This morning after chores and breakfast, we headed for the woods to get the day’s burning underway.
Traditionally in this region one farms in the summer and logs in the winter, a practice that we follow on our farm, pretty much. Though our “logging” isn’t taking down big trees, it’s a bunch of projects aimed at making the trees healthier and the woods a better place for wildlife and for us.
We’ve had just dustings of snow so far and daytime temps in the 20s, so we can still see and gather debris off the ground, but there’s just enough snow to make it safe to burn. Yesterday my diligent spouse cut and stacked a pile of pruned branches and small tops left from a “timber stand improvement” logging job a few years back. That’s the starter pile. While he was doing that I was a quarter mile away starting a second thinning on a stand of white pine that leapt out of the ground as soon as we fenced the cattle out of the woods 20 years ago.
I love this work. You cut out anything that’s stunted or sick, and leave the big healthy trees to someday turn into an old-growth forest. Talk about satisfying!
The pile assembled yesterday lit with a little newspaper and a single match this morning. We spent a happy couple hours gathering more stuff and feeding the fire. In this area it’s a mix of oaks, fir, and white pine with sprinklings of birch and red pine, and alder in the lower areas. Cleaning up makes it easy to find even the little prickly ash, which is invasive in these old pastures. The ground is frozen now, so we can’t pull it, but we snap the tops off and then come back in the spring with a weed wrench to pull the roots. Getting rid of the prickly ash allows raspberries and other low-growing plants to move in, good for wildlife food. It also releases young trees — especially oaks — that are being strangled by the prickly ash.
Keeping the woody debris to reasonable levels also means there’s less fuel and so less risk of forest fires. Forest fires are a natural and beneficial part of this region’s ecology, but I want the effects without having to have the fire. That’s a big part of why we burn stuff.
But I think the biggest reason we burn is that it leaves the woods looking so incredibly beautiful. When I walk through an area that a couple years ago was overrun with prickly ash, and so many trees were ill or dead from the overcrowding, and see instead healthy trees and deer beds and red squirrel holes and turkey scratching, it makes me really happy. I hope I’m starting to correct the problems created by human misunderstanding and poor practices in these woods.
Plus it’s just so much fun to build bonfires! In fact, my only complaint about working in the woods in winter is that it gets dark so early and you have to come home.
Ann Larkin Hansen, author of A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods, runs her own farm and has published several books, including The Organic Farming Manual, Beef Cattle: Keeping a Small-Scale Herd for Pleasure and Profit and The Farm, a six-book children’s series. She has contributed to many publications, including Beef, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Wisconsin West, Minnesota Business Journal and The Organic Broadcaster. She writes and farms in Wisconsin.
For more great tips on how to manage your woods any time of the year, check out A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods.