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"Living by Wood" as published in Permaculture Activist No. 83, Spring 2012
by Bethann Weick

This is a tale of wood, but I wish to begin upon a stone wall. It is old. In some places well-defined, sturdy, resilient to the history unfolding about it. Certain sections, however, are disintegrating, tumbling apart as years become decades become centuries.

The past century has seen this stone wall subsumed by the slow encroachment of the northern forest. Land once used for sheep grazing and farming was left vacant: the fields became meadows, became young forests, became middle-aged forests. Loggers took what wealth they could from these Northcountry stands. With each cutting of the land the process of new forest growth began again.

In the 1800's, pre-Civil War, Dorchester was a large town of 3,000 residents. Of note, were 7 mills operating within the town. By comparison, there are less than 300 residents of Dorchester in 2011, with one small-scale milling business. In contrast to historical practices, logging in the region currently employs a minimum of people in a highly mechanized industry. Logging and wood processing is typically for 2"x4" framing construction, chips for biomass energy, and such conventional building products as chipboard and plywood. The diversity of uses for wood, as well as the hand skills and human power such uses represent, has significantly dwindled. Resources are being squandered: the degradation of diverse wood stands is in direct correlation to the diminishment of human skills, and the loss of regional distinctiveness and place-based interaction with the landscape.

Until recently. As part of the organic permaculture farm & educational homestead here at D Acres of NH, these stone walls and the historical fields they delineate are gradually being revived. Expansion of our small-scale agricultural practices occurs as we log back the woods in a given area to reveal the existing stone walls. We work slowly, clearing a different area every couple of years. We are careful not to strip the land faster than our needs demand, nor quicker than we are able to manage the transition. A logged area will have pigs put on it for few seasons, preparing the garden-beds-to-be. After the animals have done their work, our turn will come, defining beds based on contours and continuing the essential work of building soil fertility.

And so, perched upon the nearest stone wall, to the east of the homestead, one looks out upon a narrative of wood. What is currently terraced annual beds punctuated by lines of perennial plantings was a mixed first-generation forest just five years ago.

From forest to …
This change from forest to field implies a change in the use of the existing trees. As forest, the trees were a valuable means of erosion control, windbreak, watershed health, soil building, and habitat. Using our team of Jersey oxen, Henri & August, however, this area was logged over the course of two years. Living trees were converted into a multitude of purposes.

Let me return to my perch upon the stone wall. Along the western edge rests a pig house used by sows and their young litters. The building is framed primarily with roundwood, all harvested onsite. Dimensional wood is used for siding, also sourced onsite and milled by a neighbor around the corner.

The sow inside is kept company by six piglets. Their bedding is a mix of hay & woodchips. Destined to become compost for our garden beds, these dry ingredients blend with the animals' manure and food scraps to become the rich soil of our future. Woodchips are a by-product of our oxen-powered logging thanks to our wood-chipper. These chips provide comfort and health to the animals, and create well-balanced, hot compost once the pig house is cleaned out. By next season, this compost-in-the-making will be a vital nutrient package building soil fertility throughout our garden system.

Once the piglets are weaned and moved to another site, the sow will return to the top part of this field beside the stone wall. Here she will continue her work rooting out stumps, turning over rocks, and fertilizing the soil. She is our garden bed preparer, readying the logged area for our farming activities. Dead wood, old roots, and wood shoots that she strews about will be collected by us and used as swales within the expanding terraced system.

Meanwhile, the piglets – small as they are at the moment – will grow quickly. Before they reach one year of age, they will be harvested for meat. Look into the future for a moment: the wooden spoon that prepares the meal, the wooden bowl from which it is eaten, the chopsticks with which the meal is consumed: each of these implements are made in our woodshop from the maple, birch, and occasional cherry trees harvested through our logging efforts. The maple syrup that sweetens the ham is boiled down over a wood-fired evaporator, the meat is roasted in our wood-fired cob oven, and the side dishes are sautéed on our wood cookstove: each is "powered" by wood we have logged onsite. The wood that heats the space in which we eat, and the wood that heats the water with which we wash our dishes: yes, it all comes from onsite.

Living by wood
Wood, therefore, has a plethora of uses here at D Acres. A source of heat, it powers woodstoves in our community building, in personal dwellings, and in the cob greenhouse/animal house multifunction building. It complements a solar hot water system to heat our water effectively in the colder, darker months. Hot water in turn is part of a radiant heating system utilized in the community building. Indoor woodstoves are used to cook on when seasonally appropriate; in the warmer seasons a wood-fired outdoor cob oven/stovetop combination is used regularly, as well as an outdoor kitchen area operating with two wood cookstoves. Wood is also used to boil down sap for our maple sugaring practices.

Small diameter trees, limbs, and crowns are harvested for chipping. Woodchips are an integral aspect of our forest-to-field garden system. Chips are used in animal bedding as described above, the building blocks of compost and soil fertility. Chips are also used to sheet mulch paths and edges within the annual gardens, and to provide additional organic matter and weed suppression around perennial plantings. Woodchips are also utilized in our bathrooms and outhouses as part of our humanure composting procedure.

Wood is employed in many facets of our building and construction efforts. While we also use stone and cob, wood dominates our building style. Animal buildings, treehouse dwellings, outbuildings, storage sheds, greenhouses, coldframes, and much more: facility needs are routinely met by building with wood harvested onsite.

Smaller scale woodworking is also essential to D Acres. This includes bed frames and bookshelves, as well as cottage industry production of wooden spoons, bowls, chopsticks, frames, and hearts. These products are sold onsite, as well as local galleries and online venues. Wood is an abundant, home-grown resource that, with the addition of talent and vision, readily produces functional beauty. Purposeful place-based art, in other words, a rarity alongside the homogenizing force of mass media.

Currency of wood
Additionally, wood is a source of income. Money does not, however, stem from the more predictable categories of firewood (sold only on rare occasions) nor tree-felling & wood-chipping services (sold even more infrequently). Rather wood represents cash through three facets: as functional art, as the subject of educational programming, and through outdoor recreation. Through these means D Acres is aspiring to restructure our economy to reflect our resource base

As suggested above, D Acres has close relationships with different artistic galleries within the region. Most notably, D Acres Director was also a founding member of Artistic Roots (2004), an artist co-op & gallery currently operating in Plymouth, NH. D Acres also participates in the Cardigan Mountain Art Association, League of NH Craftsman, and the online venue Local Harvest. Sales of wood products through these establishments, as well as onsite, generates $4-5000/yr. This income represents compensation of both time and materials. These galleries and shoppes, in addition to providing income, create a place to advocate functional, local, place-based art within our communities. Not only do our wood products offer a blend of functionality and aesthetics, they bring nature to the consumers. Furthermore, there is significant community value in the visibility of D Acres' cottage industries within such artistic establishments. While a purchase of a bowl, spoon, chopstick, heart, frame, bookshelf, etc is beneficial for its monetary value, each purchase represents a connection with a consumer and an opportunity for public education. Product tags reflect the sustainable forestry practices undertaken at the farm, and the community work in which D Acres is involved. It is the hope that consumers will appreciate the additional information provided with each product, and that a percentage of those purchases will then lead to an onsite visit.

Educational programming, then, is the next component of income generated by wood. It is also another example of a minimal cash gain for a significant community impact. Wood related workshops offered annually at D Acres include: Wooden Spoon Making, Wooden Hearts, Northern Forest Tree ID, and Maple Sugaring. These workshops are priced economically ($4-16), keeping in mind the low-income area in which the farm is situated. Further discounts are available to organizational members and to residents of Grafton County. This is to say that small money – less than $500/yr. - is earned via the educational programming associated with forest resources. Yet the value of face time with participants is considerable. It is also difficult to track. However, for example, over the past decade, we have seen attendance at our Wooden Spoon Making Workshop expand five-fold. Not only does this represent the reputation of D Acres' name, but it also insinuates the allure of our message. Increased attendance also delineates a growing opportunity to show individuals the work in which we are engaged and to cultivate relationships that will build our network of supporters. A one-time workshop participant represents a small cash gain; convincing that individual to return to the farm, to participate in further programming, to bring friends or family? That first-time workshop experience can represent a noteworthy spectrum of experiences and income generating opportunities. Our furniture and construction style lends to a sense of place, creating a recreational lure and building on the character of our locale through the incorporation of aesthetics with functionality. This appeals to regional visitors and vacationers, as well as locals who wish to connect with nature. In addition, creating a network of community participants and local supporters goes well beyond monetary benefits. It is these relationships of care and of mutual support that ultimately build the fabric that will allow a rural lifestyle, regional economy, and small-scale agriculture to subsist, persist, and thrive.

Wood also assists in achieving such goals – both the practical of income generation and the philosophical of community strengthening – through outdoor recreation. D Acres has managed the forest resource that we have to include 3+ miles of hiking trails on our 180-acre property. The trails are always open to the public. To encourage usage we advertise Open Trails every Sunday 10am-4pm. We also offer guided snowshoe/cross-country ski tours through the winter season. These trails showcase the diversity of the northern forest as well as micro habitats including springs, ponds and wetlands, rock ledges, an historical mica mine, streamsheds, beaver habitat, disturbed areas with new growth, and older stands of both softwood & hardwood trees. Trail signage and informational kiosks are also odes to wood: from harvest to construction to public education, wood is the essence of a successful trails program. While use of these trails is free to all, our efforts at encouraging outdoor recreation and fostering a sense of place yield income in the form of overnight guests and meals sold to the public (approximately one-third of organizational income). This illustrates the ability of forest resources to serve indirectly as a means of community outreach and to achieve widespread organizational support through the creation of repeat guests & participants.

Wealth by Wood
Ultimately, wood defines our purpose and our work. Seasons are defined by the logging that can be pursued and the nature of the programming we offer, and guided by the ebb and flow of wood product demand. The success of our subsistence is embedded in wood: for heat and cooking, for shelter, for soil development, for garden fertility, for animal health, for income, for community relationships & partnerships, and for aesthetics.

The health of the ecosystem in which we reside, the strength of the agricultural system in which we are invested, and the vibrancy of the regional culture that we contribute to: each of these is rooted in wood. Wood, therefore, represents an economy beyond cash flow. It is an economy of survival, of comfort, of holistic resource use. It is an economy narrated beside an aging stone wall, and valued for its longevity. It is an economy validated by the long-term health, resilience, and vibrancy of the woods that remain, the gardens that are created, the animals engaged in the process, and the humans interacting with and within our forested resources. It is an economy supported by and of life.


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