Friday, August 02, 2019

Put your feet up

"On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree." ― W.S. Merwin

So, about that one trillion trees. (Not there's any place left to put most of them, but already I digress.)

My dad raised me in the 1950s to think of the woods as my natural habitat. Everything was about knowing species, how to avoid copperheads, find muscadines, using pine pitch, handling axes, building firepits, using map and compass, living in tents, knotting ropes, whittling tent stakes.

At thirteen I spent a week in a self-built wigwam-type structure in a swamp in the dead of winter, chopping ice from a creek frozen to its bed and melting the water. In the 1960s I was for a time a park and cemetery landskeeper, learning to keep lawns, shrubbery and planted saplings happy.

When I was eighteen I wanted to go to Berry College and go into the Forest Service, but as a fairly severely hearing impaired person, had always found math classes difficult to follow, and the forestry degree had a lot of math, so I studied anthropology instead, at Georgia State, my local school, then did the hippie thing, dropped out, farmed for awhile on a loosely Huttterite-affiliated commune, then headed for Oregon.
That was where trees became the big thing once again. For ten years, about half of every year, I planted 325,000 trees, thinned trees, counted trees, protected trees, and put out fires in trees for a living in the forests of the Northwest -- not as a ranger, as I had long before envisioned, but as a member of a labor cooperative. 325,000 sounds impressive to most, but I was a part-timer. Many of my friends were in the million tree club.

Yes, this was almost all monoculture in the service of industrial extraction but we still felt righteous about it. We thought the money was good, too.

There's potential for permanent lumbar strain in such a lifestyle, and eventually in the late 80s, I went back to school and simultaneously re-careered as a manager in a state university library. I'm now retired from public service, and have been enjoying my twilight years.

Trees still call to me. On the home acre, I've encouraged and coppiced ash, willow, hazel and maple, and planted forty-four fruit and nut trees. At Daughter's new home, which she sees as the place where I'll gently fade away, about half that many.

It's getting harder to keep seedlings and saplings alive through the first two summers, so I'm not doing as much of this as I could have, decades ago when there was something more like a water table. But what is there better to do in any kind of end times? Would you rather be memorialized by a carved rock or a living thing?

Nothing expresses hope in the midst of hopelessness better than limbs and leaves stretching up toward the sun from roots. So, let's have a go, volunteers!

Fruit trees from nurseries are nice and all, and provide food and drink, but at the outset can be prohibitively expensive for some, along with the urban water bill.

If you can set out and maintain bare-root or balled three-to-five year old fruit trees (or ornamental or shade trees) where you are, that's good; lots of information is available on how to do this, or you could join (or start) an organization like Friends of Trees that does this type of planting in public places in cooperation with cities, counties and so on. Some organizations will supply free trees to local groups if there's an assurance the planted trees will receive aftercare.

You might also look into grafting or rooting cuttings; I've not proved good at this but it's certainly a wonderful skill; you could find yourself much in demand and even re-career. (!!)

Or just go find some seedlings that are begging to be relocated, and find some places where it is permitted to put them, or, if you're comfortable with this, just do it.

Be it noted, here in these northern latitudes, this is winter work. Reforesters used to start in November, after the first ten inches of rain, and work through to March (or June in the high Rockies).

Now, sometimes, March is what we get. Nurseries that used to send out bare-root trees to places like BiMart (our local worker-owned retailer) in November now often wait till the last week of February. This creates a short or even practically nonexistent planting window. Dormant trees survive relocation better, and in March many of them have already awakened. But we go with what we can get. If there's no rain, we water the trees until their roots are established (and sometimes after that). While the water table holds out.

Seedlings can be quite small, bare-root, plug-reared, or potted. It seems like you could just dig a hole and pop them in, but a bit of finesse will help.

First, try for rain and clouds. Rain and clouds are good for seedlings; sunshine and wind kill microrootlets, so if I'm out on a sunny winter day I may hold a seedling briefly in my own shadow, on my downwind side, before getting it from my bag into the prepared hole.

In our area, roadsides, vacant lots, fields and ditches that are going to be mowed or sprayed will sprout bigleaf maples, ash, wild cherry, cottonwood, willow, Douglas fir and the like on a regular basis. These tend to survive relocating at a pretty good rate. (Oaks not so much. Where those have come up I have flagged them to protect them from mowing, but that's about it.)

I assume you have a shovel or spade or mattock. If not, they are good and cheap at thrifts. Mine is a leftover from my professional treeplanting days.
This image is about the shovel. You will not need such a large
 hole for a seedling. OTOH a larger hole may be required for a sapling.

With small enough seedlings, or with seeds, a sharpened walkstaff might be enough.

You could even buy a "hoedad," which is a fabulous all-around tool designed for this work. It might be necessary to get the blade, bracket and handle separately; you'll end up with a wonderful thing. Videos are available to show how to use it, as well as your shovel, to best advantage.

A canvas -- if you can find one -- shopping bag from the supermarkets' nod to plastic reduction will do for seedling transport; consider cutting each handle at the opposite end from the other and sewing them together at the ends to make a shoulder strap. In use, keep the canvas moist or consider rolling your babies in wet newspaper. Go out with tiny trees, come back with forage. This can be a great way to hunt mushrooms or nettles, for example.

At your rain-dampened permitted (or guerilla) selected site, with fertile-looking soil and perhaps partial shade, clear away a foot-wide patch of grasses and forbs down to mineral soil, open a hole ten inches deep, yet narrow (avoiding air pockets), slot the little tree in without bending the roots upwards, tamp the hole closed, give the tree's leader a little tug to make sure it's not too loose, find something -- a stick or stone will do -- to shade the vulnerable root collar of your baby tree on the south side (or north in the southern hemisphere), and move on. If you're only doing a few trees or are close to civilization, you may bring some compost, mulch and water along and "garden" your treelets, but if you're out in the boonies in the rain with production on your mind (some of us used to plant a thousand Douglas firs a day), well, the scalp, whack, slot, step, tug and move on will do.

My mom tries out my hoedad, 1977
Look for stumps, slash and the like and "microsite" your babies on the north side of things (in this hemisphere) to take advantage of that shade for better survivals.

It's okay to plant an area "tight-by" such as six or eight feet in each direction. Some trees will not live, and this will widen the spacing somewhat. Any tree that lives will offer shade to the one just north of it, and they seem to like one another's company -- whichever one finds symbiotic mycorrhizae will share them along the rootways. Amazing stuff goes on in the half of the forest that is below ground and you want to promote that.

You could also get into germinating or just planting seeds. Most of my experience with seeds is all about vegetables, but many tree species plant well from seed, either directly or after stratification. Acorns are fairly easy to work with and the earth could certainly use more oak trees.


There, you've done something nice for the world and probably not had partisan or media vitriol poured on you, or worse, for your activism. Go home, make yourself some tea and put your feet up.


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