By: Sean Fleming
Two weeks ago our crew volunteered to work with DNR forestry to help burn and monitor slash piles. We didn't receive much more information than that, but burning is always fun. We drove toward White Bear Lake and I watched the terrain become slightly more forested, but only because it became more residential. Large suburban houses poked out of the maple stands. We pulled into a cul-de-sac and drove to the end where two muddy ruts dove through a small field past some lumber piles and a DNR van before disappearing into a pine stand. We got out of the truck as Art, the project host, approached us. In the forest I could see a skidder grappling piles of brush and dropping them onto a roaring bonfire. Beyond that I saw a field and then a playground and then a school.
“This has to be the weirdest project site I've ever worked on.” I told Brian, my crew leader.
Art introduced himself and explained that the trees had been planted by Boy Scouts at the school about fifty years ago, but had never been thinned. The DNR hired a logger for the school and through the process were able to teach the elementary students about using trees as a renewable resource. “The logger is good,” Art said. “He's been doing this since he was twelve years old with his father.”
Then Art turned and hollered into the forest, “Come here Jethrie.” A small boy carrying an ax tall as he was ran forward through the trees.
“This just got weirder.”
“This is Jethrie, the logger's kid. Make sure he doesn't get hurt while you're working.”
Ali and Brian got suited up with chainsaw PPE to cut buckthorn and limb up a big Scotch Pine, while I stood back to take some pictures.
“Which ax do you want?” A small voice asked. I turned. Jethrie suddenly had three axes.
“What do I need an ax for?”
“To cut down trees.”
“Ok, well, I'll take this one. Where are we going to cut trees down?”
“At the next fire pile.” He took off running through the woods. I grabbed a drip torch and took after him while he talked about the forts he built in the woods. I spied some of the lean-tos hidden like gnome houses in dark corners of the pine forest. Eventually we came to a clearing where more slash had been piled together.
“Have you ever used a torch like this?” I asked.
“Well first you need to unscrew it and reassemble it like this.” I showed him how the pieces fit together and then I poured a little gas on the pile and lit it to get the fire going.
“See how it drips out like this? I'm going to let you light this pile on fire. You can have as much fun as you want, but make sure you wear these gloves so you don't burn yourself, and always watch where the flame is going.” He ran up to the pile and torched it and then dripped beads of flame onto the pine boughs making them look like a medieval Christmas tree.
I sat on a log and thought about how I'll add babysitting to my list of tasks accomplished in the Corps. Watching Jethrie reminded me of when I was his age and my dad would take me into the forest and he would cut trees down with a chainsaw while I followed behind limbing them with an ax and a bow-saw. Whether or not Jethrie takes over his father's business fifteen years down the road or not, this is the best education for him. He'll always feel tied to the woods the way I am, unable to leave them, unable to let them go.