Having never owned land before and having never built a house, I decided that I wanted to clear our building site myself as the first chapter of the whole experience. Our site is somewhat open, but still has a number of trees that need to go to make room for the house. (WARNING: somewhat technical botanical terms ahead) Most of the overstory is composed of basswood, or linden, which grows in large clumps. We also have a few burr oaks. Beneath these grow ironwood, or “hop hornbeam” trees. Towering above all are several second-growth white pines, one of my favorite trees.
The basswoods, with umbrella-like canopies and leaves as sometimes as big as dinner plates, provide most of the shade. It will be important to keep several clumps intact on the north side of the building site for those hot summer days when the sun edges north. We will also leave most of the trees on the south side, theorizing that with leaves off they will allow sufficient solar gain in the winter.
After several days of work, the building site looks like a battlefield. I’ve learned a lot about felling trees and fixing chainsaws. So far, I’ve only had one near-miss in the category of getting clobbered by a falling tree, and that was one that got hung up in another tree. I’ve learned that happens a lot with basswoods and their large canopies.
I’ve also gained a new appreciation for my temperamental old Allis-Chalmers tractor. The old gal came in handy for knocking and pulling down hung-up trees and for dragging the larger logs out of the way. Allis and I have had a love-hate relationship since I bought the tractor from a neighbor three years ago. Although I drove tractors on my Grandpa’s farm, I wasn’t the one who fixed them when they broke down. I am proud to say I’ve made progress on the antique tractor maintenance learning curve. Early on I spent a lot of time with Allis trying to figure out why she wouldn’t run, which is why Mel refers to the tractor as “the other woman.”
Finally, I have learned that I am not a logger. In the land where Paul Bunyan was born, Minnesota’s rich logging history is often romanticized. Although I’ve gotten somewhat proficient at the job, I have found no romance in the work. I don’t think I would have fit in among the men in the logging camps of yore. Call me a tree hugger, but I don’t like cutting down living trees. I think about the tons of carbon dioxide all that foliage processes. I could try to figure out the carbon footprint of our home, and determine whether the energy-efficient design offsets the biological impact. Or I could, and probably will, plant more trees to replace those I cut down.
The environmental cost, however, is not what is bothering me. I find there is something spiritually jarring about taking down a live tree. It’s different than taking an animal during a hunt; I can find harmony in recognizing the animal will provide me sustenance. But I don’t need to cut down these trees to live; they are simply in the way. My actions are justified in western culture; after all, it is my land. But this rationale does not quiet whatever is nagging me from my subconscious.
Maybe that little voice I can’t quite hear is one of my Ojibwe ancestors. Basswood was and is an important resource to Ojibwe people. Its inner bark can be twisted into a kind of rope and parts of the tree are edible. My understanding is that traditional Ojibwe believe most things in their surroundings, including trees, are animated by a spirit. But the Ojibwe made use of nearly everything in their surroundings, including cutting down saplings to construct shelters. According to what I’ve read, many traditional Ojibwe honor the sacrifice made by the animal or plant by making an offering of tobacco.
I could write couple of thousand words here about the question of cultural identity, but this post is about cutting down trees. Maybe I’ll give the tobacco offering a try…