On a sunny May morning in 2014, I packed a dibble bar and a box up a hill in the forest of northeastern Itasca County. The half-acre knob had been logged the previous summer, and I noted most of the stumps were red pine. Good, because the box held 360 red pine seedlings, fresh from a Canadian nursery.

I surveyed the site and figured I had just enough trees to "fill it up." I also appreciated the breeze playing across an expansive marsh sweeping to the northwest. The bugs were back twizzling scrums of gnats and mosquitoes in their post-winter hordes and the wind was toxin-free repellent. It's difficult to be entirely cheerful on a planting mission while insects are prospecting for blood in your nostrils.

The hill overlooks the Link Lake Trail Forest Road, a relatively well-traveled gravel stretch between Side Lake and Hwy. 65. Also good. Passing taxpayers would glimpse a DNR wildland firefighter in a yellow Nomex shirt vigorously working to re-establish pine on a cutover. After filling a tree bag with the first hundred seedlings, I buckled it around my waist then stashed the box in the shade of an elderly white spruce.

I inspected the ground, probing soil with the dibble. It's a tapered steel snout affixed to a long wooden handle, a kind of spear. There's also a metal foot pad that allows you to press the point into the dirt. The ground was soft and sandy ideal for young pine and no rocks were apparent. That meant I could thrust the dibble, one-handed, into the soil, which is faster and somehow more satisfying than easing it in with the foot pad. Striking rock with a thrust transmits a remarkable shudder of pain from your hand to your shoulder, like the sensation of an electrical shock.

At the north edge of the cutover I made my first stab, twisting the dibble a little to widen the hole. I cradled a seedling in my left hand and poked it in. These were "plugs" the roots packed with moist soil in a tubular shape, about nine inches long to the tip of the terminal bud. The needles were green and lush. I sealed the hole with the toe of my boot, the root collar flush with the ground.

On a forgiving site I can plant plugs at the rate of 200 an hour, but the hill had remnants of slash to negotiate. I timed my first 10 trees and extrapolated a rate of about 160 an hour. So, three hours with a couple of short breaks done in time for lunch.

And so it was. Just enough labor to feel righteous but not exhausted. I'd be ready for wildfire response in the afternoon if needed. With popcorn cumulus speckling an azure sky, and the bugs tamed by the breeze, it was a pleasing morning of proficiency and accomplishment.

But would the seedlings survive?

Like all living beings they were in peril. If drought ensued they'd shrivel to brown sticks. Deer or hares might literally nip them in the bud. A fire could turn them to ash. Disease might decimate. A careless human on an ATV could crush and uproot them. I've personally planted over 62,000 seedlings (about 88 acres) at several dozen locales over the past three decades, and overseen the planting of 60,000 more. I've had the privilege of returning to sites and relishing the spectacle of healthy trees 35 feet tall. Unfortunately, I've also gone back to ground where most of the little ones had vanished. I've said to fellow planters only half in jest, "Do good work, but don't come back here to look."

A year later, I was driving past the hill and slowed down to look. Grass and brush had resprouted, but I spotted some handsome young pine. I pulled over, scaled the hill, and was delighted to see that almost every seedling was still there. I pumped a fist, though aware the tale was not fully told.

This past May, six years after the planting, I returned with some trepidation again. To my joy, at least 95% of the trees, most of them taller than me, remained. Aspen saplings and some youthful balsam fir were interspersed with "my" red pine; a carpet of sweet fern, bracken, raspberry canes, blueberry bushes and large-leaved aster anchored the soil. It was a healthy young forest. Not all my doing, of course, but I'd been a significant agent.

Part of the satisfaction of that May morning in 2014 arises from the possibility that some of those trees could be still growing in 2114 and well beyond giants on the landscape, their root networks interlaced and signaling, creating and maintaining local habitat a sweet legacy of the labor.

But there's more than that. Whether the trees grow older or not, the planting was its own prize. The work was worthy, and since I was paid that day I earned my keep.

But there's another stratum to that morning. Besides the trees and the labor there was a happiness not strictly dependent upon either. I was close to the soil, intimate with the land. It was jammed beneath my fingernails. I smelled it. I scuffed it. There was a sense of orientation I knew precisely where I was and the generic name of that locale is "home." There was also a sense of fecundity, the emerald energies of spring, of renewal and release. There was literally no better place to be, and everything present even the damn bugs enunciated the word "alive."

During our pandemic (and it is ours, we own it), it's been widely reported that more people are spending more time outdoors than usual. The Minnesota State Parks, for example, have been bustling. Sure, it's safer outside and that is not to be discounted, but in the face of widespread illness, disability and death, where else is the antithesis health, vigor and life more evident than in the woods, on the lakeshore, in the garden, under the sky?

"Hope," wrote essayist E.B. White, "is the thing left us in a bad time." Webster's defines hope as "a feeling that what is wanted will happen." And in a bad time our wants can be clarified in close contacts with the happenings in the natural outdoors. Poet Emily Dickinson called hope "the thing with feathers," and perhaps it is also the thing with roots, needles, leaves, fur, waves and the crystalline design of snowflakes. I grant that May is kinder than December, but the latter merely requires more clothes.

As I write this, my red pines on the hill are draped with snow, and as trees do, they've entered a phase of exquisite respite that primes them for rejuvenation. The winter landscape will generously display its own charms and unctions. We too will be rejuvenated.

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground" and other books.

Read more here:
OPINION EXCHANGE | 'Hope is the thing left us in a bad time' - Minneapolis Star Tribune

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December 25, 2020 at 8:55 pm by Mr HomeBuilder
Category: Landscape Hill