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Chipmunkus Interruptus:
                    an interloper’s lament and other observations

     Working a woodlot for sustainability has its dangers as well as its rewards. It’s a very different thing though, from the clearcutting done by transient loggers skidding from one prime slope to the next. Despite this, many landholders have been yielding to the saws and their promise of pocket change. As if the decision affects only them.

     Entire clans of creatures disappear as micro-habitats are destroyed. As if woodpeckers can tap clouds for food; as if squirrels can leap from raindrop to raindrop; as if the amber pitch droplets bleeding from the fresh stumps weren’t the earth’s quiet tears. These clearcuts are replanted with cloned monoculture firs bred to grow quickly in identical rows similar to the ticky-tack subdivisions these trees will soon be cut down to build.

     The ridgeline above the Willamette Valley where we have our few acres was last logged over 50 years ago. We’re lucky that they did it the old timers’ way and left several old-growth Douglas Firs to re-seed the ridge. The local wildlife and prevailing winds took care of the rest. The result is a naturally evolving environment. First the grasses, quick-growing vine maples and firs spout up, and then the oaks. After that the madrones begin to stretch for the dappling light. As the firs continue their growth, they overtake the hardwoods and block their sun. Eventually a random fir is storm-struck or a light-starved madrone becomes its own lever and pries itself from the ground. A sturdy oak one day loses its hunger and curls into its shadow. It’s an organic process far removed from my neighbors’ clearcuts. And these days, since much of the surrounding habitat is being cut, our place is fast becoming its own Ellis Island as the creatures that have been displaced by logging elsewhere fill our trees.

     There are an easy hundred trees within striking distance of our home. I’ve tried to reach a respectful balance with them, and understand that this hillside is made to be a forest. No matter how sweet the home is that I have carved into the earth’s flank, it is built with lumber that is cousin to the trees still standing nearby. There is something rude to this arrangement. It’s like a roadside billboard featuring plump pigs extolling the virtues of Bubba’s BBQ Shack; sheep into mutton, cows into beef, fish into seafood, trees into lumber, death into collateral damage. Life reduced to chaff.   

Trees do come down as windfall. One of our two grand old-growth firs had its back broken by a rogue tornado several years ago. Last year one of three tall trees near the house came crashing down. Its twisted roots now finger the sky. The other two were pummeled from the savage winds. They both needed to be taken down since the nearby buried water and electric lines were now at risk. It was the classic interloper’s crisis: my emergency, however, had no meaning to the nature of this place. Once the trees are dropped, they still have to be cut into cordwood. I limb the slash for the biomass pile and buck the logs into rounds. After that the wood still needs to be split, hauled and stacked.

In the wake of a storm it can be lethal to be working in the woods. There is always the danger of widow-makers still hung up in the stand, snagging nearby branches, see-sawing in the treacherous winds. Yet, what I tell visiting cityfolk is that the chipmunk mating season is the most dangerous time of all in the woods. I tell tales of prodigious little buggers whose coupling dance is an arboreal rodent Saturnalia. They are acrobats d’amore, I say. However, the branches chosen for their trysts are at times dead and unstable. This necessitates a dangerous feat of balance that often results in chipmunkus interruptus. These limbs are the true widow makers. At times the only warning that a woodsman has before a loosened limb hurtles silently down is the faint squeal of rodent orgasm.

     Each year’s wind-fallen trees are a necessary resource for our woodstove, and I rent a hydraulic splitter for the job. This past year, after I had returned the splitter, I could see that a few pieces needed another whack. No problema, I figured. I’d hand-split it with the maul. At first it was sweet. I popped the wood apart as if I was a firewood samurai. And then, that one wrong move. In just the merest moment of hubris, I forgot to hold my balance and to protect my injured lower back. Wham. The impact split the wood and crumpled me down at the same instant. Somewhere between my old ruptured disc and my splayed hip, my body surrendered to the electroshock.

     I lay there sprawled akimbo on the ground in brutal back pain, nerves in spasm, unable to stand. In the trees directly overhead I could hear the oblivious chipmunks, their ecstatic love-talk, and the creak of the teetering branches. Chipmunkus interruptus! Gritting my teeth, I start crawling from the woods before the snags begin to fall. Like everything else sharing this hillside I know I am future mulch for a patient earth, but until then I’ll just keep on crawlin’ forward.

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