We had a peeling party on our land this week.
On Monday most of the trees were selected from our 44 acres. (See The First 100 Trees )
As the trees were recorded on Della’s clipboard, a work party of 3 peelers started to work. (Each tree was numbered, and its location and length was determined so the crew would know how many feet up it needed to have branches removed and have the bark peeled.)
The building process practiced by Whole Trees Architecture and Construction selects trees from the woods by considering both the building’s needs and the needs of the forest. This is nothing like clear cutting. After these trees are removed, the woods will be healthier for it.
To support a truly green, forest-friendly process, the selected trees are immediately peeled. After its bark is removed, the tree will die and dry to a much lighter weight by the time it is cut sometime this winter. Felling takes place after the ground freezes to cause minimum damage to the forest floor. The lighter timber is easier to handle and requires less power equipment to move around, and that in turn minimizes disruption to the surrounding growing area.
Peeling the trees also allows us to see any flaws, holes, disease and structural damage before dragging them out of the woods.
At this point, after having as many as nine people working from Monday to Wednesday, we have peeled about half of the 140 selected trees. The biggest are about 11” in diameter at chest height, and even these are smaller than anything that would normally be harvested in a conventional logging operation suitable for milled lumber to make a house.
Every one of the trees was chosen purposefully with the health of the forest in mind.
Many of the trees we will use will be pines and spruce because we have a lot of those, and they badly need thinning. Other trees selected include elm, walnut, oak and cherry.
Some were in overcrowded groupings, and their removal will help their neighbors thrive. Some had died of disease of unknown causes in the last year. Some are in areas bordering our prairie remnants that we would like to expand for ecological reasons.
So far, I have only worked on trimming off the branches off pines and spruce for the peelers. Using our really neat hand and pole saws (see posts singing their praises: tree herders upgrade and saws-the-sequel) makes the job go easier.
Most of the branches I have cut are brown and brittle because the trees badly need thinning, and their lower branches have all died. Cutting branches 17 feet in the air can get a little hard on the back of your neck, as you continually gaze skyward, but it’s a satisfying job.
Peeling is a dramatic step.
A 6” diameter cherry gave off such a strong, sweet aroma of cherries as its bark was removed that those working on them said, it almost made them queasy. I could smell the cherry when they were done from 20 feet away.
Spruce peel well. Walnuts are like unwrapping a birthday present.
After participating in the tree-choosing process, Doug joined the crew on some of the trimming and peeling.
With the right tools, he found peeling to be a slow but steady process towards revealing each tree’s inner post, beam or rafter. Using a draw knife, bark spud or glancing blows from a hatchet allowed him to get a start, slicing through the outer bark, the cork cambium and importantly, the secondary phloem that allows nutrients to flow from the photosynthetic leaves or needles down to the roots. (check out a great cross section view at arborday.org )
After getting a good start, a sturdy blade at the end of a 5 foot long handle can be used to remove long strips of bark. Eventually, slipping the handle into a 10 foot long electrical conduit can extend a peeler’s reach to 17 feet or so off the ground.
The exposed woody trunk is quite wet and slimy at first, reflecting the amount of sugar-laden water that was in the process of being transported down the trunk.
The peeling process is like tree girdling on steroids. Once the complete circumference of a tree has these crucial layers removed, revealing the true wood beneath, the fate of the tree is sealed. It will continue to show a healthy flush of life above ground for the rest of the year, but below the soil, the roots will slowly die, and there will be no leafing out come spring.
After three days of having the crew working on our land, we were shut down by rain. We are hoping they will be able to come for a few more days, and then Doug and I will finish up the stragglers ourselves.
We’ve been honoring our chosen trees as we go, and admiring their inner beauty. There’s no getting around the fact that trees will die for the sake of our new house, but we are comforted with by the thought that their absence will soon leave the forest and the prairie healthier than when we started, and give us the structure for our new home in the bargain.