In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold begins his chapter on November with a discussion of the wind and its sound and effects on the landscape and its inhabitants. This brief discussion is followed by a lengthy discourse on trees and his thoughts behind whether they should be axed or not.
“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist,” he writes, “and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures, of course, differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.”
Later, he adds, “The wielder of an axe has as many biases as there are species of trees on his farm. In the course of the years he imputes to each species, from his responses to their beauty or utility, and their responses to his labors for or against them, a series of attributes that constitute a character. I am amazed to learn what diverse characters different men impute to one and the same tree.”
He goes on to name some examples–why he likes aspens (they glorify October and feed his grouse in winter) and his neighbor thinks of it as a weed (because it grows so well in land that was meant to be cleared). He discusses tamaracks, cottonwoods, wahoos, red dogwood, bittersweets, and hickories, as well.
“It is also evident that our plant biases reflect not only vocations but avocations,” he writes, “with a delicate allocation of priority as between industry and indolence. The farmer who would rather hunt grouse than milk cows will not dislike hawthorn, no matter if it does invade his pasture. The coon-hunter will not dislike basswood, and I know of quail hunters who bear no grudge against ragweed, despite their annual bout with hayfever. Our biases are indeed a sensitive index to our affections, our tastes, our loyalties, our generosities, and our manner of wasting weekends.”
He then writes: “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested. I here record some of the many lessons I have learned in my own woods.”
Leopold realized soon after he purchased his woods that he had “bought almost as many tree diseases” as he had trees. “But it soon became clear,” he writes, “that these same diseases made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county.
“My woods is headquarters for a family of coons; few of my neighbors have any.”
Why? Because a fallen and diseased tree on his property became a safe haven against coon hunters.
“The hunter had quit coonless because a fungus disease had weakened the roots of the maple. The tree, half tipped over by a storm, offers an impregnable fortress for coondom. Without this ‘bombproof’ shelter, my seed stock of coons would be cleaned out by hunters each year.”
He continues with more examples:
Oaks wind-thrown by summer storms become a harbor for grouse during winter snows, keeping them safe from wind, owls, foxes, and hunters. The diseased oaks also provide oak galls, a favorite grouse food. Wild bees fill his hollowed oaks with honeycomb.
Rabbits, he says, spurn red dogwood until it is attacked by oyster-shell scale. And, when he is harvesting diseased or dead trees for fuel in the winter, “every slab of dead bark is, to them [chickadees], a treasury of eggs, larvae, and cocoons.”
“But for diseases and insect pests,” he writes, “there would likely be no food in these trees, and hence no chickadees to add cheer to my woods in winter.
“Many other kinds of wildlife depend on tree diseases,” he says. Pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, wood ducks, and squirrels all take advantage of diseases trees.
“The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler,” he concludes the chapter. “He nests is an old woodpecker hole, or other small cavity, in a dead snag overhanging water. The flash of his gold and blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa. When you doubt the wisdom of this arrangement, take a look at the prothonotary.”