When visitors ask what our main crop is on our little farm, they look a bit startled when I reply “wood.” They look even more startled when I say the reason wood is important to us is that it brings tranquility to our lives. In winter when an old man’s fancy turns to thoughts of staying warm, I am just about as happy to have a garage full of stove wood as to have a storeroom full of food. I could not afford to keep the house toasty warm with “bought” fuel. If the electricity conks out in a January blizzard, as it seems to do more often now than in years past, we can ride the storm out fairly well. Not only will we stay warm, but we can cook our food and warm our water. The mere thought of this kind of security relieves stress and brings tranquility— the Federal Reserve can take away the interest on our life’s savings, but I don’t think even that bunch of buzzards can take away the warmth from our wood. Tranquility is the most precious possession of life, possibly more conducive to good health than proper food, exercise or medication. Add to that the tranquility that can be achieved in the work of cutting and splitting wood in the sanctuary of the trees. I often think of one of my heroes, Scott Nearing, who kept cutting wood until he was 100 years old. He stopped then, figuring he had enough ahead to last the rest of his life.
In terms of income, we reckon our tree land brings in about $1000 a year from the value of the wood substituting for other home heating fuels and an occasional sale of sawlogs and veneer logs, plus some black walnut and cherry lumber turned into furniture. There are also nuts and mushrooms for food, and hickory bark for cooking and smoking meat on the grill. There are bean poles and fence posts and gate boards and chicken roosts too. A thousand dollars is not much in terms of today’s high-flying business profits, but even this small amount, in terms of saving money is interesting (another dratted pun). In the thirty years we have been doing this, that’s $30,000 and if that money were put regularly into a savings account at five percent interest, the total amount would be appreciable if the Fed hadn’t interfered. But the money-saver must look on the bright side. Money in a savings account earns no interest now, but on the other hand, lifetime savers aren’t paying out interest on debt either. Moreover, renewable fuel is a far better investment than money. If heating fuel should become unavailable, not all the money in the world can keep you warm unless you use it for stove wood.
What makes a woodlot a treasure are the intangible benefits it provides. Beauty for one thing. Some people drive for miles to see tree leaves change molten gold and red in the fall. We just look out the window. Also out the window, some 20 species of birds flock to the feeder in winter— a whole lot more entertaining than unreality TV. In summer we keep a sharp eye out for brilliant insects too: a regal moth, a luna moth, a zebra swallowtail butterfly, to name only the gaudiest. I have often wondered why these creatures don’t get a better press. No beauty of the tropics can bedazzle the eye any more than a regal moth and if you have walnut trees around, you should have these blazing red-orange flames, as big as a sparrow. Then there is that morning or two in winter when the rising sun’s rays strike the ice coating all the tree branches and each twig sparkles with the entire color spectrum of a rainbow. If that ice spectacle could co-exist with 78 degree F air temperature, that would be all the heaven I could stand.
Trees teach patience, another key to achieving a little tranquility in this feverish world. Every day I walk under a dead oak branch that hangs by a few fibrous strands, looking like it could fall at any moment. It has been hanging that way for four years now.
Trees also teach true environmental understanding. Or maybe the right word is environmental awe, not understanding. Occasional visitors to woodland may not realize that the tranquility they sense is in their minds only. When you live in the woods you realize that all those trees seeming to be growing in peace with each other are locked in mortal combat, fighting for their very lives. For every one that gains ascendancy, others will die in its shade.
Stepping outside in the cruel winds of winter, I wonder sometimes why I live the way I do, braving the cold both morning and night to take care of animals. Then I reach the woods and suddenly the biting wind does not burn my face. Soon I reach the barn, sheltered by the trees, and go inside. It seems, with the animals all crowding around, that it is downright warm in there. And so peaceful. That’s when I know why I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. Even the worst days on the farm are better than the best days in a factory.