A Word or Two (editorial comment) July 2012
June 10 is generally considered by gardeners in New Brunswick to be the last day for killer frosts. After that, the beans and other tender crops should be safe. Although it is not recognized on any calendar or observed by any organizations, June 10 is also the greenest day of the year, according to my reckoning. It is the day when the bursting of leaves and buds fills every available interstice in nature, the multiple shades of green blend into a solid undifferentiated wash, and individual tree species lose their identity in the universal greenness. In other words, it just can’t get any more green. After the middle of June, some greens begin to fade, to take on yellow and other hues, and trees and shrubs start down the inevitable path to fall.
The elm on the bank in front of the house is ill – it is afflicted with Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection that is almost always terminal within a year or two, as the other elm skeletons nearby attest. Yet this elm must have some natural genetic resistance, because after three years of sickness it is still sporting greenery over more than half its branches. The poor tree had already suffered an earlier calamity years before when a freak windstorm snapped off a side trunk. Elm wood is so tough and strong that a one-inch live branch can support a man’s weight, so this was indeed an unusual event.
The forest floor under the diseased and dismembered elm had been occupied by a struggling hawthorn, which is now flourishing and in full bloom. Some might question the value of a hawthorn. The white flowers, though attractive to be sure, are short-lived and unpleasant smelling, and not enough to offset its other vile attributes, such as those nasty thorns that will poke your eye out if you’re not careful. Cutting a limb from a hawthorn is like trying to hack your way through a blackberry thicket. You cut it, it stays in place. You pull it with your gloved hand, it pulls back. Even to ready it for the wood stove, it has to be de-thorned and disarmed.
While musing thus on a late May day, I saw a flock of Cedar waxwings swoop in and settle in its branches. Waxwings are notorious petal-eaters, and I had watched them once before pairing up and passing Pin cherry petals to one another in an act of passerine passion. Some of this flock of birds foraged independently, munching on the apparently delicious blossoms, while others engaged in a blissful domestic ritual called pass the petal. Perched side by side, but facing in opposite directions, one would step sideways, pluck a petal and pass it to her mate, who deftly accepted it, chirped “thank you, my dear,” and reciprocated in kind. What good is a hawthorn? There’s your answer.
In our yard, the last of the fallen Pin cherries, a pioneer species that is one of the first trees to colonize clearings and clearcuts, leans uprooted against the fence, a victim of succession. In the thicket of butternut, ash, and chokecherry are many twisted, debarked, still-standing skeletons of sumac, another pioneer, preserved naturally on the stump. Sumac is judged “best overall shrub to attract birds” by Glen Blouin in his “Weeds of the Woods.” The seeds of these sumac have provided winter fodder for robins, crows, chickadees, and even deer, and their flowers have attracted honey bees from a neighbor’s apiary. Sumac’s beautiful green heart wood is spectacular to work with, not to mention extraordinarily durable. The tangle of silvered trunks three to five inches in diameter yield a neat supply of smooth, twisting handrails ideal for the steep walkway down to the river, and the finished look is like something from a funky version of Fine Woodworking.
Two old-timers long associated with the wood business in New Brunswick were recently honored at separate events. Otto (Ottie) Fraser of Nashwaak Bridge, who will celebrate his 89th birthday in August, was feted at a tribute dinner held at the Central N.B. Woodsmen’s Museum in Boisetown. Fraser, who has 70 years in the lumbering business, is still working. (In fact York North MLA Kirk MacDonald commented that as he was coming up from Stanley he passed Fraser’s place and there was his truck all loaded with poplar ready to go to the mill Monday morning.) There were more than 150 people at the fundraising event, which Southwest Miramichi MLA Jake Stewart used as the occasion to announce provincial funding assistance of $39,200 to go towards the rebuilding of the facility’s steam sawmill, which burnt five years ago.
Nonagenarian Murchie Emerson from Greenoch, Charlotte County, was recognized at the YSC annual meeting with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Now 95, Emerson left school to work on the family woodlot at the age of nine and cut his last tree just before his 90th birthday. An 80-year history of woodlot management is something to be proud of.
His daughter, fifth-generation woodlot owner Ardeth Emerson Holmes, accepted the award on his behalf. Here is an excerpt from her acceptance speech:
“Four years ago on June 23, Dad bought a (Kawasaki) Mule to provide himself transportation on the farm. The day it arrived we went across the road, down the wood road until the canopy of trees sheltered us – the sun was shining through the trees creating lighted spaces within the woods, that haunting sound of a breeze whispering through the swaying of the trees, the smell of the earth, a brook babbling nearby . . . then . . . Dad turned off the motor, inhaled deeply, . . . looked at me . . . and all I could say when I looked into his eyes was . . . it is hard to imagine that heaven will be better than this.”
She also posed a simple question of economics, one that we all puzzle over. “If today we need more wood simply for things that we did not have then (such as paper towels), live in larger homes, still heat with wood, and with so many natural disasters must need more wood to replace things, then how come wood prices are so low?” Her father’s journal records that 5.04 cords of pulp was sold for $108.36 in 1968. That price of $21.50/cord was probably roadside. Using an Internet current value calculator, Holmes computed that the value of that wood today should be $671.43. Instead, it is worth in the order of $330 – that is, if you can sell it.
We all ponder that same question – why is our wood worth less? And we wonder how we are going to make a living from our woodlots if the current trends continue. The corporate answer to her question would be to cut more wood faster and more efficiently, but on a woodlot scale that’s not achievable, nor sustainable. The old woodlot can only grow so much wood a year, and the old woodlot owner can only cut so much.