When we moved to our new house in the mountains in October 1996, we sighed with relief , “No more yard work!” Hah! Little did we realize we would be doing the most intensive “yard work” we’d ever done for years to come. But now our “yard” was ten acres of forest land!
The forest was dry that first summer. A grass fire broke out not far from where our house was being built. When winter came, we had a heavy, wet snow. The sound of trees cracking penetrated the night. When we went out the next day, we found a half-dozen huge branches had broken off one of the biggest ponderosa pines; and numerous tall slender pinyon trees had broken halfway up, sending the top half to the ground. Broken trees and branches were everywhere.
When spring came and I walked through our property to assess the damage, I was concerned about what I saw. I called State Forestry and talked to George Duda. “I think our forest is dying”, I told George. “You’re right. It’s happening all over the West.”
George came out soon after and we talked about what needed to be done. Our trees needed to be thinned so there would be enough soil moisture for the remaining trees to stay hydrated and flexible, to prevent the kind of breakages we had had during the winter. We had our work cut out for us.
Over the coming years as we worked each fall to thin our trees, I learned to “think like a forest” I looked at the soil depth and the rock outcroppings and how they affected tree and plant growth. I looked at the condition of the trees and shrubs–did their form indicate they were healthy and flexible, and getting enough light? In short, I looked at what the forest and its’ various components were “telling” me —what was working and what was not–and made management decisions based on that.
Forest management isn’t just about thinning trees. Unlike landscape architecture, it isn’t about “designing” a forest. It’s about helping nature regenerate the complete forest ecosystem–the layers of wildflowers and grasses, shrubs and trees. It’s about preserving soil, and restoring a healthy, fire-resistant, multi-layered, multi-aged, forest that includes varied species of native trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers–and homes for wildlife.
I came to realize something not long after I had begun to do collage: Forest management at its’ best is an art form. What I was doing in forest management was the same thing I do when I make a collage. When I begin a collage, I look at the “bases” and paper resources I have and figure out where I’m going to begin. From that point on, it is almost beyond my control. The papers and other materials I’m working with “tell” me what to do with them. I reject those that aren’t working, and keep those that are. Each collage takes on a life of its own, and I am merely the instrument that puts it together.
Just as I cannot complete a collage in one day, or even several, and keep looking at it and adjusting it until I get it “right”, I regularly walk through and look at our forest to see what it is telling me to do next.
Nature threw us a curve ball this year. Due to serious drought last year, many of our larger oak stalks died and needed to be removed. It was like finding a splotch of paint or a piece of paper glued down on a piece I’m working on in a place it isn’t supposed to be: I have to adjust to it.
We’ve made a lot of progress though. Our forest land continues to recover, despite the drought. This year with exceptionally good rains, we have an abundance of wildflowers–particularly in the areas we first thinned 17-18 years ago. It’s beautiful!
It takes years for a damaged forest ecosystem to recover, but the results are worth it. We may never finish our “landscape” work of art, but we can enjoy it in the interim anyway. Who is it that said that “it is the process that counts, not the destination”?