Not always a hugger
Editor’s note: For the past five years, Crash Barry has pursued the neo-homesteading lifestyle in eastern Oxford County. This is the fourth of a dozen essays about his attempts to live closer to nature.
As much as I love trees, I kill ’em all the time. Not randomly, of course. Clearing the long-abandoned fields that have morphed into a 75-year-old forest is a central part of the grand scheme of returning Dreamstead to productive agricultural use.
At first I felled the trees nearest the house, to the south and the east, to let in more sun and sky. Then the pasture pines and curvy wild cherries that cast shadows on the garden came down. Next I cleared a patch of south-facing, highly fertile woodland that had been overtaken by white birch, fast-growing poplar and Norway maple. A huge, lone white pine blocked hours of early light and needed to disappear so the herb-and-medicine garden could bask in sunbeams all day long. Then I started on the south-facing flat spot for the hoophouse and continued east to work on a series of clearings that are now ready for pigs, but eventually will be home to a goat herd and, perhaps, a family dairy cow.
I’m immensely grateful for these tree-cutting projects, blessed with the opportunity to sculpt, with my chainsaws, about half of the 20.5 acres Sweetgrass and I have here. The rest of the property will remain wild and free. Other than slopping pigs, reclaiming land is my favorite chore.
The soil quality and the lay of the terrain are what guide me. This kind of work can’t be undertaken without a strategy. Mine is simple: focus on the areas where the loam can support grass and critters; avoid the soggy spots and the rocky slopes and boney clusters. I’m not clear-cutting. I always leave dead trees behind for bird habitat and live trees for shade and wind screens. This is another sign of our good fortune: Many folks have to plant saplings to achieve what we get from our leftovers.
After thanking, then felling, each tree, I work like some sort of lumber-butcher, making the best use of every part. The tops and flimsy side branches end up in brush piles for bonfires. The rest becomes poles, fence posts or cordwood, depending on diameter and species.
I’ve learned a lot from the trees. For instance, never trust a birch. Some Passamaquoddy all the way Down East value birch for canoes, but here in the foothills they’re nothing but a nuisance. Early invaders of abandoned pasture, stands of these suckers end up mostly bent, broken and rotten, due to their inability to weather ice and storms. They do, however, burn well in the stove, especially if split and used within two years, before they turn punky.
Ash is the best tree around here, because it burns great green and even better after a year in the woodpile. Norway maples, split and cured, also blaze nicely. We’ve burned many, many cords of poplar — a.k.a. biscuit wood, because it only burns hot and long enough to bake biscuits, not bread. I wouldn’t pay good money for biscuit wood, but when you process the trees yourself, a poplar fire is still nice and warm.
Getting spruce and pine mill-sawn into dimensional lumber is the best use for the straightest trees. The short, the scraggly and the crooked are great fuel for fires outside, especially when boiling down maple sap or celebrating life and love by a blaze on a summer night.
Several tree species avoid the wrath of my saws. At the top of this list are the sacred sugar maples. These trees will die and topple of their own accord. As providers of syrup and shade, the sugar maples are worthy of worship and protection.
Most of the mighty oaks are also still standing, because their acorns serve as tasty treats for the pigs. Plus, I feel a Druidic kinship with the oaks. When the lower meadow is completely cleared, a previously hidden, fully mature oak grove will be revealed, its countless branches pointing toward the stone pile of the Celtic fire pit.
For long-term strategic purposes, and to establish view corridors, several oaks will, unfortunately, need to come down. A couple will become logs for an experiment in shiitake farming. Others will be milled into boards for bookcases and shelves, with the remnants ending up in the stove for the coldest winter nights.
The cedars are semi-protected due to the healing and spiritual nature of this type of conifer. The largest cedars are grand leaning beasts that aren’t of much use for anything because they’re too damn big to manhandle. I’d need a team of oxen to yank ’em out of the woods, so those mammoths will remain in place for adoration until death. Youngish cedars make excellent fence posts, due to their intrinsic rot-resistance, and are continually harvested for projects all over our land.
For an unknown reason, I also feel very protective of beech trees.
Some might view my slash-and-burn style as brutal and overly dependent on petroleum, but I’ve used less than 30 gallons of gas to clear about five acres. And there’s not a chance in hell I could (or would be willing) to do this amount of work with a double-bit axe and bucksaw. Besides, since the end result of my labor will be huge amounts of almost carbon-neutral meat, cheese, butter and bacon, I’m confident this is the most efficient and ethical approach for low-impact land-clearing and tree recycling.
I’ve had several inquiries as to why I’ve stopped promoting my latest book, the true story of Marijuana Valley, which came out a year ago this month. I usually avoid discussing the behind-the-scenes sausage-making of writing and publishing, but due to a recent decision by a court-appointed arbitrator, I find it necessary to issue a brief explanation.
The long and short of it is this: One of the main characters in Marijuana Valley sued me in Oxford County Superior Court, in November 2013, for alleged breach of contract related to technical aspects of the book’s publication. The lawsuit had nothing to do with the content of the book or my writing; it concerned legal technicalities in the shaky contract I signed with this fella.
While his suit was pending, this fella decided the courts weren’t acting quickly enough, so he and his wife began stalking me online and in person. The events that followed were so bizarre, perverted, disgusting and hurtful to me and my loved ones that I’m not gonna comment here other than to say this: Yikes. (I’ll probably publish a book-length account of this sordid story eventually that will once again prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.)
So the guy sues me for $150,000, plus legal fees and a public apology. Due to the stalking and harassment, however, we countersued for slander and defamation. The arbitrator’s ruling is available to anyone willing to trudge to the courthouse, but the decision boiled down to this: the dude was awarded five grand for the breach of contract, and I was awarded ten grand for the defamation.
In regards to the actual book and book sales, the decision was complicated and slightly opaque, but the result was clear. I am no longer selling the book Marijuana Valley, and am in the process of donating the remaining copies of the first, and only, edition to charities, libraries, colleges, jails and prisons across Maine.
However, as happened to my novel, Sex, Drugs and Blueberries, and my memoir, Tough Island, pirated copies of the Marijuana Valley e-book will lurk on the Internet forever, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
Visit crashbarry.com to view the movie trailer for Sex, Drugs and Blueberries.