Look first at the little photo.
Volunteer stewards cut the brush. The fellow atop the pile keeps it as compact aspossible so that it won’t sterilize more of the ground than necessary when it burns. Most of what’s being cut here is invasive buckthorn — still green after the other trees have dropped their leaves.
But this is an oak woods. The oldest oaks here are large trees with broad spreading branches. They’re hardly visible in this photo, as young pole trees are taking over. No oaks can reproduce in this much shade, even without the buckthorn. Invasive native species including green ash and silver maple threaten to shade out and eliminate most of the natural trees. With the oaks go the butterflies, birds, and most other animal species of the ancient ecosystem. Thus, more trees need to be thinned, step by step, until it’s light enough for the oaks to reproduce with their whole entourage of natural neighbors.
Now look at the big snowy winter scene.
Oh, this is a peaceful, happy forest — an oak woodland being true to itself. Broad, spreading, heavy limbs on the bur oaks tell us that when these ancient trees were young, they stood well apart from each other, in full sun. They’re all bur oaks except for the scarlet oak (top right), that keeps its leaves in winter. Old oaks sometimes topple and die and host colorful mushrooms, as they always have. The death of an ancient tree is beautiful and natural, here where controlled burns run through, and young oaks are thriving.
When we walk through this soft landscape, we see the tracks of the deer mice and coyotes, and hear the few chickadees that mind this place until the spring, when hundreds of species explode in all their ancient magic. It’s our privilege, we who care about the woods, to be the good stewards. May the magic live on.
Words and photos by Stephen Packard.