next is how I make the rows and after that is what they look like before I get at them. Next two pictures are the longleaf meadows on Freeman. Picture #6 (you have to click) are the cardboard protectors I made for my cypress. I get a lot of boxes from Amazon, and may as well use them. The cardboard dissolves by next year. The last picture illustrates this. When I planted the prickly pear and rattlesnake master in the picture, I laid cardboard around and in back to control competing plants. It worked for a year but you see all those plants behind and around. Evidently the cardboard is now overtaken by the elements.

Cutting around longleaf pine in Brodnax

Down on the farms cutting around the longleaf planted in 2016. They should soon be above the competition, but not yet. I would burn under them, but they are planted near loblolly that I cannot yet burn. So I cut.

It is labor intensive, but I do not mind doing it. It is good exercise and kind of fun the grub up the briars and brambles.

I can listen to audio books, put the earbuds under the ear protectors.
I just finished “How Innovation Happens,” that I discussed elsewhere. Now I am listening to “Rightful Heritage” about FDR’s commitment to the environment. It is a good book. FDR was a tree farmer, called himself that sometimes. He loved trees and nature, which is one of the things I admire about him.

Interesting too, however, is how yesterday’s solution is today’s problem, or at least needs different solutions. FDR managed a heroic age of conservation. It was exciting and often needed at the time, but some was wrong.

For example, FDR wanted to make it illegal to harvest trees below a certain diameter. He was applying the kind of reason you might use in fishing. It is all wrong for forestry. They call it “high grading” and it gradually ruins the genetics of a forest stand. The biggest trees are not always the oldest and the small ones might just be runts.
Another one is just an example of how science has advanced. FDR wanted to conserve longleaf pine. Great. The way they wanted to do that back then was to exclude fire, exactly the wrong thing to do with a fire dependent species.

But I should not be churlish. I know much of what I do today will be shown wrong. It is the way of all human endeavor.

The big deal was the CCC. I have always loved the CCC and I brag that my father was in CCC. It changed his life and so changed mine, for the better. Thanks for that FDR.
Pictures are from the farm. First shows my cutting around the longleaf. Next are the pines planted in 2012 and the meadow. Last is a coneflower. I just liked it.

Brodnax in May 2020

Videos of Brodnax

We burned on this place four separate times, clear cut 45 acres, thinned another 45 acres to 50 BA, planted longleaf and loblolly pine and are now managing part for oak regeneration.  It is probably our most intensively managed unit (just have been more      things to do), but since we have had it for only eight years, it still seems a little less mine than the others.

I went down to do some brush control, but mostly to look around and make some videos.  They are linked and self-explanatory, but since I do not expect most people to watch most of them (or any) I will explain a little more in print.

In #1 I talk about the results of a May 2018 fire. It got a little too hot and killed a couple dozen good trees. We left the trees standing, although some have crashed down. Standing dead trees like that are called “snags” and they are good for wildlife. We now have a kind of ghost forest.  It is interesting to see the development.  A few lessons learned about fire.  More than anything else, the timing counts. You need the right season, the right wind and the right moisture. If you do this right, any “idiot” (I include myself) can be successful. When conditions are wrong, even the best will fail.

#2 is biochar.  Biochar is simply charcoal mixed with soil. It results naturally from fires, since the fire chars but does not consume all the wood. In this case, we have a bit more, since we piled soil to control that too hot fire I mentioned in #1. Biochar is an interesting thing. The char means that wood does not decay. It holds the carbon. The char itself has no real fertility value, but it acts as a catalyst for other nutrients and helps the soil hold water but not become saturated.  Indians in the Amazon used char to develop soils, called “terra preta” or black earth.  These areas can grow crops, unlike most other Amazon soils.  These people “made” this soil hundreds of years ago, yet it persists to this day.#3, #5 and #11 show the effects of different fire regimes and how they change the landscapes.#4 is a comparison of growth rates for longleaf and loblolly planted in 2016.
#6-#9 are about the challenges & joys of establishing longleaf pine on the Virginia piedmont.#10 shows a gas pipeline.  I am not against pipelines or power lines. If properly managed, they can provide a great conservation of grasslands and pollinator habitat. You can see what I mean on the pictures.#11-13 Are about stream management zones and protection of water resources. I think Virginia forests do a good job of this.
#14 & 15 are musings along the trail.
#16 is me talking about oak regeneration plans.
#17 is my tired but content end of the day
#18-20 shows that I did not really end the day, but took advantage of the dying light to take a look at the meadows and SMZ on nearby Diamond Grove. Also looked at the old homestead place, no longer extant.

Bottomland forest

Took part in this seminar on bottomland forests. I call it a success because I came away with two ideas I can use.

First regards planting cherry bark oak. I didn’t even know what they were until today. They look like southern red oak, and I just always thought I was looking at that. the cherry bark is like the southern red oak, but it likes to have wet feet. I am planning to plant a bottomland on Diamond Grove 2021 springtime, and now will add cherry bark oak to the mix. I already called Arborgen and ordered 100 of them. Since I plan to plant them by hand and do it myself, I can choose the micro-biome. According to the webinar, a difference of a few feet make the difference, i.e. if I plant on the little humps, the oak trees will be okay. I can go with cypress when it is a foot lower.

Second is more a curiosity than actionable information. The presenter was talking about cherry bark oak competing with sweet gum. The sweet gum grow faster and more profusely, but after 30-40 years, the oaks win out. How?

It is physics. The gum grow in a more conical way, so they spread out at lower levels. The oaks spread higher. Over the years, the oaks shade out the gum. Beyond that is the effect of wind. When the wind blows, the branches bang up against each other. The oaks are stronger and denser and they break off twigs and buds from the gum. Who knew? But it makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Anyway, my webinar participation will result in a small, but interesting change in the bottomland along little red-bottomed Genito Creek.

Forest visits May 2020

Chrissy came along to our socially isolated farms, so I have pictures that are not selfies to give perspective to my trees.

Rocket stage
First is a longleaf from the generation planted 2016, which means it is going into its fourth growing season. This one is through the grass stage and I think will do the rocket stage this year. My guess is that it will be a bit taller than I am before the end of August. My picture shows my estimate. I will be back to see how it did.

Trees die; the forest abides.
Next picture is from our beechwood SMZ on Diamond Grove. I am very fond of the beech trees, even if they have no commercial value. Those two trees are mostly hollow. They were damaged by a fire probably about twenty-five years ago. It burned off the bark on the uphill side. The wounds mostly healed, but they let in the decay. Hollow trees can be good for wildlife. I think these trees will probably outlive me. If one or more of them blows down before then, I will be sad, but there are plenty of successor trees ready to take their places.

Whiskey and oaks
I did not take a picture, but I found dozens of young-mature white oak on Brodnax. This is very encouraging, since I have devoted about twenty-five acres to oak regen. I was inspired by the “White Oak Initiative” that seeks to grow the next generation of white oak.
All bourbon barrels must by law be made from new white oak. When you taste your favorite bourbon, remember that all of the color and most of the taste comes from the good oak. Fifty years from now, maybe some bourbon drinker will be tasting the flavor of the forests we are growing today.

Longleaf pine of the Virginia piedmont
Last picture is my 2012 generation longleaf. These trees are going into their eight growing season and they look like they are doing fine. We burned under these trees last season and in 2017 (February). We also burned for site preparation, so you can say this was burned two or three times, depending on how you want to count.

We lost some longleaf to brambles. Lesson learned is that you have to control brambles if you want longleaf. Brambles are NOT well controlled by fire, at least not in my experience. You have to go after them with cutters and/or trample them down. The bottom line is that a bramble patch will kill grass stage and bottle brush longleaf. Don’t let them.
Brambles are no longer threats to these trees. I still am cutting some brambles so that I can get into the woods. I do not like brambles, but I recognize that bobwhite quail do, so leave some brambles, but not where you want longleaf.

Memories of longleaf

I think most old people worry about losing their mental capacity.  I know I do (BTW, I have long since given up on that physical capacity worry). I seem to have a good memory for things that happened decades ago, but worry that I am not learning new ones.

My forestry enterprise gives me hope. I take constant joy in just doing it, but there is more.  I have learned a lot about forest ecology in the last years that I am sure I did not know before.  In other words, my old brain has assimilated new knowledge and practice significantly different from what I was doing for the last 30-40 years.

When I learn something new, my mind defaults into two assumptions. First is that everybody knows it and second that I always knew it before.  Both these assumptions are wrong. The first actually has a name. They call it the curse of knowledge. It makes it hard to understand why other people just do not understand as you do. The second is just a syndrome that confuses.

One way to adapt to this human tendency to think you knew more than you did is to keep a journal and to look back over it. Facebook memory section helps by reminding what we doing years back.

At this time in 2016 I was learning about longleaf pine. This is not surprising. What is surprising is what I evidently did not know before then.  My notes are below. When I talk about southern pine ecology, all these facts come easily to me.  They are all mine and I feel like they are things I always knew.  But I did not. The old dog still can learn a few new tricks.

Finished the longleaf pine seminar in Franklin, Virginia
From April 6, 2016
Longleaf used to be the dominant ecosystem in much of the tidewater south and even into the piedmont.  It was an extremely diverse and rich ecosystem, combining a forest and a grassland.  Longleaf pine cannot compete well with other woody plants or even with lots of herbaceous plants.  The seeds will germinate only on mineral soils and the seedlings are easily overtopped.  However, they have one big and decisive advantage.   Longleaf pine is as close to fireproof as a tree can be.   Fire passes over the seedlings and the thick bark of the bigger ones protects them.  That nature range of longleaf corresponds very closely to areas with regular small burns.

Longleaf went into decline because of overcutting (they are great timber trees), because of hogs and more than anything else because of fire suppression.   The overcutting is obvious, and I will explain more about the fire, but what about the hogs?  Hogs were semi-feral in Virginia.  People let their hogs roam and they had big hog roundups.  The hogs ate almost anything, but they were especially fond of longleaf pine seedling, which are especially rich in carbohydrates.  They ate the seedling and rooted around to wreck those they did not eat.
The hogs did damage but longleaf did not return after the hogs were mostly gone because fire was also mostly gone.  Longleaf pine seeds germinate in fall, which is odd for a pine and they will germinate only on mineral soil, which requires a disturbance like fire to get rid of the duff.  Longleaf is one of the few pine species that can grow in the shade, at least for a while, so longleaf forests could be uneven aged, with new pines growing in gaps caused by fires or other natural disturbances.

A longleaf pine stays in the grass stage (you can see in my picture) for at least a couple years and maybe more than seven.  In that time, it does not grow up but it sets down a root system at least six feet deep.  At this stage, it is immune to most fires that will kill hardwoods or loblolly.  This is the secret to its success and lack of fire the explanation of its failure.    The only time the longleaf is vulnerable to fire is when it is three to six feet high.  It has grown beyond the safe and compact size, but still not tall enough to put its terminal buds are beyond the flame reach.

Once it gets to a decent size, longleaf can compete well, but fire is still needed to keep the rest of its ecology healthy and allow for the next generations, so a burn every 2-5 years works well.  A good rotation is to burn after two growing seasons. Do it in the winter, so it is a cooler fire. After that, burn when they are more than six feet high and then every couple of years.  A quicker fire is better, so a header fire is better than a backing fire.

Loblolly grows much faster in the first two years and will out-compete longleaf absent fire.  A loblolly is not fire resistant until it is around eight years old.  Studies show that longleaf catch up with loblolly at about age seventeen and are a little bigger by age twenty-eight.  Longleaf live longer and have a longer rotation.   The oldest longleaf on record was 468 years old.   Loblolly live only half as long and many are in decline even a little more than thirty years.  Nevertheless, loblolly is better if you are interested only in timber income.   The short rotations will usually make more money.  Even though longleaf timber is better, mills are unwilling to pay a premium in most cases.

Observers used to think that longleaf pine preferred sandy and dry soils because that is where they found them.  In fact, they can grow on a variety of soils.  The reason they were found on the poor and sandy sites is because those were the places left after settlers and farmers cleared the better land for agriculture.    Beyond that, longleaf CAN live on poor sites where others cannot do as well.

My first picture shows a burned over area planted with longleaf seedlings.  You cannot see the seedlings, but this is the environment they need.  The next picture is four years later. This is a bit of a problem. They missed the burning after two growing seasons and the competition has gotten out of hand. They cannot burn now because the longleaf are in the vulnerable stage.  It can still be salvaged, but it is not good.

The third picture shows South Quay Sandhills Natural Area and one of the only remnant stands of indigenous Virginia longleaf.  This is where the seeds come from for longleaf planting in Virginia. Virginia does not grow the seeds.  They are sent down to North Carolina.  They do it for Virginia, since they currently have more experience.  The last picture shows the cones of the longleaf (big) and loblolly. It also shows the sands and weak soil.  The reason the longleaf are still here is that the soils do not support agriculture or competitors. The trees in picture #3 are about eighty years old. They are so small because of those soil conditions, but they may be the progenitors of trees all over Virginia. Sometimes it is lucky to be poor.