The Tree Killers
Rebekah Curtis

My husband waits patiently as I pull on my boots. He puts down the hatchet and the spray bottle to help me get the baby situated in the sling carrier. I put on my hat, and the baby pulls it off. “Let’s be realistic,” I say, and my husband shrugs as I toss the hat back into the house. “Hope you like ticks,” he says, pulling the door shut behind us. We start up the hill. We are going to kill trees.

A relief map of the United States is an asymmetrical mess. Deep rumples run in contradictory angles and magnitudes all over the western third of the country. The flat middle shows a spider vein cluster of rivers, with one unsightly bump in what must be Missouri and Arkansas, and a smaller one in South Dakota. On the eastern third of the map, a more orderly row of wrinkles runs equidistant between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. There is no pattern or sense to the place, taken as a whole. The crookeds, straights, rough places, and plains just have to deal with each other.

The south central bump is the Ozarks, that stray dribble of Appalachia. My first time driving through, I gawked at the hills. To a flatlander, this voluptuous display of the fruits of the earth was extravagant. The epiphany to which the scene brought me was not high-minded, but wonder drove me to proclaim it without thinking: “That’s why they’re called hillbillies!” It was before hillbillies were trendy, and I meant no ill will. But my belief had been that topographical cosmopolitanism properly consisted of taking in extremes; mountains, deserts, oceans, islands. This rolling land hidden in the middle was a marvel I never imagined.

Up and up the hill. I lean right to counterbalance the baby on my hip. My husband is waiting patiently again as I huff and puff the last ten yards. The trail levels out and we follow it for a while, but then he tramps into the brush. We pick our way behind him carefully. He stops at a skinny-ish hickory. I put on gloves, and he hands me the spray bottle. Then he brings the hatchet down into the trunk at a sharp angle, not quite five feet from the ground. He pushes back on the blade, opening the groove. I squeeze the sprayer slowly along the blade, and liquid seeps into the gash in the light cambium layer of wood under the bark. We move around the tree, and hack and the spray once more. The rule is one hack and squirt for every three inches of diameter. The tree will die standing. We’ll cut it down for firewood when its green is gone.

Poisoning trees will never be a feeling I love. Even preschoolers know that if you care about the earth, you plant a tree. And these trees we’re poisoning…they’re too small for a hug that satisfies, but each one comes into focus as a glorious hero of life when it becomes a question of whether he is good for the forest or not. I am spraying undiluted glyphosate 41%, also known as Roundup, which in my mind is the same thing as Agent Orange. The deed done, my eye follows the line of the trunk up to the little burst of leaves against the sky. They’re really up there. Not forever, though. Now, not even for long.

Gardeners are above reproach. They take the wilderness and make cities of flowers, civilizations of vegetables. Forestry feels more suspect. It’s one thing to plant a petunia, and another to start bossing trees around. Trees are the whales of the woods, and nobody likes whalers. But in the same way that most backyards don’t yield much on their own, an acreage needs management to be productive. So I begin my intellectual journey to tree killing by looking at the timber stand as a really big garden.

My husband helps me by pointing out that nature’s way of managing forests is fire. Humankind has gotten into the habit of suppressing natural fires to protect residences. Without fires, forests are taken over by towering trees with high canopies. They prevent light from reaching the ground and leave animals without brushy habitat. Forest management imitates fire by opening the canopy so that light reaches the ground, giving young trees and groundcover plants a chance to grow.

That seems like a job for guys in Smokey-the-Bear hats, not a housewife hauling her baby and a pastor on his day off. But the Lord has given us every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. To us it has been even more for meat than King James meant. My husband is a deer hunter. Factoring in our property’s lack of mahogany or pistachios, timber stand improvement for wildlife was the plan that made the most sense. We want the woods to give the critters what they want. In this corner of Ozarkia, that’s cover and food. A park-like forest of tall trees leaves deer without Bambi’s famous thickets. Thinning these trees makes the forest grow brushier for shy folks like deer and turkeys, encouraging them to settle there. If they can find what they need in the woods, deer make less trouble for highways and commercial crops.

We’ve also cleared some larger areas for food plots, a wildlife-friendly forestry trick that’s easier to get behind than tree-killing. A perimeter is created by hinge-cutting trees; that is, cutting almost all the way through them and then pushing them over at the unfinished cut. They make a living fence, leaning onto neighbors’ trunks and forming a kind of privacy wall with branches that now grow not out, but up. Once the hinge fence is complete, a controlled burn opens the sunny space for seeding with rye or clover, and the deer have a happy place to browse. I’d shuffle through these cool swards barefoot if I did like ticks.

We crash through last year’s leaves toward the next sun-hog devoted to the ban, and find that the plan is working. A large dark patch has been cleared on the ground: no leaves, no little plants, just a conspicuous area of dirt almost as bald as a burn. A buck’s bed, my husband diagnoses. A doe with fawns would sprawl out more. The baby and I completely understand.

I think I’ll never cause to croak a thing so lovely as an oak. With the baby watching, this tree-killing seems nigh on indecent, but she’s too little to play at the creek with the other kids. She’s getting antsy and I’m getting sweaty, so we hack and spray today’s last giant, wooden weed. My husband leads us back to the trail and we jolt down the hill. The sun hits us hard as we leave the forest, and we miss the trees already. 


Rebekah Curtis’s writing has appeared in print magazines including Lutheran Forum, Modern Reformation, Touchstone, and Salvo, and online at First Things, Babble, The Behemoth, and The Imaginative Conservative

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