Essays - Autumn 2010


When a tornado tears through a beloved landscape, is it possible to just let nature heal itself?

By Tamara Dean | September 1, 2010
Tornado, May 3, 1999, central Oklahoma (NOAA)
Tornado, May 3, 1999, central Oklahoma (NOAA)


On a single day, 11 days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, a record of 27 tornadoes formed in Wisconsin. One touched down on our property. We weren’t there to see it, but according to neighbors, a small funnel cloud appeared first, high above the ridgetop. Then a huge, dark funnel fell from the smaller one and hit the ground. It razored the top of our southernmost hill, descended a narrow swale, and continued southeast—over the floodplain, across the river, and to the neighbors’ properties. It decimated a yurt we’d erected in the meadow, overturned a neighbor’s mobile home, and on our property alone uprooted 40 acres of maple, oak, walnut, cherry, aspen, hickory, and basswood, including two homestead oaks four feet in diameter, trees that had survived prairie fires and been spared by farmers for their islands of shade. It continued east for 20 miles, tearing up hills, valleys, and a nearby village.

Later, as I sped toward our property, I prepared myself for tears, but when I approached the forest, none came. I held my breath. I didn’t know where to fix my gaze in the strange, sideways landscape. I picked an entry point, an opening that used to be a stand of hard maple, and was drawn in.

Any tree thicker than my wrist had been snapped, shattered, twisted, peeled, delimbed, deleafed, or uprooted. High-stepping over downed treetops, ducking under trunks, I soon figured out by scent what I was tunneling through. The poplars and walnuts smelled like green bananas; the oak like animal musk, with a putrid first blast that turned oddly appealing; the cherries sour as flesh in a cast. The ash had a clean laundry scent. Only the maples and basswood lacked a distinctive odor, a quality that makes them well suited for cutting boards and utensils. The forest also sounded different, with brush crashing and twigs snapping all around me, as if the animals, normally so silent, could not negotiate their way through the damage. The deer’s narrow paths that I, too, once relied on, had disappeared, as had the imprints of decades-old logging roads.

Each extraordinary, disfigured tree made me ex­claim, “Whoa, look at this one!” to no one but myself, and my amazement didn’t diminish even after seeing hundreds. I laid my hands on the bark, fingered the splintered cores. And though I walked among the dead I felt energized, as if absorbing a fraction of the tornado’s power.

Others would recognize this awe. Jerry Jenkins, botanist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, in his report of the July 15, 1995, windstorm that damaged at least 150,000 acres in the Adirondacks, wrote:

Certainly some beautiful forests have been destroyed, and anyone who knew them before the blowdown will feel sadness and loss. But we would argue, from our three weeks traveling and working around the blowdowns, that there are in fact very strong consolations. . . . The blowdowns we were in were rugged, dramatic, visually complex, and engrossing. We found them, unexpectedly, to be both beautiful and imaginatively rich—places where you felt what Thoreau called the “grimness and tenderness” of the northern forest. In retrospect I have come to think of them the way I do cliffs and landslides and rocky coasts—as powerful places where nature’s seriousness and enduringness are evident.

Elsewhere in the same report, Jenkins bristles at a journalist’s depiction of the Adirondacks after the tornado as “devastation.” Who are we to say that trees on the ground are less attractive and less valuable than upright trees? With which human construct will we measure the worth of trees—love, beauty, habitat, recreation, money?

Loggers and most foresters prefer money, an obvious gauge. Walking with me in the days after the tornado, they explained how to estimate board feet, distinguish grades of lumber, and detect the blue stain that lessens a tree’s saleability. I discovered which species and traits the mills coveted. When one forester passed a tall, straight oak or maple whose top was blown off, he would tap it and say, “Now that’s a nice stick.” He made me take a photo of him next to a fat black walnut that would fetch over $1,000 at the mill.

But I knew that the foresters valued the trees beyond money, partly because of how they referred to them—“these fellas are okay,” or “these people should really come down”—and the lore they took time to teach me. Aged poplar are called “fool’s oak” because the base of their trunks looked dark and gnarled; the red basswood buds taste like mint to some, like a gin and tonic to others; blue beech, also known as musclewood because its limbs look like smooth muscles, is prized by local Hmong immigrants who make it into tool handles.

The foresters’ love for trees was also evident from their exclamations of horror upon seeing the tornado’s effects. Jeff, a timber assessor who would estimate our loss for tax purposes, stopped by on a snowy December day. We met in his truck before heading out. Gazing at the hillside he was at first speechless. Then he shook his head and said, “This is about as bad as it gets.” For five hours we hiked through a foot of snow and over, under, and around downed trees. Once we reached the southwest corner of the property where the tornado first touched down, he said, “Looking at this it’s hard to believe that someone isn’t out to get you. It reminds me of the Vietnam jungles after we bombed them.” As if to lend credibility to the old comparison of natural disaster sites with war zones, he referred to an area so damaged that he and his buddies got lost and ended up in the wrong country. After finding their coordinates and discovering they were in Laos, he said, they hightailed it out of there.

But in my disorienting forest, we had a handheld GPS to find our position, plus a mobile computer to help calculate the trees’ value. Jeff divided the forest into a grid. In each section of the grid, he scuffed out a small circle to mark its center. Then he examined every tree in that section that met a minimum girth, calling out numbers that represented the species, diameter, and number of eight-foot logs its height would allow; I punched the information into the computer. While he was making his calculations, I watched perfect snowflakes collect on the computer’s display, not melting at 18 degrees. I memorized the three-digit codes for the most common species, the hard maple, cherry, and basswood. By sunset I could predict the stumpage price of virtually any standing tree.

Weeks later Jeff mailed me his findings. Our loss totaled $70,000—had we chosen to clear-cut on the day before the tornado struck—but only a small percent of that would be salvageable. After being twisted, pulled, and struck together, many trees would have suffered defects, including cracks and delamination, some obvious and some apparent only after sawing them open. Also, because of the difficulty and danger in getting through dense windfall, logging downed timber is much less profitable than logging standing timber. If we chose to log, we wouldn’t make a tenth of the assessed value.

In “On a Tree Fallen Across a Road,” Robert Frost wrote,

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Who did we think we were? Ever since my partner, David, and I had purchased these 280 acres, half tillable and half wooded, we’d taken pains to call ourselves stewards, not owners. And yet legally, of course, we could decide the trees’ fate. Now I felt compelled to do something with, or about, what was left.

Foresters who specialize in the study of downed timber call the falling of trees, however it happens, recruitment, as if the earth were urging the trunks and limbs to lie down, to return what they’ve taken from the soil. Since the 1960s these foresters have been emphasizing the importance of leaving deadfall alone for the sake of returning nutrients to the earth and sustaining habitat. (Previously, common wisdom encouraged removing the debris for human safety and to reduce potential fuel for fires.) In his 1966 book, The Pattern of Animal Communities, Charles S. Elton wrote: “When one walks through the dull and tidy woodlands . . . that result from modern forestry practices, it is difficult to believe that dying and dead wood provides one of the two or three greatest resources for animal species in a natural forest, and that if fallen timber and slightly decaying trees are removed the whole system is gravely impoverished of perhaps more than a fifth of its fauna.”

Elton and others point out that throughout the world hundreds of species, from colonies of rare fungi or lichen, birds, insects, and bats, exist only in partnership with downed, decaying trees. A forester from northern Wisconsin told me, “I call perfectly managed forests sterile. It’s like someone came through with a vacuum cleaner over the forest floor.” He said the amphibians and shrub-loving birds were the primary beneficiaries of deadfall at first, but eventually every animal up the food chain gained from it. Healthy biodiversity, then, demands the dying and long dead.

But weren’t hundreds of trees decaying on our property before the tornado? Wouldn’t those that remained unreachable or undesirable to loggers be sufficient? Besides, salvaging would allow more light and encourage new growth. The treetops that loggers trimmed and piled would provide homes for species such as ruffed grouse, which are losing habitat in Wisconsin—in part, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) claims, because the decline in logging has left forests with dense canopies and a dearth of underbrush. We could use some of the downed trees as lumber for the house we were building. We could use the money, too.

Loggers cruised our woods in the months after the tornado. “If it was mine, I’d be cryin’,” one said. Most shook their heads and looked at me with pity as we said goodbye beside their trucks. They claimed the ridgetop was too difficult to log and the hillside too dangerous. “Maybe if we worked in cages,” one mused, referring to a practice in which loggers inside metal cages are lowered over the blufftop from steel cables attached to power winches. But it wouldn’t pay.

An Amish fellow insisted he could pull out all of the marketable trees with his team of horses. But I worried about his safety. I’d seen fear in loggers’ faces when asked about working the concave hillside, and I had come to envision all kinds of deaths by dead tree. I pictured the horses tugging on a 20-inch-diameter maple, having it snag on another tree on its way downhill, then flipping over and landing on the team. I imagined boles rolling wildly after being released from their web of supporting branches. I saw the Amish man slipping down the rocky incline and being pinned beneath a massive trunk.

We received only one bid from a conventional logger. The terms were weighted significantly in his favor, and we had to take it or leave it, fast. Neighboring landowners wanted his services for their own tornado damage. The longer the trees were left on the ground, the less valuable they would be.

The endless assessment, examination, and discussion of dead trees induced a kind of desperation. I had never felt so pressed by indecision. One night as David and I sat on the couch sipping wine, Sufjan Stevens’s lamentations on the stereo, I said, “I want to discover the most compassionate answer to the problem.”

“In what sense? Compassionate to whom?”

“Well, to all living beings. People, animals, plants. On one hand, plants and habitats could be further destroyed by logging. On the other hand, people need lumber now, especially after the hurricanes. And removing the downed trees might allow more room for new growth.”

Asking others for advice didn’t help. To them it was obvious. “Why wouldn’t you log it?” “It’s a shame to waste all that good lumber.” Only Sanha, a Buddhist priest and friend of mine, raised the question, “Can you do nothing?” Later I repeated this to David, and he nodded. “That’s how it would stay if we weren’t around.”

But we were around. And though the idea of doing nothing seemed somehow humble and gallant, maybe even wise, for me it was as impossible as it would be to do nothing after losing a loved one.

Floyd, the crew’s chief, had soft, blond hair and kind, blue eyes. His face never lost its calm. From his lower lip arced a small scar—like that of a trout that had taken a hook and had it yanked out—and beneath his lip was a big wad of chaw. Every few seconds, on the morning we signed the deal, he spat discreetly to his left, away from Paul, the local forester, and me.

“It’s not the view you paid for, is it?” Floyd asked. “It’ll look a lot prettier when we clear all that out of there.”

I’m not some suburban housewife worried about the privacy hedge, I scoffed inwardly. Treatment of this large-scale death demanded more respect. But in truth I did mind the aesthetics. It took more than a year for me to get used to the new view, not to gasp at the vanished canopy and pick-up-stick trunks as I rounded the corner before our property. There’s something disconcerting, if not frightening, about a disturbed landscape, whether caused by nature or man. We prefer the upright trees, and beyond that, a sense of order, the kind we know from scout camps and state parks—groomed trails and trees managed for safety, disease control, and our best notions of a healthy habitat. A mess reminds us of our impotence and our own eventual breakdown. If nature can destroy thousands of centuries-old beings in seconds, what might it do to us? One forester told me, “All trees fail.” It’s only a matter of when and how. Just so, all humans die.

In December, after the ground had frozen, Floyd and his crew bulldozed paths through the woods, scraping away deadfall, snow, rocks, and topsoil, before bringing in the skidder. For months chainsaws whined from the ridgetop, seeming farther away than they were. Trucks drove up the hill and down again. First the loggers pulled out the trees easiest to move—those in the hard maple stand where I had entered the woods after the tornado. Then they pushed deeper into the forest, brutishly, the only way bulldozers and skidders can. The equipment nicked or gouged otherwise healthy trees. It squashed saplings and turned voles into bloody pocks in the path. It roughed up and scarred the ground. The woods began to look much worse. I felt like a mother whose toddler was undergoing critical surgery. Hurry up, would you please? Do what you need to do, then get out.

But the loggers took their time, partly because we told them they could hunt on their lunch hours. After all, deer threaten the forests, scarfing up so much undergrowth, rubbing the bark off so many small trees—and the loggers would use the meat. By the end of the season they’d harvested six does and left us grocery sacks of wrapped venison steaks, plus two hides, heads still attached, which we could exchange for two pair of deerskin mittens at the local tannery or brain-tan ourselves. I looked into do-it-yourself tanning and learned that every mammal has a brain just sufficiently large to tan its own hide and that the necessary mixing of the brain in a blender results in a concoction that resembles a strawberry milkshake. These facts didn’t motivate me, so I put the hides and heads in a freezer, where they stayed for almost a year. Then we dumped them in the woods; we needed the space for garden vegetables. A week later only the skulls and some strands of hair remained.

Logging in Wisconsin is best done when the ground is frozen and firm. By the time Floyd and his crew finished removing what they could from the ridgetop and turned their attention to the hillside, spring was nearing, and the ground was softening, its surface turning greasy. Paul, the forester, asked us if we were willing to let them try cutting a road across the swale, the steep terrain of crumbling sandstone.

“It seems impossible without damaging the hillside or killing yourself,” I said.

“Floyd doesn’t want to die.”

“And the land is so fragile. It falls away just walking over it.”

“Oh, I know, and I gave the bulldozer operator all kinds of pamphlets and manuals on working on that highly erodable land. They explain exactly what you need to do.”

“We don’t need a road on the hillside.”

“What if Floyd says he can’t get anymore out of there without a new road? What if he says he’s done?”

“That’d be fine,” I said. “Fine.”

Floyd’s skidder remained parked in our driveway for another month before his partner came to pick it up.

Even after the loggers had left and their castle wall of logs was hauled away, I was unable to do nothing. I’d been reading about the forests decimated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana and Mississippi. Satellite imagery showed that five million acres of trees were damaged, 320 million trees destroyed. I wanted to connect with those landowners.

When I called a state forestry agent in coastal Mississippi, I prefaced my intention by saying, “I know losing trees isn’t as bad as what the people who’ve lost homes have suffered, but—”

“No, in a lot of cases it’s worse,” he said. “People lost their life savings, their whole retirement.”

Five months after our tornado and their hurricanes, I flew to New Orleans, its homes still roofed in blue tarps. I toured eight large forests in southern Louisiana and Mississippi, some private, some public. In spots that the hurricanes had missed, these upright forests looked as foreign to me as my newly sideways woods. Instead of a haphazard mix of hardwoods, I saw regiments of tall pines, thousands of loblolly and longleaf meticulously planted and tended to optimize production. These trees had pedigrees. Their genetics, chosen for faster, straighter growth, came from taxpayer-funded research labs. In The Trees in My Forest, naturalist Bernd Heinrich calls such tree plantations “deliberate ecodeath” and claims that “the very idea of ‘managing’ a forest in the first place seems oxymoronic, because a forest is an ecosystem that is by definition self-managing.” The trees I saw in Mississippi and Louisiana were crops as much as the field corn my neighbor grows. The people I interviewed were not casual landowners who happened into owning a stand of valuable timber, but producers as serious about their plantings as Wall Street investors. Nevertheless, they grieved their trees.

One landowner, Margie Jenkins, lost every tree on 400 acres. Before we met, her timber manager showed me the property where crews were salvaging what they could and piling the slash. He said, “I’m here to tell you, it blew down everything here. Every tree. And this made me cry when I came back here and saw this. It was absolutely beautiful, and in six hours’ time it was gone. Totally gone.”

Miss Margie, as everyone calls her, is an 88-year-old plant breeder and nursery owner, with long white hair, dark eyes, and the grip of a quarterback. She drove me around her nursery, navigating lanes between plants in a monstrous old Chrysler. Despite the storm, in the months since Katrina she’d had enough inventory to supply landscapers in New Orleans with plants they couldn’t find elsewhere.

I asked about the trees.“Oh honey,” she said. “It was devastating. Our lives are not the same. They never will be.” But Miss Margie still hadn’t seen the damage. She couldn’t bear to. “She cries,” the timber manager told me. “Her kids fussed at her a little bit for not selling more of the timber, and she cries sometimes when they start talking about it.” For the last five months she’d driven the long way to her home and business, avoiding the road that led past her trees.

If it hadn’t been a monoculture with identical trees the same age, and therefore, the same size, more of Miss Margie’s forest probably would have survived. And now, with no diversity, no saplings to take advantage of the newly opened canopy, invasive species such as privet hedge and Chinese tallow threatened to take over. The timber manager would have to find crews and stock to replant the pines soon. Every landowner expressed the same urgency and concerns. Yet they were also faced with repairing damaged homes, clearing roads, salvaging what timber they could, trying to find buyers for logs in a saturated market with insufficient mill capacity, in addition to living their lives, working, and taking care of family. Here, the question of doing nothing seemed ridiculous, and I never asked it.

Aldo Leopold understood that nature is a system of complex interactions. In his book A Sand County Almanac, he wrote, “If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.” He continued, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” But how do we know intelligent from misguided tinkering? History provides numerous examples of well-intentioned resource management that turned out badly. In the next county our friends purchased land that the DNR had managed for quail habitat. The DNR strategy included planting rows of autumn olive next to rows of white pine, a combination now recognized as a certain forester’s signature. Decades later our friends’ woods have been overrun with autumn olive. They spend weekends attempting to eradicate it. Tinkering begets more tinkering. At what point does it resolve?

Still, to a pragmatist like myself, it seems naïve and irresponsible to walk away from a mess, whatever its cause. The Chinese tallow, left unchecked, will take over the southern forests, displacing native species and creating a monoculture as persistent as the pine plantations. It seems our duty to counteract that. But how much more naïve is it to think we can untangle or correct such a mess for the long term? There’s something unknowable in the disorderliness, in the forces that caused it, in what might become of it. By doing nothing, we would have to trust the incomprehensible intelligence of these systems and set aside human-scale time frames to allow for the possible epoch it would take for that intelligence to reveal itself. Maybe Chinese tallow is nature’s smartest step toward a thriving, diverse, life-giving, planet-healing forest hundreds or thousands of years hence—or toward something better than we can conceive or describe. Do we have faith in the wisdom of nature and patience to last 10,000 years?

In the field across the river from our house, I pull out box elders, mow acres of wild parsnip before its seeds mature, burn patches in the spring, and plant seeds to encourage the growth of native prairie plants. I’m pleased to see and hear meadowlarks, bobolinks, and sedge wrens nesting there. Still, while riding the tractor with the brush hog grinding behind me, the notion of doing nothing hovers peripherally. Are there appropriate times and places to keep my busyness out of the wilderness? Was the meadowlark’s return at all tied to my efforts to revive the meadow, or is it arrogant to think so? Maybe it returned because the land had been neglected for five years, not planted to corn as usual, before I started tinkering.

When I asked Joan Maloof, naturalist and author of Teaching the Trees, about foregoing forest management, she said, “One thing’s for sure. If you do nothing, you’ll have a forest.” She’s right. Our tornado-damaged landscape is regenerating fast. Maple saplings have grown tall, and in summer the dense undergrowth obscures the downed trees that remain. In winter, though, the broken trees stand out boldly. Driving past our property even four years after the tornado, people still slow down and marvel at the destruction. Men stop and offer to log the steep eastern slope. They can spot the big sugar maples and walnuts from a quarter mile away. They’re sure they could get the trees out. They scoff at the danger. “It’s a shame to waste all that good wood. What are you going to do with it?”

We answer, “Let it rot.”

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