Rationalizing the Forest

I was sitting in my easy chair, reading proofs on a future book, when there came a whish and a whomp and I looked out to see an oak tree lying across the lawn. I had asked the tree people to take it down but I hadn’t expected it to happen that fast. Ironically, the proofs I was reading had been printed double-sided by the copy editor “to save a forest.” Different forest.

My forest has been expanding and intruding on our open space. When we bought the land there was very little open space and I had to deforest a considerable area before we could build our house. But the trees on the side of our open space consider it a challenge and are spreading their branches out ever further into our territory. So when I was given a gift of ten hours of tree work, the best use to make of it seemed to be forest reduction.

But it hurts. I can’t be comfortable seeing a tree fall. My mother’s voice is repeating the lines: “Woodman, spare that tree! Touch not a single bough!” I struggled with every decision. I’ve rationalized each one of them.

They’ve taken down a hickory, an oak, an ash, and a maple. The ash was dead anyway and ash is the best firewood, so I have no problem with that. The hickory was in the middle of my orchard and a “pignut hickory” anyway, not the wonderful shagbark. Maple? I have more maples than I can tap. Oak? Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Here’s my rationale: every tree I cut down in the forest will quickly be replaced by another. If I open a clear space, a seedling will quickly take advantage of it. There may even be a net increase of leafage. And the downed tree will be reduced to firewood to warm the house where I sit reading proof on paper from someone else’s forest. It’s called the balance of nature.

But George Pope Morris’s lines haunt me none the less.

WOODMAN, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now.
‘Twas my forefather’s hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not!

That old familiar tree,
Whose glory and renown
Are spread o’er land and sea,
And wouldst thou hew it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
Cut not its earth-bound ties;
O, spare that aged oak,
Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy
I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy [?]
Here too my sisters played.
My mother kissed me here;
My father pressed my hand —
Forgive this foolish tear,
But let that old oak stand!

My heart-strings round thee cling,
Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
And, woodman, leave the spot;
While I’ve a hand to save,
Thy axe shall hurt it not.

Unless thy branches stretch out too far or I need another ream of paper.

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