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  • Dave Tobin

The Long Game, Rejuvenating a Forest

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Once trees are planted, it’s not just a matter of watching and waiting. Rejuvenating a forest is a long, long game.

It takes years of time, energy, attention and money to plan, prepare the site, plant, monitor and care for saplings, while beating back new generations of invasives.

When we’re planting the two-thousandth tree with hundreds more to go, the project can seem endless. It’s not, of course, and considering the rooted beings we’re establishing, some of which can live hundreds of years, our impatience can appear petulant. It's humbling to contemplate mature trees’ resilient magnificence. Our fifteen or twenty-year undertaking amounts to crib-time for these young trees.

With each passing year we become more invested in their survival, a natural instinct when caring for the young and vulnerable. Will they make it? Will they become strong, handsome and prolific? Will they survive drought, deer browse and antler rubbing, rodent girdling of bark, some as-yet-unknown disease or insect? Will they reach above the native dogwood and hawthorn, tower over the landscape, become nesting sites for birds, squirrels, raccoons, mature into a stately, spectacular wild space?

Looking across the hills now all we see of what we've planted are vertical, white lines, the six-foot long tubes that protect saplings from deer browse and antler rubbing. Were it not for these tubes our young saplings would be hidden amidst the goldenrod and grasses that yearly grow around them. The tubes tell us where the young trees are and make it easier to check on them, to pull away strangling vines and weeds, to notice when deer have knocked a tube over and left a vulnerable sapling exposed.

We’re planting oaks, hickories and maples among other species—beings that could outlive us by centuries, though the likelihood of that on this increasingly human-centric planet is close to nil.

We've also been strategically cutting straggly or lopsided trees to “release” the canopy of stronger trees nearby, and cutting some of the dying ash which we use to heat our house. We're careful to leave some dying trees as fodder and homes for birds and other creatures.

Nearly everyone we talk with about our project assumes that our hardwood plantings must be for future lumber harvest. Why else would we work so hard and long, if not for profit?

As quixotic as it sounds, our goal is to create an old growth forest amidst the surrounding forests that are overrun by invasives and browsed by deer, with scarce chance of regenerating. If the deer imbalance is not corrected, the very forest we’re planting will also have a hard time regenerating. Deer will eat most every native sapling that spouts from seed. This will be a serious issue for future generations.

Preserving a forest so that it can live for five hundred years runs counter to a fundamental human impulse through history, to harvest trees once they reach a useful size. Old growth forests present a dimension of life that most of us have difficulty imagining.

Our hope is that generation after generation of people will view this patch of future old-growth woods as a precious, living asset, worth preserving for the habitat it creates, for the carbon it sequesters, for the serenity that can come from sitting under its sheltering branches listening to wood thrushes and towhees, watching bees gather nectar.

Our rejuvenation project also helps counter despair. Our first planting came during Covid's first months, when hospitals filled, work and school stopped, businesses closed and the world didn't understand what was happening. That we were doing something that could help create a better future gave us optimism and purpose. Now, with the worst of Covid behind us, despair still looms, with more frequent climate disasters, war, famine, mass shootings, continued population growth, the widespread loss of civility. Will this planet even be livable for humans fifty years from now?

I still have a sliver of hope, however, and find encouragement connecting with others who share that. People from around the world—Hungary, Japan, Germany, Chile, Australia, South Africa, Kenya, even teens from Syracuse—have worked with us. We encourage them to return in thirty years to visit the young trees they planted and see how they've changed the landscape. These workers share our impulse to improve what’s before us, to leave it better than we found it, regardless of the odds or obstacles. Such idealism is one of our best human traits, has helped perpetuate our species, as well as some others, through millennia.

We build, we rebuild, we nourish each other through our dreams and deeds. Crafting hope together, we're discovering, is also part of the long game of planting trees.

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