This seems like the longest spring I can remember. Winter fizzled out this year, with little snow or cold weather beyond January. February kept us in a holding pattern. Winter seemed over, but we knew spring was a ways off. We began to warm up a bit in March and snow was mostly gone by mid-month.

During this time, I found myself looking for signs of spring, even though the calendar said it was still winter. All Minnesotans long for spring at some point. Even the most hardy winter lovers are ready to move on by March. But waiting for spring in this country can test anyone’s patience.

We’ve had some warm spells that have given us a foretaste of glorious summer. This year the ice was off the lake by April 4th, almost as early as last year, when spring came charging in full force in March. But this year spring advances and retreats like the last glaciers of the Ice Age. We’ve had temps in the 60s followed by temps in the 30s with snow.

On the lake, evidence of spring was proclaimed by the cacophony of waterfowl and shore birds from mid-March until ice out. We are blessed to have the outlet of our lake on the Crow Wing chain as our front yard. A small bay where the river reappears at the end of the lake stays open throughout the winter and is home to about 8 or 10 trumpet swans. As the the weather warmed and the open water increased in size, the swans were joined by Canada geese, then ducks including mallards, bluebills (scaup), goldeneyes and others. Then came mergansers and sandhill cranes (heard but yet to be seen). The loons and great blue herons arrived just before ice-out. A couple of juvenile bald eagles, probably raised in the nest between 5th and 6th Crow Wing, have been roosting in the white pines behind our house, eyeing the ducks and thinking about their first fishing forays.

In the much quieter woods, evidence of spring is slow to appear. Last week, my granddaughter and I inspected the hepatica, just beginning to bloom. A few mayflowers and violets are appearing this week. The red maples I planted last year flowered at Easter, as did the leatherwood. Other trees and shrubs have broken bud but have yet to unfurl their first leaves. Slowly, slowly is the spring unfolding.

I’ve learned to appreciate the waiting. When I was a kid, I looked forward to spring only as a precursor to the fishing opener and the warm-up to summer. Spring was just a season of mud and restless anticipation. And summers were always too short. Then back to school and more waiting, for hunting season, first snow, ice for fishing, for Christmas break.

Often I sense that time is accelerating as I get older. The weeks and months fly by and before you know it your first little grandchild is 12 years old and taller than her grandma.  Now this long, slow spring feels like a gift of time. There was time get in some woodcutting before the ground thaws. There is time to rake up last fall’s leaves and the winter detritus before the grass takes off. There is time to observe the each week’s arriving migrants among the songbirds. And there is time to walk in the woods with my youngest granddaughter to look for new wildflowers, to experience her wonder and joy. So let spring take its sweet time in coming, for the time is sweet.

Zhingwaak Revisited

IMG_0203We are fortunate to have a number of mature Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus), the tree the Ojibwe call zhingwaak, on our land. For me, the white pine symbolizes my love for this place called Minnesota. Tracing the silhouettes of pines at sunset on Island Lake as young boy, I first knew the joy of observing nature.  I’ve wanted to live among the pines ever since.

The white pine, along with its cousin the Norway or red pine (Pinus resinosa) attracted the first logging companies to Minnesota Territory back in the mid-1800s. Pine boards built thousands of homes, barns, storefronts, churches and schoolhouses throughout the Midwest.

Pine was in such demand during the settlement era that logging companies took every tree they could find, leaving barren landscapes wherever they went.  The greed of the timber barons provided impetus for the allotment acts that broke up the White Earth and Leech Lake reservations and allowed the taking of most of the land originally reserved for the Ojibwe by treaty.

Today, only remnants of these once-great pine forests can be found in scattered locations in northern Minnesota. Perhaps the most notable of these pine islands is the Lost Forty, located northwest of Grand Rapids.  A surveying mistake in 1882 resulted in the preservation of a small piece of Minnesota’s pre-settlement forest. (You can get a glimpse of the Lost Forty in this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSBTlJGCitE)

The white pines on our land are probably “second-growth” trees that got established after the logging boom, which makes them at least 100 years old. They form a crown atop the knob we are building on, visible from across the lake and from the river outlet along Crown Point Road (I like to think the road is named after our little hill).

We reluctantly took down one of these majestic trees to make room for our house. We want to remember and honor this tree so we are incorporating as much of it as we can into our new home. After my friend Mike the DNR Forester felled the tree for us back in April, I hauled several of the logs to a local sawmill to have them sawn into 2.5-inch slabs which were then kiln-dried and planed. Last September, I picked up the sawn pieces from the mill and began making what will become “floating” shelves throughout the house.


We are also having the top for our kitchen island made from these slabs. Athough it may not be practical to leave the bark on the island top, we’ll retain the natural shape of the edges.  Our fireplace will feature the slab on the far right of the above photo, bark and all, as the mantel.

Meanwhile, as I poked around the woods this fall, I began to locate white pine seedlings coming up around our building site.


To keep the deer from eating the terminal buds on these trees this winter, I erected little fences around each tree.

white pine

I’ll remove the fences in the spring to avoid inhibiting their growth.  Although Mel and I will be long gone when these trees become mature and add to the beauty of Crown Point, we hope our descendants and others will enjoy them for years to come.

I am not a logger.

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 slogging1everal 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.”

FullSizeRenderFinally, 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…