Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Bittersweet Relationship With Trees

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Conservation Fellows.  Alex hails from right here in Aurora, Nebraska.  He has worked both in the policy arena and deep in the wilderness, and so brings a broad perspective to his thinking about conservation.  You’ll hear much more from him during the coming year.

I must come clean before diving into this article: I love trees. Trees are one of my favorite things in the world. From the towering conifers of the Pacific Northwest to the vast overwhelming deciduous canopy in the Shenandoah Valley. So long as I have two boots on my feet and passion in my heart, I will always love trees. Out of all trees, I especially love (brace yourself, fellow prairie-folk) the eastern redcedar.

Rough profile of my new Siberian elm canoe paddle, adjacent to the retired Western redcedar paddle. Photo by Alex Brechbill

I love cedars, largely because of the time I spent up North, in Minnesota, on the water. The first canoeing paddle I carved was from a slab of western redcedar. I cut the profile with a bandsaw and spoke-shaved the shaft, throat, and blade, leaving the finesse of the handle to fine grit sandpaper. Walking into the woodshop, the pungent aroma of cedar fills the air. As someone who enjoys woodworking, there are few things as visually appealing as the aesthetic of a golden, polished cedar-strip canoe. At times I’m a little embarrassed at how much time I spend ogling canoes on the Internet. From the bow to the stern, they are charming and iconic. While camping, I spent hours sitting by the warmth of glowing hot firepit, from freshly split cedar. Even on a soaking wet, bitter-cold day, cedar will burn well. There is a reason that the cedar was known as the tree of life.

Redcedar invokes all five senses; from smelling it to feeling the warmth of a fire. However, seeing thickets of trees, cedar or otherwise, on the prairie is jarring. A majority of the land stewardship time I have spent so far in the fellowship has been dedicated to removing woody invasive plants: Eastern redcedar, Siberian elm, mulberry, and several others. Cutting down trees is bittersweet. I have an immense respect for trees as organisms, and each time I cut one down I have to remember why I am cutting it down: we will lose our prairies if we don’t do anything about encroaching woodlands.

Encroaching trees limit the ability of some plants to establish themselves, and they will choke other plants out. Trees decrease the amount of forage that can be produced on a prairie for grazing. I could go on, but the bottom line is that trees can be harmful to prairies. On the other hand, there are certainly places for them. Along stream banks, as shade trees, and in shelterbelts, trees can be very helpful for people and livestock. I love both trees and prairies, but not when they form a Venn-diagram.

Black walnut spatula and serving spoon next to a pile of woodchips and a hooked knife. Photo by Alex Brechbill

Not only do we improve the quality of our prairies by removing invasive trees, we can also glean valuable products from their wood. Firewood is the first product that comes to mind. Sitting next to my fireplace on a cool night is one of my favorite ways to end the day, relaxing in the dry heat of the seasoned firewood. Milling logs into dimensional lumber is another great way to utilize problem trees. Sawing dimensional lumber is like breaking open a geode, the rugged exterior concealing a center of splendor. The freshly exposed grain of the wood is captivating, and it’s easy to get lost in the curvilinear waves flowing through the heartwood and sapwood. Currently, I am carving a flatwater canoeing paddle out of a milled slab of Siberian elm, another problem tree that we spend hours removing. I spend my evenings whittling black walnut, with its gorgeous dark heartwood, and cottonwood, which cuts like butter under the bevel of freshly honed edge.

A redcedar slab that is destined to be an end table. Photo by Alex Brechbill

For utility and beauty, trees give us a lot, whether they are the subject of a photo or some shade for a picnic. Unfortunately, as much as they give us, they can take a lot away from us, and if that means taking away our prairies, I better sharpen my saw and get back to work.