After the Anthropocene: notes from a distempered winter

Most of my outdoor this work this winter has involved felling in quantity the European ash trees on our farm. Another species stricken by a new pathogen, one seemingly far more deadly to it than the SARS-CoV-2 virus currently afflicting humanity. In this case it’s the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus that’s killing somewhere between 70 and 90% of ash trees across Europe.

I’m not especially sentimental about trees, and the task hasn’t felt unduly sorrowful. If we survive our own affliction, we’ll make use of the felled wood and replant with a wider mix of younger trees, improving the vitality of our woodland. Even so, the loss of the ash troubles me. And, as I fell them, there’s cause to wonder at these silent creatures we planted just sixteen years ago, when our own children were young, now dwarfing my height and weight many times over. In winter especially, they seem hardly alive. They make no complaint intelligible to human senses as the chain bites into them. Yet beneath the smooth sheen of their bark there are life processes of immense complexity, not too unlike the ones in my own body, that I’m bringing to an end.

I doubt I’ll ever be an expert woodsman, but this winter I’ve felt comfortable with the chainsaw in my hands – no longer a novice tiptoeing nervously around the machine’s raw danger, but holding it close and feeling relaxed. It sounds absurd to call chainsawing meditative, but that’s how I felt about it – devoting my mind to the tangible facts of gravity, planning my cuts, judging the tree’s fall line, attuning myself to the minute physics of compression and tension in the fallen tree as I sliced and diced its tissue, feeling my sweat and the acrid exhaust as the residue of real work, and taking small pleasure in a modest competence. At this point in my life, modest competence is about as much as I can hope for from my jack-of-all-trades smallholding career.

The chainsaw is almost a cliché of industrial society’s brutal onslaught against nature, yet that onslaught has now reached the stage where a person toting a chainsaw in the woods is far too quaint and human-scaled a proposition for commercial forestry to turn a profit. Nowadays, giant forwarders and feller bunchers that topple trees like ninepins in remote upland plantations are the only realistic business model. But I suspect those days will pass, and a time will come again when we’ll keep our trees close by, and our saws and axes will be tools of considerate husbandry.

As I work in the woods I notice small signs of self-willed nature that we never included in our planting plan. Elder, birch and even walnut sprouts where we planted only ash. Grey squirrels – that indomitable American import – scamper overhead, building their dreys. Wrens and long-tailed tits flit among the brash piles. Moss encircles the ash trunks. A spider, perfectly camouflaged against a trunk, crouches motionless until I unwittingly brush it and it scuttles away. Most of this would be flattened by someone operating a feller buncher without them even noticing.

And then of course there’s the Hymenoscyphus that’s sickening the ash – no small sign, this – most likely the outcome of too much human trafficking across the bounds of biogeography, much like our own troubles with SARS-CoV-2. In these northerly latitudes we have so few tree species, I feel we can’t afford to lose these ash. We have few tree species, and just one great ape. I mourn their losses too, for – as I said in my last post – they are me.

But what a strange world we apes have made for ourselves! A perennial issue for the small farmer is how to adjust to the dictates of bureaucracy – too big in scale to easily adopt the below-the-radar stance of the private householder, too small in scale for many of the one-size-fits-all regulations to make sense. My intended operations on the ash brought me just within the lower limits of the need for a felling licence, so I decided to apply for one – but when it emerged that a rare species of horseshoe bat was roosting in the semi-natural woodlands near our site my application was held, pending a full ecological assessment before I was allowed to touch a tree.

There are some ironies here. The reason the bats are rare is because most of our native woodlands have been razed for agriculture. But while there’s no requirement for farmers to restore any woodland on their fields for bats or other reasons – in fact, under existing regulations, there’s a large disincentive – those of us who take it upon themselves to create more mixed habitats anyway chafe under restrictions arising from this wider neglect.

Eventually, our licence came through. We were told that, if managed carefully, our proposals wouldn’t disadvantage the bats and may even bring them benefits. I’d like to take a lesson from this respectfully back to the person who wrote on this website some years ago that our new woodland planting was of ‘no ecological value’. I think I can now safely demur, with a paper trail from the Forestry Commission as my evidence, for it seems our woodland planting has ecological value vis-à-vis horseshoe bats, at least. But what is ‘ecological value’? And who gets to quantify it? Horseshoe bats? Ash? Hymenoscyphus fraxineus?

Meanwhile, around the same time as our little local horseshoe bat issue was going on it’s possible that, in another part of the world, another species of horseshoe bat was harbouring a virus that jumped over to humans and started laying waste to many of us. It’s started laying waste, too, to many of the established social arrangements through which we’ve come to think of ourselves as creatures quite above the cut and thrust of the ordinary biology affecting other organisms. Workplaces. Salaries. Airlines. Capital. Well-stocked supermarkets.

Where this story ends it’s far too soon to tell, of course. Some say that with Covid-19 nature is sending us a message. I guess that’s true, though I’d add that nature has always been sending us messages, every second, every day. Many of them we don’t need to notice, while some of them we probably should notice when we don’t. Some of them are small and some – like Covid-19 – are big.

I’d also add that while nature may be sending us a message, there are numerous ways we could answer it – and nature doesn’t much care which answer we choose. So my guess is that everyone will find ways to interpret the pandemic as somehow confirmatory of their pre-existing philosophies. For my part, I’m hoping that we’ll hear a little less in the future about the Anthropocene – the notion that humans now condition earth systems so deeply and so one-sidedly to our advantage as a species that we can name a geological era after ourselves. Because what it’s felt like to me this winter as I’ve worked within the woodland is that I’m not a master of my world but a dweller in the land, acting on it according to my designs and being acted on by other organisms according to theirs, whether it’s ash or elder, horseshoe bats or Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, Forestry Commission bureaucrats or a tiny package of invisible RNA that may yet fell me before the year is out as surely as I’ve felled my ash.

Equally, I expect Anthropocene aficionados and enthusiasts for ecomodernism will double down, concluding from the pandemic that humanity needs to further escape its animal constraints – perhaps initially by developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (I’d be with them on that) but ultimately by escaping our embodied, earthbound existence and trafficking with the gods among the byways of the universe (not so much).

I’ve learned there’s little point in arguing with these dreamers, but I hope the pandemic might make a few folks otherwise apt to fall for their siren song pause and take stock. Humans are mighty architects of nature for sure, but so are other organisms – and maybe we’d do better to find a seat at the table alongside them, rather than scorning their presence. In the longer term, I think it might help us find that seat if one message we take from Covid-19 is along the lines of Rob Wallace’s writings on agribusiness and the political economy of disease that people were discussing under my last post – writings that point, I think, to a small farm future.

Ultimately, the song of nature is call and response. It’s a collective game of gambits and counter-gambits that doesn’t have much truck with uppity soloists. So while I half agree with this website’s go-to agronomist Andy McGuire that there’s scarcely such a thing as a ‘balance of nature’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we humans have no need to seek our own kinds of balance. Maybe chainsaws but not forwarders. Maybe vaccines but not spaceships.

My fallen ash trees now lie piled up in the woodland rides. Soon I plan to cut them, split them and stack them in the woodshed. Some warmth to see me through another winter, I hope, with another set of challenges. More songs, more stories.

20 thoughts on “After the Anthropocene: notes from a distempered winter

  1. Like a bed full of winter veg or shelves of your own preserves, hauling in enough wood to see you through the next winter kindles a good feeling of rootedness. Getting ours stacked at the mo’. I try not to worry about the RNA – nature knows best!

  2. As the old Zen aphorism goes, “Before corona virus, chop wood, carry water. After corona virus, chop wood, carry water.

    • Possibly coined during the first zoonotic avian flu outbreak from Chinese ducks, thousands of years ago…
      Good to hear your voice again, Joe. I’m certainly sowing, then carrying water, with more vigour, more purpose. We could use a good rain, though I can still thin our urine with washing-up water (thanks for alerting me to the power of pee, BTW). I’ll leave the wood chopping to the last minute, if I’m still around to do it. We mostly burn sticks any way, which you can break over the knee or, if stubborn, via a swift roundhouse. May you and yours stay fit and healthy.

      • PS Aphorism, or allusion that you contracted and survived CV-19? Hmm… either way, may your rice bucket never lose grain.

  3. I always liked the instructions my ex wife brought home from her chainsaw training

    1. Dont use it to cut hair
    2. Dont stop the blades with your fingers or genitals (!?!)

    • Ha! I have never heard that one and I have used a chainsaw all my adult life. I lived in a logging community in western Washington state for several years, heard many a chainsaw accident story and have always been aware of their danger.

      A chainsaw is one of the most dangerous tools one can use. I always wear chaps, face, and ear protection, but they are of little help if you cut down a tree wrong and get crushed or cut through a spring-loaded limb and it whaps you in the head (almost got me once). I really appreciate the help my chainsaws give me, but I always give their power the utmost respect.

      • It looks like a battery-powered Stihl. They don’t wear any protective equipment while chainsawing in my neck of the Eastern European woods – beware any endeavour that requires new clothes! – hence a high proportion of missing digits, and men who suddenly stop drinking following some such calamity.

  4. At this point in my life, modest competence is about as much as I can hope for from my jack-of-all-trades smallholding career.

    Most of us would do well to aspire to ‘modest competence’ for any and all pursuits. And it might be refreshing to see our elected representatives aspire along this line as well.

    Humans are mighty architects of nature for sure, but so are other organisms – and maybe we’d do better to find a seat at the table alongside them, rather than scorning their presence.

    Indeed.

  5. One of your best posts Chris, thanks. My take on this crisis is similar to yours, and it helps a lot to have all the regular sowing, planting and maintenance jobs to humbly get on with while accepting that our ‘control’ over the outcome of any of it is tenuous.
    I hope your business will cope with the likely record levels of demand for your produce!

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    The chainsaw in the picture is a small petrol-powered Stihl. I have an electric one that I use in the summer for cross-cutting – we have a lot of spare solar electricity then, and the low noise is useful in preventing my family from wanting to kill me.

    Having to buy all the expensive protective kit was one of the things that put me off doing a chainsaw course for a long time, but after I did it I now kind of feel naked if I’m not wearing it all. And I still have all my fingers … so far …

    John’s advice is of course sound common sense, but at around £500 a pop for a chainsaw course I think I might set myself up as an instructor if I can charge folks that much for such nuggets.

    And thanks Clem and Andy for your comments. Yes indeed, business is booming at the moment…

    • Most people aren’t aware that electric chainsaws are actually more dangerous than gas powered saws due to their much higher torque. Chainsaw chaps stop the chain by having the blade get tangled in the chap fibers and rapidly slowing down the speed of the chain. An electric motor has so much more torque at low speeds that it will just power right through the chaps. The fine print on the chaps instructions usually warn that they are not suitable for electric saws. But I guess the increased risk of using an electric saw is well worth avoidance of patricide.

      Electric saws do have another advantage: when gas is not available it will still work until either the charging system fails or the battery/saw breaks down. It will certainly be easier to use while it lasts than a crosscut saw. Prepper that I am though, I have a crosscut saw waiting for me on the wall of my shop in case all else fails. Even that will be better than an ax or a machete for bulk wood cutting.

  7. I have three chainsaws, one battery saw which is quite OK, but can run only for less than an hour, can’t become wet and will not take down big trees; one arborist saw for brutal pruning and an more standard one for logging. Forestry is hopeless business in Sweden. The price of timber is lower than in the 1950s. Even with a good stand of pines, manual logging becomes a loss and if you, like we, don’t want to make clear cuts but manage the forest differently, it is even worse. But it is delightful to work in the forest and shape it according to your eye.

    Re the term Antrhorpocene, I beg to differ. I do think it has merits as it does express the fact that human beings are influencing the planet on a scale that transforms the macrosystems, the climate, the streams in the ocean, to some extent even the geology. And certainly the massive transformation of landscapes is an expression of our huge influence. For sure, it doesn’t make us almighty. Our firs are dying from a massive attack of an insect which name in English I don’t know, covid-19 and all the other things going on. I wrote a book titled Garden Earth, expressing that we must manage the planet like a garden, which is what I believe both of us do, Chris.

    For me that is not an expression of hubris, it is acknowledgement of that we have already meddled in most of the biosphere, and now we have to keep in doing it, just in a better way. I mean, even if we went for Monbiotic rewilding, it would still be a design of ours and George will have to shoot a deer now and then to keep the numbers at bay, at least until the wolf population has recovered….

  8. I was told that the big attraction of an electric chainsaw was not having to try & start the thing when you were half way up a tree

  9. i grew up with the great elms in every hedgerow dutch elm got them , here we have oak wilt , all imported killing millions of trees , plus here they imported fire ants in a load of timber from south america , they have devastated ground nesti g birds and reptiles ( plus they are nasty tempered little buggers )
    all for profit and cheap timber costing bilions in unexpected damage , its time for a rethink of where wood comes from and the costs entailed by cheap timber .

  10. As it happens, I have been bucking ash trees for firewood this week as well. Fraxinus Americana, in my case. The Emerald Ash borers have been laying waste to millions of trees here after its union tended introduction form Asia. Sigh. Lots of ash being burned in folks wood stoves lately. Once you see some crown die back or bark blinding, might as well drop them while the wood is still useful.

    In what may be a breach of blog etiquette?, I want to add one more comment to your last post, as my comment there was eaten by web gremlins.

    I see the covid 19 knock on effects to the economy as one more example that the declining EROEI of fossil fuels is slowly degrading the global economy’s ability to function. The energy left over after fuel extraction and processing is what runs the entire rest of society as currently constructed. As this portion gets smaller and smaller, we find ways to get more efficient, but we also become more complex, shave tolerance for disruption, and become less resilient. And of course, fossil fuels also enable the golden age of transportation, so humans and their microbes can travel very quickly, resulting in very high peak infection rates, with no way to cordon off or react effectively.
    We’ll most likely see other events like this, where an event that should not have crippled society in fact does, as the homeostasis functions of our system wither.

    • dammit, poor proof reading and impudent spell check! “unintended” and “from” in the third line, “bark blonding” in the fifth line.

  11. Thanks for further comments.

    And thanks Gunnar for putting the other side of the ‘Anthropocene’ argument. I take your point … the problem perhaps is the way the term has been co-opted by eco-modernist types, rather akin to the cooption of ‘ecomodernism’ itself. Being both ‘ecological’ and ‘modern’ aren’t necessarily problematic, but being an ecomodernist … well now. Most geological eras are named after characteristic rocks rather than a dominant species. I think that’s a more value neutral way to go.

    Good point from Steve C about EROEI. If the global economy swiftly recovers from this, maybe it’ll prove I’m wrong, that capitalism has all the answers, and that we just need to print more money. Rob Wallace’s writings on flu as a massive externality of vertically integrated global poultry agribusiness are also a propos. As indeed are the points from folks above about oak and ash.

  12. Nicely written, Chris, a meditative piece that resonates with me. And you even got to work the ecomodernists into the mix! I’ve thought the same about my chainsaws (a Poulan and 2 Stihls): “where a person toting a chainsaw in the woods is far too quaint and human-scaled a proposition for commercial forestry to turn a profit”. Funny how that act of heading into the woods for a day, with a chainsaw, somehow seems to connect us more with a simpler way of living. Lots to ponder in that.
    Cheers,
    Brian

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