Humility is a virtue we humans do not come by easily. Our culture —as reflected, for example, in TV ads and on football fields—doesn’t celebrate humility. Modest, unassuming people are rarely portrayed as winners and heroes.
For most of us, it takes a couple of really rough knocks before life’s lessons sink in.
And it seems that the more sure of ourselves we are, the tougher it is to learn to let go of our pride and vanity.
Sometimes I like to think that those of us who make our living in the woods have a leg up on humility. (Interestingly, the word humble is akin to humus, as in soil or dirt.) Using chainsaws and winches on trees that often seem to have a mind of their own, or operating skidders and other heavy equipment over terrain that is rarely flat, and often muddy or icy: all are perilous. So most “woods-workers,” especially loggers, possess a healthy respect for dangers that threaten life and limb.
Those of us who work in the logging, forestry, or timber production business have learned from past mistakes. We’ve come a long way from Gifford Pinchot’s conviction that a crop of timber can be grown like a crop of corn. In our home states of Wisconsin and Michigan, the history of greed and arrogance was literally written on the land after the big Cut-Over. And we all know about how, in a few short decades, the American Chestnut—monarch of the American forests that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River—was all but exterminated from its range by the deadly blight carried by the Asian fungus Endothia parasitica, which arrived on our shores in 1904 with a shipment of imported Chinese Chestnuts. No longer could we take for granted “the tree that built America” and provided wood for railroad ties, barns and fences, house-framing, furniture, and tannin for leather processing.
We learn our lessons slowly. In recent years, our new-found humility is reflected in our willingness to view forests more holistically. Discoveries about the fragility and complexity of natural systems and their susceptibility to unforeseen influences and manipulation have changed our once-naïve notions about the limitlessness and resiliency of our forest resources.
Marketing wood products has also changed. Increasing numbers of consumers are appreciating the unique beauty of “character-wood” and are willing to pay for it: Bring on the knots and spaulting! In Europe, “blue-stain,” often the bane of oak producers in the U.S., is fetching a handsome value-added price.
We are learning that we can’t understand forest productivity without understanding forest soils—including the critters and organisms that reside in that soil. Highly productive forest soils are teeming with life. Microbes, invertebrates, and fungi all serve to recycle and release nutrients vital to a tree’s growth and vitality. The presence of particular species of arthropods (insects, millipedes, spiders) is essential to the vital process of decomposition. Harpathae, a millipede that produces cyanide, is one of the only creatures that can digest conifer needles, thus starting the nutrient cycling process. By making nutrients available, soil-dwelling bacteria and fungi are also crucial to forest productivity.
Up until a few years ago, most of us would have considered Earthworms high on the list of “tree friends.” Not so! It turns out that none of our earthworm species is native to the Great Lakes Region of North America. (Any native North American species of earthworms that may have been here became extinct when glacial ice sheets covered the upper Midwest 11,000 to 14,000 years ago.) For thousands of years, no earthworms existed in this region—until European settlers began arriving.
So our forest ecosystems evolved in the absence of earthworms. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have documented dramatic changes in the native hardwood forests of Wisconsin and Michigan when these exotic earthworms invade. These worms are incredibly efficient at decomposing organic materials, and that is exactly the problem: earthworms, though beneficial in agriculture, are too good at what they do.
In forests (especially maple-basswood stands) where worms are abundant, trees suffer. Earthworms consume fallen leaves too quickly, removing the duff layer needed by tree seedlings and other native plants. The result is an impoverished forest floor that becomes compacted, dry, leached of nitrogen and potassium, and open to invasion by non-native invasive plants such as Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard.
What can you do to slow the spread of worms in our woods? When fishing, don’t release live bait on land or in the water. Learn more by visiting dnr.wi.gov/invasives. Consider what George Bernard Shaw said: “Except during the nine months before he draws his first breath, no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does.” Stay humble.
Gigi La Budde is owner of Bison Belly Futures, an ecological restoration, education, and consulting business in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin. She has served as a FISTA instructor since 2004 for both BMPs for Invasive Species and Forest Ecology classes. Gigi welcomes your questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-588-2048.