Monday, February 25, 2008

Goodbye Privacy Tulip

The glorious Privacy Tulip on the last day of its long life.

Our house sits on a windswept ridge in southeastern Ohio. The woods are all around us, but they are recovering woodlands, with few tree more than 40 or so years old. Timber harvesting happens all around us every year. Somebody's woods will have finally grown old enough to be 'harvestable'. Not ours. Our woods will never get old enough. Because we don't plan to timber them.

Several times every year various fellows in flannel shirts, Carhartts, and muddy boots come to the door and politely introduce themselves asking if we realized that we were sitting on ready cash with all these trees on our land. We smile and tell them "No Thanks!"

Our neighbor to the north is having his acreage timbered. It's a selective cut as they say. This means that instead of cutting everything standing, only the trees of a certain size will be cut. For two months now we've listened to the clanking roar of the bulldozer as the timber man cuts a muddy swath up and down the hills of our neighbor's land to get at the prime trees. Everything over 18" in diameter is being cut—and that means a LOT of trees. The chainsaw has whined nearly every day it wasn't raining or snowing. We've heard dozens of loud, creaking crashes—the very last sounds made by dozens of oaks, maples, hickories, and tulip poplars.

It's our neighbor's right to harvest his timber. We've got no recourse, so we tell ourselves that while the destruction being wrought is bad news for wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, Cerulean warblers, and box turtles, it might be good news for yellow-breasted chats and indigo buntings, and Kentucky warblers, and hooded warblers—all species that prefer brushy woodlands over older growth forests.

The one tree on the neighbor's land that we've had a special bond with is a giant old tulip poplar we called the Privacy Tulip. It blocked the direct view of our house and birding tower from the country road a half-mile across the valley. We liked having the privacy from the Privacy Tulip. All winter its branches covered the view of our house. In summer, its leaves smothered the noise of the county road. We worried that it would get cut down with all the other trees. The more we thought about it the more unhappy we became.

Viewed from our birding tower, the Privacy Tulip stands above all others. It's value to us is not measured in board feet.

Julie even called our neighbor to try to buy the tree, but he was having none of it. He was perfectly nice in turning her away but turn her away he did. To him, once a tree falls down from old age or weather, it's no good to anyone. Better to cut it now and make something useful out of it. I would argue that a downed tree makes for a healthier forest in the long run, adding to the richness of the soil, providing food and shelter for thousands of organisms, opening up the forest canopy to let sun and rain reach smaller trees. But that's not how our neighbor sees it. And I have to respect his opinion at least as far as the boundaries of our adjoining properties go.

So it was with a heavy heart a few Saturdays ago that I called to Julie when I realized the timber cutter had rumbled his 'dozer right up under the Privacy Tulip. He was so close I could hear him spit as he got off the 'dozer. The chainsaw started and it was over in a matter of minutes. The Privacy Tulip's reign on the hillside below our house was over. How long had it been there? Certainly long before our house was built. One hundred years? One hundred and fifty?
Leaning away from the biting chainsaw, the Privacy Tulip is brought down once and for all.

Twenty minutes later, scalped of its branches and crown, the core log of the Privacy Tulip—more than 34 inches in diameter near its base, was being dragged downslope through the mud to await stacking on the log truck for transport to the mill.

I think back on the many birds I've seen in that tree: the bluebirds loved it as a lookout perch. The cedar waxwings, too. They'd swirl to a stop in its top before dropping down to eat our grapes and wild cherries. All of the woodpeckers used the tree as a stopping point between feeders and nest sites. The male scarlet tanager always seemed to make his first major singing appearance of the spring in the top of the Privacy Tulip. What stage will he sing from now?

I can't go visit the stump just yet. I'm still trying to adjust to the new clear view of the county road off to our northwest. There is an un-fillable void there. The headlights of passing cars now dance across our walls where once they were blocked by a forest giant.
A gaping hole in the woodland horizon where the Privacy Tulip once stood.

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