Mainers regularly meet their quota of talking
about the weather. Weather here is not an
obsession. However, particularly in Winter and especially to
an outdoor people, the weather, as it should, is something that gets
This week’s lead up to the East Coast
blizzard had everybody’s attention. The media had devised and deployed
its irresistible ratings-term “Bomb Cyclone” as if somehow “blizzard”
was insufficient in clarity for what was to come.
So yesterday and last night, the snow
fell, the wind blew and it packed the snow into hard drifts, which
Caleb reports was tough to plow through this morning with our Ford yard
plow truck. When he got done plowing at midnight last night
Caleb guessed we’d had 13” of new snow. By daylight
this morning, maybe another three inches had “fallen” though it’s hard
to measure snow falling sideways.
This same storm that gave
Tallahassee, Florida its first snowfall in almost thirty years had me
thinking back to my three winters down South planning Loblolly Pine
trees in my bachelor days.
In the early 1980s, I decided
the best way to avoid debt and capitalize the farm was to earn money by
performing piece-rate planting of small pine seedlings. Back
then, hundreds of mostly young men from the north went south to plant
trees each winter.
After the first winter,
treeplanting allowed me to buy my first old Oliver 77 Gas
tractor. That purchase freed me from having to borrow a
tractor from generous neighbors. By the end of the
third winter I’d planted a million trees in ten States from Texas to
Florida to Delaware and had some savings to show for it.
We were treeplanters who tramped over
clearcuts, slinging a planting bag over our shoulders which held five
hundred to a thousand trees, and swinging the maddox-like tool called a
“hoedad” to plant-by-hand the foot-tall Pine seedlings. I
worked for a company called Superior Forestry out of Leslie,
Arkansas. Rivalries ensured and we were maligned by our
envious competition by the moniker, “Inferior Forestry.” Tit
for tat, I can remember our name for rival company “Qualitree” was
One State we planted
extensively in was Lousiana, mostly on International Paper Company land
managed by the IP office in Springhill, just south of the Arkansas
border. Thirty-five years later, Louisiana remains most
memorable to me for its gumbo gray clay soil, several pounds of which
would unrelentingly stick to each boot and hoedad making an
already rough back-breaking stoop-labor job that much tougher.
One winter had us
planting many acres in Lousiana. It was after Christmas,
sometime in January 1983. Pretty soon, stubborn and
determined cold descended from the North. A storm brought
one-half-inch of icing which was quickly followed by a covering of
another three inches of snow. Temperatures plummeted into the
teens and twenties and were both too cold to plant trees and too cold
to melt that snow covered ice.
As was typical when
that storm hit, our crew of hand planters was spread out and camped on
the remote clearcut, each in our individual vehicles. The
vehicles doubled as a mobile home for what one planter-friend had
tongue-in-cheek dubbed the “migratory chic”
lifestyle. Most of us had hollowed out Ford or
Chevy vans. I had outfitted mine with a small
icehouse woodstove from Maine. For nine consecutive days we
were frozen out on that clearcut and unable to work.
Without a local fleet of snowplows and
sand spreaders, travel on Louisiana roads was
treacherous. It would only be a change of weather and a warm
sun that would melt the snow-insulated ice and free up the roads for
travel and the ground for more planting.
I was content to stay
put. My daily exercise ritual became to head outside into the
clear and windy cold with a handsaw and cut off short chunks of
hardwood from the limitless supply of logging debris sticking out from
the snow. With a ready supply of dry firewood the van was
kept warm and cozy by the woodstove. Accustomed to living a
week or two at a time out on the clearcuts, we all had plenty of food
and water with us.
My trophy for the winter had been
finding and buying - for twenty-five cents! - a hardcover copy of
Morrison’s classic and thick Feeds and Feeding in a second-hand-store
book section. Now with our forced downtime I was able to read
and study every word of this eminently readable book about every aspect
of livestock farming.
Over the next thirty-five years which
have followed, there have been precious few stretches as long and as
carefree as those cold, windy days on that clearcut in northern
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