Finding Character in Our Forests

Jack Savage | March 13, 2010

Hike to the ridge of the Moose Mountains that separates Brookfield from my hometown of Middleton and you will likely come across a different sort of treescape. Thanks to the elevation and thin soils, only tough, small pitch pines survive, gnarled by wind and ice over the decades. The trees and the bedrocky open understory are beautiful in their own way, provide a unique habitat, and are admirable for their fortitude as they cling to the ridgetop.

I’ve met some people just like that. They’re just as admirable.

In fact, people can be a lot like a particular kind of tree. Being a Tree Farmer and a Town Moderator affords me the privilege to closely observe characteristics both arboreal and human. I can’t help comparing the forest community with the human community—especially at Town Meeting time when the diversity of human character springs forth.

As the locals on both sides of the Moose Mountains ridge know, Brookfield and Middleton were once one town. But that ridge made gathering in one place for Town Meeting in March more than a little difficult, and today we are two towns each with its own Town Meeting, in two counties, Strafford and Carroll. Like forest communities, human communities are shaped by our landscape.

About half our state is made up of Hemlock-Hardwood-Pine forest. The hardwoods found in these woods include oak. Oak is a pillar of the forest community that lives long, provides food and housing for wildlife, and offers sturdy timber and heat for us two-legged critters. I know a few people like that, too.

Beech is also common. It likes to spread its branches wide, staking its claim not just to the sky but to all the soil beneath its crown. Beech likes to take over that way. Is anyone you know like that?

Earlier this week on Election Day I ran across someone else who also sees similarities between people and trees, as I overheard them compare me to a beech. Well, a son of one, anyway. I took it as a compliment.

There are also the maples, of course. Sugar maples are quiet—being shade-tolerant they’ll start out quite nicely in the understory, grow slowly and can live long lives. They are both beautiful and sweet. Turn one into a well-joined chair and it can last forever. I think my grandmother was a sugar maple.

The red maple cousins are a tougher breed—they’re gnarly and like to live down by the swamp. Even a hydraulic woodsplitter can meet its match on a twisted chunk of red maple. But while their sap doesn’t have as much sugar content as a sugar maple, you can still make some tasty syrup from the reds…it just takes a little more boiling. I definitely know (and like) some people like that.

And then there’s the white pine. “Pine is still king,” you might hear a forester say, as it grows fast and tall and remains a valuable sawlog. But as the folks on the Seacoast know from the recent storm, white pine has a shallow root system that can make it vulnerable to wind.

By the way, a friend of mine thinks it’s no accident when white pines fall down across power lines. He thinks they sacrifice themselves kamikaze style on the wires during wind storms to cut off the house’s power supply in retribution for the forest lost to development. I have some odd friends.

Nonetheless, it is true that the white pine does better as part of a forest community—“united we stand, divided we fall”. And there are people like that.

In fact, I would argue that we are all like that. Just as we need diversity in the forests—hardwoods and softwoods, trees old and young, trees that thrive on a sunny south-facing hillside and trees that prefer the cool and damp—we all do better with diversity of character in our human communities. Some of us inspire, some of us are loud and others quiet, some of us are grumpy realists and others unrealistically optimistic, and some of us just want to get down to business. We need all of us to be a healthy community.