Leaning hard into the steep, snow-covered hillside, I hear only the sounds of my labored breathing and the cadence of crunching snow under foot in the sub-zero January air. With the weight of three choker chains draped over my right shoulder and the drag of a 175-foot steel cable pulling on my left, I cautiously place another step forward uncertain if balance and steel-studded boots will once again overcome gravity and the absence of friction. I climb higher, with each step and muscle memory building confidence in my long-out-of-practice French Technique mountain climbing style.
I reach my destination, kick a boot into the sun-crusted snow for stability, wrap the choker chains around three large, freshly cut logs and tether the three chains to the steel cable. Slowly shifting my body to an upright position, I take a moment to soak in the winter beauty of the wide deep valley below me. The valley is all mine, I think. The autumn sportsmen are gone, and the next batch of significant human traffic will not be until spring flowers and migrating birds return. I spot a snow-covered carcass of a bur oak tree not far from my position. It’s been laying on this bluff for decades, all that’s left is the main trunk and dozens of large branch stubs that were once massive, wide-sweeping limbs. Soon, I say, to the lifeless oak. “The oak savanna will reign again on this bluff!”
As is the standard process for any ecological restoration project, the practitioner needs to determine the proper plant community to restore. In this particular case, a review of the first historical survey records (1833 – 1866) reveal surveyor notes stating “Land broken oak timber Bur, White & Black oak, undergrowth brushy land.” We also found a 1940 aerial photo that shows an open bluff hillside with widely scattered large trees. This historical info, along with a few native “indicator” plant species still holding on in the small open areas, tells us this bluff hillside was originally oak savanna - an endangered ecological community. Sometime after 1940, red pine and black locust were planted in a misguided attempt to stabilize the droughty eroding sandy soil likely laid bare by excessive grazing. Other tree species invaded such as white mulberry, Siberian elm and black walnut. And finally, grazing was stopped all together allowing more woody species to invade. All of this, along with the absence of historical periodic fire, enabled invading trees to overtop and kill (via deep shade) the wide and massive (but relatively short) oak trees as well as the original savanna herbaceous ground layer.
Sitting on the tractor behind the protective logging winch cage, I engage the winch clutch, the steel cable stiffens, and the three logs begin their journey down the hill. Somewhat free sliding at first, but straightening out and moving in unison once they reach the less steep part of the slope. Moments later, they obediently arrive at the tractor. I (via tractor) drag them to the log pile, unhook, and neatly stack the three logs on the top of the pile using the logging grapple (massive claws) mounted on the tractor’s front-end loader.
Magic, I think. Within minutes, a large black locust tree is removed from the hillside and stacked in piles to be utilized as firewood at a later date. It wasn’t long ago, I would remove a tree like this by cutting it up into manageable pieces and moving it downhill by hand – a much longer and physically demanding process. Now, as a “seasoned” woodsman, Paul Fuchs, who rarely leaves his woodlot would say – I’ve graduated to the Woodman’s Holy Trinity of tools: the chainsaw, winch and grapple!
Most folks know what a chainsaw is, and a tractor-powered logging grapple with its gripping claws is not hard to imagine. A logging winch, however, may be a bit more difficult to visualize. It mounts onto the back of a tractor, has a heavy-duty, vertically protruding screened cage that protects the tractor/winch operator, a heavy-duty blade that bites into the ground counteracting the weight of the winch load (logs), and a spool of cable powered by the power-take-off of the tractor. The long cable allows access to logs in hard-to-reach places.
I think about the time period before industrial humankind was able to harness the explosive power of the internal combustion engine. Would I be able to do this work with ox, ax and hand saw? I’ll leave this thought exercise for another day, I think. For now, I’ll use the tools that I have available, as powerful as they are, to unlock a much greater power – the beauty, magnificence and splendor of a long-ago lost oak savanna.