The Trees of Maine

4,991 total words    

20 minutes of reading

The original forest in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania covered nearly 100 million acres. Four hundred years of civilization have left the following: 72 percent forests, 23 percent cleared for farms and pastures; 5 percent urbanized. Not so bad, you say, still some 70 million acres of trees left? Well, of the remaining forest, Lloyd Irland says in The Northeast’s Changing Forest that only about 5 million acres are preserved for wilderness—notably the Adirondack Forest Preserve, sections of the Green and White Mountains National Forests, and Baxter State Park.

But even that is not as good as it sounds. A much stricter definition of wilderness, e.g., as defined in the Wilderness Act of 1964—“Where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”—increases our shame considerably. We’re down to 1.5 million acres, two-thirds of that in the Adirondacks.

And the rest of the woods? In private hands.

Those hands used to be working hands—gnarled, scarred, and rough. But now, increasingly, they are soft and grasping and disembodied, computerized, belonging to investment firms whose “work” is financial sleight of hand. And the situation is especially perilous in Maine, where ownership of the land seems to be changing from relatively benign to positively malignant.

When I fly over Maine, the trees seem ubiquitous, spreading forever, an endless resource. I see little breaks in the green at Portland, Bangor, and along the coast. Even driving through the more developed south, I’m amazed. Houses and lawns are surrounded by trees, and cleared fields are minuscule islands in the ocean of green. It’s hard to believe that less than one hundred years ago, almost all of Maine was logged or cleared for farms. Irland says, “It is difficult to imagine the horrific condition of significant areas of Northeastern forest just a century ago or less.”

Personally, I cringe, heart aching, every time I see trees cut down, for they have souls that have more value to us, both practically and spiritually, than we can know. Patiently, they supply shelter, oxygen, beauty, repose; stoically, they give up their lives, some to live on for a bit in the paper for our poems, the tissue for our noses; others grow back. But what they grow back into these days are woods, not forests: a little tame, utilitarian, beautiful, inspiring, and necessary, but not fearsome or profligate.

I love our woods, but when I walk through them, I can hear only faint echoes of the vast stands of birches, the sweep of fir and spruce and (especially) the great white pines of the past, Maine’s own version of the Ents of Middle Earth that once oversaw the land before humans turned them into houses and ships and furniture and war. Those pines, growing nearly two hundred feet high and living for as long as 450 years, were both the symbol of our greed and its possible redemption.

There’s something about the exploitation of natural resources that makes humans run amok. Is it that the resources seem free, that only energy and talent stand between servitude and great wealth, that the world is there for the picking? The Maine woods were no different. Neil Rolde in The Interrupted Forest refers to Hugh McCulloch, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in the mid-1800s: “In his memoirs, he makes this bald statement: ‘The wildest speculation that has ever prevailed in any part of the United States was in the timberlands of Maine.’”

It’s not that greed is an ineluctable part of our nature. Some Native Americans didn’t appear to have it, nor did the very early settlers of New England. Perhaps the homesteaders found life too hard for the luxury of leisurely avarice. For them the forest was a dangerous and uncivilized place, full of wild beasts and infidel Indians. Most of the white folks stayed on the coast and along rivers, and the trees they cut were local and for local use, building and heating houses, building ships.

Inevitably, they reached further, massacring Indians, chasing animals, devastating forest, amassing wealth. Soon enough, the first sawmills were built, early in the seventeenth century, and felling trees became business, not a method for sustenance. (Some say that Acadia National Park owes its existence to the threat of sawmills.) Maine wood was exported widely, not just as logs and lumber but also as potash and charcoal, diversifying locally to smooth out world market conditions and thus perhaps starting the modern “wood products industry.”

Maine forest

By the turn of the eighteenth century King George was well into his plunder of the fabled white pines of Maine. Although many Mainers were Loyalists, especially those living in towns named York or Cumberland, England’s arrogance was generally hated. Particularly odious were the various laws regulating tree-cutting, culminating in the Broad Arrow Act of 1729.

Having exhausted its sources in Europe, the British navy needed mainmasts for its ships, and the great white pines of Maine were perfect. The King’s men fanned out through the forests, claiming with the broad arrow mark every tree bigger than twenty-four inches in diameter. Mainers objected, mostly because they too wanted the lumber. (Oddly enough, Maine houses back then often featured boards twenty-three inches wide.) Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, Mainers said, “It’s our land even though we don’t own it.”

Land in America was endless, infinite. The Western way was to use it. And if Mainers were punished for their poaching, that was part of the Maine way of life. (Such entitlement was not an insignificant cause of the American Revolution.)

After independence, Massachusetts continued British traditions by awarding large parts of Maine to individuals: by lottery, by court grant in settlement of the State’s debts, by grant in lieu of pensions for veterans, by outright sale (William Bingham of Philadelphia bought 2 million acres, if you can imagine that). The idea was the same as the one behind the new Congress’s plans for the western frontier—populate and develop and not incidentally pay off the debt of the Revolutionary War. But in Maine the harsh climate and poor soil did not fare well in competition with the wonders and agricultural riches of the West, and Maine’s only real sustained industry for 150 years was logging.

The white pine is most wonderfully utile: long, straight, knot-free trunks perfect for boards; logs that can be stored for months without cracking like many hardwoods do; easy to find, easy to cut. No wonder it’s the state tree, and its cone and tassel the state “flower.” In many ways it founded the state.

But like the history of all natural resources, the great white pine didn’t last, and by the time Thoreau died in 1862, the great trees were pretty much gone.

Or not quite. There are small plots of old-growth pine left scattered about the East and the upper Midwest. White pine is now cultivated in plantations in the South, although the dictates of cash flow do not allow the magnificence of height. And in houses everywhere in New England, including my own house in Maine, there’s evidence of their past glory.

I like to think that the flooring of our second story is original pine planking recycled from another century. Visible from the first floor because there is no dropped ceiling, the planks appear to run continuously the length of the old part of the house, about thirty-five feet, although I suppose they could be shorter pieces nailed invisibly into the joists. And many of them are wide, as much as nineteen inches. The house was built as a cottage in 1924, not that old in the scheme of things, and the only fables here are the ones my family makes up, yet this link to the colonial past, if only through the workmanship, is comforting.

It’s not so comforting to know that white pine is fragile in a storm. Its fibers twist and bend until they can’t anymore, and the tree just explodes. There’s more than one example in the woods out back, from the vicious southeaster of 2008—the same storm that broke off a large branch of the white pine next to our house. It landed inches away, perhaps trying to get us back for owning the innards of one of its relatives. It would have every right.

Perhaps someday the white pine will reclaim its rightful place as king of the Maine woods, and the dilemma of the conservationist—living in some luxury in a forest or on the coast, worrying about CO2 yet plugging readily into an electrical grid powered by coal—might be assuaged.

As the white pine was being decimated, spruce logging began in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it wasn’t long before almost all species—fir, birch, larch, oak—were fair game. Bangor became the biggest lumber city in the world, and its front door, the Penobscot River, was the key to it all, the logs’ highway.

Logging museums and television specials romanticize the life of the nineteenth century Maine logger. It was not romantic. It was hard.

Lumbermen started work in the woods in the late fall and stayed the whole winter. They lived in crude smoky camps, slept on cut boughs, and ate four huge meals a day—five thousand calories of beans and pork and dried cod. They cut trees with axes and hand saws, cleared paths down to the rivers, hauled up water to make the paths icy, skidded the logs along behind oxen, and piled them on the river bank or on the frozen ice of the river itself, waiting for the spring thaw. When the ice was out, they pushed the logs into the water, then danced on the immense booms with pike and peavey staff to herd the logs along, to free jams, to sort the logs for the mills. It was dangerous and dirty work. Many were killed or disfigured. They saw their families a few months of the year.

If this is romantic, it’s a peculiarly American kind: the company of men, the battle against nature, self-reliance, the peace and beauty of the forest (after the noisy day was done).

As he was for many things, Thoreau was both vector and cure for this disease. In The Maine Woods, he describes the primitive construction of the loggers’ houses, hardly distinguishable from the hovels for the oxen, and then has this to say: “They are very proper forest houses, the stems of the trees collected together and piled up around a man to keep out wind and rain, — made of living green logs, hanging with moss and lichen, and with the curls and fringes of the yellow birch bark, and dripping with resin, fresh and moist, and redolent of swampy odors, with that sort of vigor and perennialness even about them that toadstools suggest.”

He’s almost love-struck by the springtime log drives: “It was easy to see that driving logs must be an exciting as well as arduous and dangerous business.”

But it’s the timber explorers, those solitary men scouting out new killing grounds, who get the really schizophrenic treatment. They are envied—“They work ever with a gun as well as an axe, let their beards grow, and live without neighbors, not on an open plain but far within a wilderness”—and castigated—“The explorers and lumbermen generally are all hirelings, paid so much a day for their labor, and as such they have no more love for wild Nature than wood-sawyers have for forest.”

Ultimately, of course, he comes down on the side of the angels. “There is a higher law affecting our relations to pine as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man.” Thoreau applied his American practicality to the romanticism of Wordsworth.

John S. Springer was another literary voice in the wilderness, publishing his book Forest Life and Forest Trees in 1851. But he was Thoreau’s dark side, or mirror image; indeed, the dark side of the transcendental movement. He could say that the forests “give to savage life the power of enchantment,” but then calculate rather coldly and happily that the trees would last only another fifty years, decreasing under the saw and axe by 10 percent a year. Who else but a nineteenthcentury man could state: “The time is yet distant when its [the Penobscot River’s] banks shall exhibit the same advances in agricultural industry and wealth which now beautify, enrich and enliven the banks of the Kennebeck.”

Although Thoreau and Springer roamed the woods about the same time, it’s unknown whether they ever met or what debates they might have had—both men rough in their way, both men loners, one making a God of nature, the other a God of man.

That American dichotomy towards nature continues. In 2009 the Discovery Channel started airing episodes of American Loggers about the Pelletier family in Maine, promoting the show as follows:

In the far northeastern corner of the United States lies a vast primeval back-country known as the North Maine Woods. This breathtaking wilderness constitutes the single largest swath of unprotected forest north [sic] of the Mississippi—and serves as the setting for a century-old way of life that demands the utmost from men and machines who return year after year to reap nature’s bounty. . . . They cut roads through the mud and snow, harvest timber with fearsome machines and drag monstrous bundles of wood to waiting trucks which hurtle down unpaved, ice-covered logging routes at breakneck speeds to mills throughout the U.S. and Canada. It’s a brutal and dangerous existence in which a twist of fate, one error in judgment, can yield horrific consequences: mangled equipment, injury, and even death.

I’m of course struck by the contrast between “unprotected forest” and “reap nature’s bounty.” Will we never get over our Puritan impulses and contradictions?

Yet in those very “fearsome machines” might lie temporary salvation, at least until we figure out what we’re going to do when we finally grow up: the cut-to-length (CTL) system. Inside the CTL processor, one man and his computer control the cutter at the end of a long arm. The tree is felled, delimbed, cut into mill lengths, the hardwoods sorted for lumber, the conifers for chipping and pulping, and then piled up for the forwarder to bring to the roadside. Thus, three other, much cruder machines are replaced: the feller-buncher, the grapple-skidder, and the de-limber. The CTL system neatly selects trees and hardly damages the woods.

Yet it’s still a brutal business. My wife and I traveled for most of one day on the Golden Road between Millinocket and Quebec. It was a beautiful day in September, but the logs piled in clearings every few miles resembled nothing so much as the bone leavings of some ogre’s lunch. The only vehicles on the road besides our little blue Civic for the sixty miles to Greenville and Moosehead Lake were a few pickups and a couple of sedans—and, of course, the logging trucks, driving at highway speed on the dirt road, careening around corners with enough tilt, I swear, to spill a quarter million pounds of wood on top of us with just one degree more of lean. At one point, a truck blasted out of a side road just in front of us without stopping; perhaps he saw us, correctly judged the angles, and wanted to give the flatlanders a thrill.

Should logging become a boutique business? Should trees be carefully grown, selected, and harvested with minimal impact? (Maybe we should mark every tree with a number as European farmers do for livestock.) There are attempts. Baxter State Park includes a Scientific Forest Management Area, as do many land trusts—for example, The Nature Conservancy, which purchased 185,000 acres along the St. John River in northernmost Maine and is managing the forest according to sustainability criteria.

When Mary Adams, a Maine conservation gadfly, heard of this, she reportedly said, “They’ll be practicing wine and cheese logging.” I hope so! Logs should become precious, each one treasured, at least until the world’s insatiable need for paper is curbed or cured by some wondrous replacement.

The need for paper has been, until recently, the force driving logging in Maine since the nineteenth century. Until then, paper was mostly made from rags and was relatively expensive. Then mechanical pulping of woods was developed, followed by chemical baths in sulfur solutions (which is why pulp mills stink). By the 1880s, the paper companies were kings of the woods, and this dominance extended all the way into the 1970s. By the mid-twentieth century, Maine was the United States’ leading paper producer (it is still number two today, after Wisconsin), and as late as 1960 the Great Northern paper mill in Millinocket was the largest in the world.

Because of their long fibers, spruce and fir are ideal for making paper, and the spruce and fir forests in Maine seemed endless. Logging was relentless; although Maine’s lumber production peaked in 1909, the paper companies continued to exploit the woods in ever more brutal ways. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, huge clear-cuts were common. The companies used herbicides and insecticides liberally to clear out the understory and combat the spruce budworm. The use of rivers for log drives wasn’t banned until 1976. The future of the woods was very much in doubt.

Yet the paper companies were stewards, inadvertently or not. They replanted almost everything they cut down (90 percent of pulp now comes from plantations and reforested areas). They constructed the thousands of miles of crude roads that allow access for the public. Most telling for Maine, they allowed hunting and fishing on their lands, and still largely do, through Maine North Woods, Inc. a cooperative that charges small fees for local use.

But at the end of the twentieth century, things started to change. Competition from the U.S. West and South, from Canada, from Asia and South America, and especially from Siberia decreased the investment value of the woods. In defense, Maine companies started to produce specialty papers, rekindle interest in hardwoods, and manufacture a host of diversified wood products, such as fences, cabinets, furniture, and dowels. For a few years Maine was the world’s leader in toothpick production. But these were small potatoes, not enough to keep the stock in the big paper companies going up, and the companies began selling their lands to the real estate investment trusts.

The drive to exploit natural resources—is it an inevitable part of being human? Must we bear these endless scenarios of discovery and exploitation, and the heartache and hard work and self-sacrificing efforts of the public to seek remedies? Who are the public? Can it be as simple as no child left inside? Until as many people as possible experience and love and cherish the natural world, the cycle will never be broken.

I wish no tree ever had to be cut. Or if it’s necessary, may it be only those suffering butt-rot or wind-throw. This is totally unrealistic and naive, given our way of life and the importance of the paper industry to Maine.

Yet we can do our part. We were in Massachusetts for that fierce southeaster of 2008 and got an email from our neighbor, saying that the seventy-mile-per-hour winds had blown down several of our trees. At first I panicked, thinking she meant the perfect fir trees directly in our view of the bay and clinging to the edge of the bank. I called her on the phone and discovered the icons were safe, that other firs had fallen—one on the north caving in and now horizontal, the other on the south still mostly propped by its neighbors. A third tree, a large birch, was struck down across our leaching field in back.

Trees of Maine

By the time I got to Owls Head, things didn’t look so bad from the safety of the house. But up close the fallen trees were huge, and another fir now leaned more dramatically toward the house and would have to come down. It was a little alarming to see how shallow and small the root balls were, how such little horizontality produces such great verticality. I was just as happy to have been away, not listening to crashes, not waiting for the branch through the window, not worrying about the thinness of topsoil on this hard granite coast, not feeling guilty about squatting on this fragile system.

As usual I called Dave, the town’s tree contractor and all-around lawn service guy. He and his son delimbed and chunked up the fallen trees and hauled away the branches. I hauled the chunked logs to the area beside the garage, stacked them for drying, and split them over the next months.

None of my part involves motors or loud noises or callused hands. I tried borrowing a friend’s chainsaw to delimb the tree that had fallen on the leaching field. In preparation, I had read the instructions, oh, maybe nine or ten times, and eventually I got the beast going in spite of the uncertainties of the choke. In the course of ninety minutes, I stopped for gas and aching back (once each) and stalled out twice. I was happy to return the resistible force and leave real work to the experts.

But everyone can rejoice in the beauty of physical labor, the richness of the cycle of the carbon atom, and the scent and sight of new wood opened to the world. The rock-hard wood yields grudgingly to the expert’s saw, giving up its lovely, fruitful rings to the eye. Each log, heavy with water and life, strains the back thrice, lifting it to the wheelbarrow for transport, stacking it on the pile to dry, taking it off to split. At splitting time the axe reveals the rushing rivers of fibers inside; the scent of newly opened wood is as complex and fraught as the smell of fresh-baked bread. Then, in the depths of January, each corporeal log-body vanishes in an inferno of burned oxygen and escaping carbon and contentment around a stove.

Like all the stages of warming that a tree can give, from chopping to splitting to burning, nature also warms me. I look at a hill covered with trees. I walk the trails of our woods. I think about my place in the world. I think about trying to capture that place in words. I write the words that capture the look. I hope that the effort helps warm a cold world.

But in the final analysis, I don’t understand how the atoms of nature can do all this: pure energy by themselves, nothing really but imagination and belief; airy in leaves and in our lungs; soft and supple in the shivering of an aspen; hard and bountiful in the trunk of a tree; tender in the shape of a cheekbone. Atoms have no moral dilemmas. But in the natural world they couple and decouple most elegantly, except when humans divide them.

So much for the good intentions of my little forest world—the electricity coming into the house derives from evil power sources, and the motor car that brought me here is really unmentionably selfish, and the destructive food system that maintains my body is as convenient as it is unnatural. When the questioning, despairing mind takes over like this, what to do? Give up things? What exactly? Move way up north and experience the beauty, the destruction, for myself? Give time and money to all the great causes? Read the books of Scott and Helen Nearing, Baron Wormser, and Louise Dickinson Rich for their alternate waves of inspiration and guilt?

This is the original curse of Eden, the divide between thought and action, the tension between things of poetry and things of commerce. What can we do but each according to his gifts?

Tree growing around a rock

The leaning fir was handled by two men from Northeast Tree Service, master A and apprentice B, with A doing all the sexy work and B cleaning up. It took two chain saws—one little, one big—a couple of ropes, and less than an hour. Master A cut off the lowest branches. He strapped spikes to his boots and a wide belt to his waist and started shinnying up the tree, wielding the little chain saw with one hand and lopping off limbs as he went, leaving a few branch stumps as anchors for his belt. B pulled the fallen branches away and piled them for the chipper. At the top of the tree, A cut off the crown; B hauled the Christmas tree away. A attached ropes to the shorn top of the tree; B laid them out across the lawn. As A descended, he cut off the branch stumps close to the trunk, and at the tree’s base, he notched the tree to prepare its fall. A and B pulled on the ropes and the tree fell perfectly, between garden and house. With the big chain saw, A chunked up the tree and B organized the chunks into piles. It was all brutal, beautiful.

I forgot to ask them to take down the little dead spruce at the edge of the shore. On a cold clear day in January, I did it myself, with handsaw and axe. It was just a little tree—maybe twenty-five feet tall, six inches in diameter—but I struggled, unmotorized. Chopping a notch at the base took twenty minutes; delimbing another half-hour, with rests; and then sawing the trunk into stove lengths, the rest of the afternoon. What exertions for a few minutes of warmth in the wood stove. With what exertions, efficient expertise, and sheer and overwhelming power the big machines provide the necessities and luxuries of modern America.

In spite of sore limbs, it was pleasant to work in the cold, in the sweat of my body, on the edge of the bay. Back inside on my rocking chair, weary and gratified, I thought of Thoreau once more. “I stand in awe of my body,” he exclaimed on the slopes of Mt. Katahdin, “this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, — that my body might, — but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solidearth! the actualworld! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? whereare we?”

It seems to me that we have regressed in the effort to answer Thoreau’s questions and understand his exclamation marks. He begs for more contact. With most technical advances we have less.

In the winter I try to heat the house mostly with the wood stove, keeping the thermostat as low as possible, channeling Thoreau if I can. The woodstove also offers a most un-Thoreauvian distractibility: I get up constantly to check the burn; open a vent or door for just a little more air; brush wood bits from the floor under the log rack and ash bits from the brick apron in front of the stove; haul more logs from the garage; check the stovepipe thermometer, then the house’s, then the outside one, and feel virtuous. In fact, I’m doing anything to get me away from the balky sentence I’m trying to write, the lame phrase, the description that slithers around like Jello, the clichés that just will not leave the brain, and the impossibility of transitions between paragraphs.

Well, never mind the words. The very idea of the tree is holy, the most powerful symbol in the world. In Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the tree is the being that unites heaven and earth. It’s the world tree, the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Its symbolism and mythology are overwhelmingly complex, from the Garden of Eden to the Kabbalah to the Druids; and, of course, Christ was a carpenter and was crucified on a wooden cross, a tree like no other. What immensities do we lose when we forget the blessings of the tree?

Maine is now the country’s most heavily forested state, with 90 percent of its land in woods—18 million acres, the same as in 1600. These are not, however, old-growth forests, only patches of which still exist in Maine—of ninety-three such sites, only eleven are larger than fifty acres. They survived mostly because they were hard to get to, or because they were preserved, like 23,000 acres in Baxter State Park. I’ve never been in one, even though I think I was meant to be born in the century and spirit of Thoreau.

In the rest of the woods, remnants of the old ways are everywhere: old foundations, pieces of bridge on river banks, rock wall fences, gentleman’s farms, logging roads, ruined root cellars. It was a hard way of life, and we’re grateful for our modern comforts and the agribusinesses in Iowa and the smelters in Idaho and the computer guys in Silicon Valley that supply them. But we need to stop now, go back there, and walk through the endless wild forests, if only to learn how to be closer to family and nature. We need the trees. Wilderness is nothing without them. Tundra, Saharan desert, the jagged wastes of mountains above the treeline—those are wildernesses of danger and cruelty. Our Maine wilderness is a revelation, not a condemnation. Even though old-growth forests are a dream, a museum of the imagination, they inspire us to reclaim the knowledge of good and evil. If the money boys get them all, then we’ll really see a desert.


Photo credits: Cynthia R. Dockrell

  • Jim Krosschell

    Jim Krosschell divides his life into three parts: growing up for twenty-nine years, working in science publishing for twenty-nine years, and now writing in Massachusetts and Maine. His essays are widely published; a collection of those Maine-themed has been published in One Man’s Maine (May 2017) by Green Writers Press. His book, Owls Head Revisited, was published in 2015 by North Country Press.

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