Not long after we got here, I noticed something about our forest. Most of the trees, regardless of species or stature, seemed to be doing poorly. Some, like the eastern dogwood, were affected by anthracnose; the pines were suffering with bark beetles; the few hemlocks had wooly adelgids, and the oaks were suffering from something, maybe Sudden Oak death—a disease related phytologically to the Irish potato famine, but symptomatically to Dutch Elm Disease and the Chestnut blight.
These diseases have wreaked havoc with the great Eastern forests over the last century. Chestnut blight removed fully a quarter of the eastern forest canopy in the blink of an eye; the tannic-acid rich skeletons of the ancient chestnuts can still be found in some places, resisting decay to the very end. Likewise the dutch elm disease, though it more specifically targeted the massive urban planting of stately elm trees. Cities still bear the scars left from the death of these giants of the shaded boulevard. In my own lifetime, I have seen the deep green ravines of the Blue Ridge, once lined with timeless hemlocks, bleached of the deep cool green to a lifeless pale grey, sunlight streaming through their barren and denuded cathedrals to bake the earth and streams below.
But locally, on our little hilltop, some species fare better than others: the prolific, though prosaic and not particularly useful maples and poplars. Quick growing and producing plentiful airborne seeds, these species provide less mast and forage than the oaks and hickories, and their wood burns fast and clean in the stove. But it is light wood, and a cord of maple and poplar has a fraction of the heat value of a cord of hickory or oak, for about the same amount of bother in bucking, splitting and stacking. (Actually, poplar and maple are joys to split compared to oak and hickory; it makes one feel powerful to go through a stack of poplar in no time flat, a great heap of neat, nearly geometric cleavages).
Recently, we have come to understand the geology underlying our hilltop a little better, and this led me to a better appreciation of our poor little forest. They are doing the best they can. Because if you scratch the surface here, quite literally you will find rock. Lots of it. Wide spread and not too far beneath the thin dirt surface, in long ribs and ridges, blades running north-south parallel to the greater ridge and ravine formations.
In a gamble typical of nature, the seeds were cast onto this hillside that three generations ago was probably open pastureland. It is clearly second-, third-, or fourth-growth forest. The axe has been known here for a very long time, and the plow, and the fence row, and the hoof. These trees took their gamble and are making the best of it they can given the thin poor soil and the unremitting porpyhry underlying it.
I feel like we have taken the same gamble. We cast our lot onto this thin, poor hilltop, and are making the best of it. We have good days and we have bad days. We will go on growing here, to what end we do not know. We will give it our best, as we have done for these six years so far, and hope that the fates will look kindly on our little venture.
I feel a little better about the trees now that I understand better exactly what may be keeping them back. I feel a little bit of kinship, I guess, understanding now the sere cloak of earth that covers the ancient bones beneath.