Rarely, perhaps only once in a lifetime, does a farmer get to witness the natural evolution of a pasture turning to woods or its opposite in this case — a woods completely annihilated and reverting to pasture. The drought has accomplished this feat with such terrible speed and thoroughness that one can’t help but feel the shock and awe of it.
But mostly what I feel is sadness mixed with the dread of what unexpected change will intrude next.
The first “next” has come this winter, riding on those arctic blasts that have taken their toll on our vegetables. Winds up to 50 mph have been the death knell for hundreds of rotting hackberry and cedar elm trees at our river farm. Three times this month our road was blocked by a fallen tree. In the 10-acre flood plain between our barn and the river, the entire woods is dead — a vertical graveyard of gray limbs drowning in a sea of brown ragweed. These fronts always startle the nerves at first – a wave of frigid air rushes in and you can almost see its icy claws shaking the canopy overhead. But now those canopies are less than bare ruined choirs — thinned out or completely gone — and the wind feels sharper and meaner, as if it’s brought along an angry Paul Bunyan to knock the stuffing out of this place.
Crack, snap, and thud. This is how a forest disappears. One tree at a time. How unnatural this thing they all succession. It feels more like surrender and I, the owner, feel like nature tricked me. This woods hasn’t simply retreated, it’s disappeared — in two short years! Any woods in Texas is a bonus and this one was lush and wild when we purchased it in 2009. Its trees thrived in the rich silty loam, growing 50 feet or more. Some of the hackberries were so big their gray trunks were as smooth as beech. They offered shade and windbreak and food for wildlife. If I’d had the water and time I would have tried saving each of them; after all, a farmer’s natural impulse is to nurse the farm’s weak and withering.
But these are not natural times, at least from my limited perspective of 56 years. And so I decided to do a very unnatural thing. I decided to assist the Master Pruner by pushing the trees over with the tractor. It’s a slightly dangerous yet oddly pleasant job. I feel part bully, part casket bearer as I drive up to them, raise the front loader, and size up their weakness. My tractor is not big, so I have to ram with force and speed. As in any fight, a half-hearted attempt is ruinous. The tree will either let go and topple or spring back and wobble; if the latter, the tractor rears up like a horse, its front wheels spinning a foot or two above the ground. As I back off, the limbs above me sometimes snap and cascade down on me. It’s then that I realize how just dangerous — and exciting — this is.
And oddly therapeutic. It’s as if the farm’s new year’s resolution — and mine — were joined together: Clear out the deadwood and make room for new life.
Once I am used to a vertical place turned horizontal, I hope I’ll come to enjoy the idea of a pasture, with its green grass and its open space and clear view down to the river. I’m sure to plant a few trees, too. They won’t be hackberries.