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.

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.

Nothing urgent

I really did not have urgent work to do. I am kind of between projects. I planted all the seeds and trees I have. It will be useful for me to use my cutter to clean up brambles near my young longleaf, but there is not much sense in doing that now, since they are just now coming up and will grow back the day after I am done if I cut them now.  

I am stiffer today than usual, despite not much work done. I think I may be in danger of overdoing because I get much less exercise in my daily life, now with gyms closed and social distancing making keeping me at home, sitting around.  

My real reason for going down to the farms was just to be there. I am very socially isolated on the farms, so I can feel virtuous for distancing. Of course, no doubt I take a big risk with self-service gas 🙂  

It is a long drive, but I have audio books. I finished “Extreme Economics,” a very good book and started another “The Narrow Corridor.” It is a lot easier to drive now, since there is much less traffic and gas is a lot cheaper. I can usually just do cruise control the whole way. The only bad part, and maybe it is just my perception, is that trucks are driving faster and more like they always do on I-81. Maybe the lack other traffic enables and emboldens them.  

My first picture is me “working”. I have a nice lounge chair there these days. The cycle of life is interesting. Babies & old me look pretty much alike. Of course, most babies do not have beards. Next picture is the view from the chair. The other two pictures are from my cypress area. These were planted in 2012. I think this corridor is very pretty. They remind me of tamaracks back in Wisconsin. You have to wear muck boots, but besides that is is easy. going.  

Forestry folk invented social distancing

Forestry folk invented social distancing, so it is easier for us to adapt to the steps needed to address the Covid-19 crisis. I am not an extrovert, but I miss the routine social interaction, having a beer with friends of just the serendipity of talking to strangers I meet.  This has made my tree farms even more important and I have been using work on them as a form of therapy during social distancing. And with the solitude, I have had more time to think about what I mean when I say I am “working on the farm.”
I enjoy the work although not ever minute doing it. Tree planting is a good example. Pushing through the brambles and the briars, carrying the seedlings, and just poking that dibble stick into the ground thousands of time is an experienced better remembered than lived. And it seems like the best way to make it rain is to go out and plant trees. Much of the work on tree farms is like that.  When I am out doing it, I cannot wait to get done; when I am done, I cannot wait to get out doing it again.

The joy of planting trees comes not from the tedious repetition. The joy is in our minds when we contemplate the past and imagine the future. Tapping into the majestic flow of nature helps with insights for us short-lived mortals about the unknown past to the unknowable future. It is a spiritual type of practical activity.

The American Tree Farm System was created in 1941 to help ensure the future wood supply, an important, practical and prosaic goal that the America forest industry has achieved. Kudos forestry USA. The USA has more timber growing today than at any other time in more than a century.

I think we now need to move beyond this “tree crop” idea. Trees are more than wood and forests are more than trees. When I go to my tree farms, I am pleased to see so much timber. If not for income from selling timber, pulp, and pellets, I could not afford to own my land, and I am glad that the products of my land support local jobs and contribute to the general welfare.  But if income was my only goal, I sure would not own a tree farm. I am typical of a Virginia tree farmer in that our surveys show that most of us are looking for something more than money from our land.

For me that something is being part of a community. My land’s biotic communities are the basics, but I also enjoy being part of the greater local community and the forest community worldwide I love the trees and I love the wood in buildings. This is our community too.
In this time of covid-19 isolation, I know that I am part of many communities, so I go alone into the woods and am reminded.

Social distancing walk

Doing the social isolation walks in Virginia’s beautiful spring weather. I have never seen so many people out walking. Everyone keeps their distance, but we still feel friendly. Most people smile and wave, as we yield the path to one another.

My picture is one of the big white oaks at Navy Federal grounds. There are maybe a dozen of them and they are at least 130 years old. I am reasonably sure of that estimate, since I counted the rings on the stump of one that they cut down in 2013 (although I think that the downed oak was a big red oak, not white, I figured the same generation.) I have included pictures from that sojourn seven years ago.

I like to come back to the same places to appreciate the changes. I recall that long walk back in 2013. I was still recovering from that peripheral artery problem and it hurt to walk. I am much better now. I stamp my memory on the land I walk on, even if only I know about it. It is a source of connections and joy for me. I have “relationships” with trees and landscape in Milwaukee that go back more than half a century.

Tomorrow I plan to socially isolate down on the farm, & I am going to camp out for the first time on my land. I don’t expect it to be comfortable, but I have been meaning to do it for a long time.

I do not like to camp. I used to do it a lot because I do like to be in nature. In those days, that was the only way for me. I had no car so was was not mobile nor could I afford a hotel. Both those things are changed now. I usually stay at Fairfield in about 20 miles from my land. But in this time of social isolation, I figured I might not.
Anyway, I will be in the Internet shadow tomorrow. I may check from my phone, but if you don’t hear from me, I am in the woods.

Forest legacy

Espen and I were down on the farms. I did some cutting around the new longleaf, but mostly I wanted to show the latest developments. He and his brother and sister have helped a lot, since they were little. Espen remembered when he first walked on Diamond Grove. The trees you see in the picture #3 were so small that you could not be sure they were there, covered as they were by grass and brambles. He is getting a better perception of flowing time. Good.

The trees I love today take decades to mature; the ecosystems they help regenerate take even longer to develop. I hope to live a few more healthy years, but realistically we are talking a couple decades, tops.

I will never finish of what I started. It is important to me that Espen, Alex and Mariza carry on a multi-generational endeavor. I find beauty and great meaning in being part of what I cannot finish, to find my path and take it as long as I can. I want the kids tol carry on theirs, to develop theirs. This I cannot do for them, but I can make available the ingredients. It is a gift that I can give.

My first picture is social isolation. Next is Espen doing same. Picture #3 is our recently thinned trees on Diamond Grove with me as height comparison. Last is gas at Pilot at Exit 104. Gas is only $1.39. It has been a long time since gas was so cheap.