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Spring harvest 

Last weekend, I cut down a cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie. I meant no disrespect, but I had been putting it off for months. We planted the tree, a gift from our neighbors, 25 years ago. It lived a full life, but now it's simply another part of the biomass festival that stretches up and down my country road this time of the year. All around us, chain saws are whirring and whining. February and March—before the foliage appears, before the ticks and chiggers arrive, before thorny vines carpet the underbrush, before the garden beckons and the to-do list runs to two pages—are the time to find some good gloves, mix up the two-cycle engine oil and sharpen the chains. It's the time for the wood gatherers.

One neighbor recently timbered the row of hardwoods along the eastern side of his sprawling vegetable plot. He loved the trees, but 20 years after he first tilled his raised beds, they were taking all the sun and moisture from his lettuce and tomatoes. We can hear his wood splitter each Saturday morning.

The earthy Carolina terrain rolls westward, all oaks and hickories with a stream and several sunset overlooks. Bulldozers and chain saws are changing all that quickly. Many years ago, the 180 acres next to us were clear-cut for their pine and oaks. Then a crew managed a controlled burn, plowed a road through the center and gave the parcel of land a rural, ranchy name. They divided the property into large home sites. It worked: It looks beautiful, and our newish neighbors are good people, living their country dream, too.

For many farmers in rural North Carolina, the land is their bank, the trees their retirement. Every 40 or 50 years, it's time to move the cows and chickens, cut a heavy-duty roadway and harvest the timber. It's time to cash out.

We get enticing offers in the mail each month this time of year. "We'll be in the neighborhood," says one logging company or another. Sometimes the operations are quick and dirty; some take a longer view. We all watch with mouths agape as half a dozen tractor trailers arrive each morning to timber 91 acres of a nearby favorite corner. This particular crew is methodical, clearing the scrub, mulching up the debris and burying the stumps. A few springs from now, the corner will once again be a popular rest stop for the dozens of bike riders who cruise out here each weekend.

My efforts are more modest, of course: We have our wood for next year put up already, cherry tree included. A new bar for the chain saw made all the difference this season. But there is one tree deep in the woods that's still worth noticing. Lightning struck this grand, 60-foot tulip poplar last fall, sending 6-foot shards and splinters all through the forest. The crown lies broken in two, hanging 30 feet above the ground, waiting for a good wind to blow it down. It's a natural wonder, but we keep a respectful distance.

  • For many farmers in rural North Carolina, the land is their bank, the trees their retirement.

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