St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Friday, November 30, 2012

Woods in the prairie

Just next to our 5 acres is 1.5 acres for the old Swedish
Lutheran Mission church and a still function local cemetery.
Quiet neighbors.  15 years ago the church was painted by the
local Scout troop, but entropy is again threatening. 
Here in Pine Island our 5 acres is part of an old 10 acre woodlot in the open prairies of southern Minnesota.  It is an oasis for wildlife; a refuge in the corn, bean and alfalfa fields.
Look at the satellite map west of Pine Island and see the two valleys nearby

The name, Pine Island, comes about because two branches of the Zumbro river wander in from the west, joining in town.  The two rivers each carved a valley in the high rolling prairies surrounding us.  The two river valleys not only meet in town, but if you follow them west for 5 miles, they separate a few miles apart, and then wander close together again, forming an island surrounded by valleys.

These valleys and streams stopped the prairie fires that kept most of the area open.  When settlers arrived in the mid 1800s through the turn of the century, they chose Pine Island as a site for water power, timber, and farming.  The "Island" was pine near town, and hard woods to the west; an oasis of timber for fuel and lumber in an otherwise treeless plain.

To share the timber bounty, land speculators bought the Island (a few 1000 acres) and plotted it into 5 acre strips--166 feet wide and 1/4 mile long and sold each strip to a farmer or town dweller. The long strips divided each 40 acres into 8 narrow plots, all accessible from the adjacent road.

In 1991, we bought one of the few remaining strips still wooded.  Most of the rest have been cleared and are farmed or pasture. Adjacent to our 5 acre strip was another 5 acre strip. Along the road is an old church and cemetery --1.5 acres with woods in the rest of the strip combining with our woods to make about 8 acres total, surrounded by open fields.

Both strips are filled with mature timber.   As best we can tell, the land was logged off about 1900, then fenced in and pastured for time, and then allowed to grow without being disturbed for the next 100 years.
Looking through the woods to the back of our house. We built it
starting in 1995.  Some of the lumber came from the 5 acre woodlot,
logs hauled to WI and sawed on our sawmill there and then
brought back and used in framing and finish.  We did a lot of the
building ourselves.  Of course, it is not done yet!

I planted a row of pine trees between my 5 acres and the cemetery
to give both sides privacy.  20 years later they separate us nicely. 

My trail that leads north into the woods. 

When the woods was logged of around 1900, basswood
shoots sprang up from the old stump making clusters
of basswoods a common sight.     

Many trees, including this oak have cancers. Not sure why so many have  it,
but maybe from pasturing damage when the trees were young. 

A dozen gray, red and fox squirrels call our woods home and
take advantage of the hollow trees. 

The Pileated Woodpecker takes on a 100 year old basswood
trunk.  A storm took the top off two years ago and although the tree
is still alive, it is failing fast. 

Birds are use the woods year around.  A resident Pileated Woodpecker pair
raise a single young bird each summer right in our yard and
visit the suet feeder all winter.  

The trees grow tall in competition for sunlight over 100 years.

Margo's green houses are unused for the last 7 years as
we shifted to spring syruping in WI 

The woods is mature now--many huge basswoods and oaks at the end of long productive lives, being taken down with each prairie windstorm; a narrow strip of woods with no buffer to protect the trees from the winds--each tree in the strip getting the full brunt of each storm.  Squirrels and woodpeckers have taken over the old trees, continuing to hollow and weaken them.  In the 21 years we have lived here, probably 1/3 of the huge trees have come down, with more falling each year, making room for a new generation, that heretofore have not had an opportunity to live under the vast closed canopy.

Although it is only 8 acres of woods, the 1/4 mile long strip gives me a pleasant walk.  This morning I took the camera along to photograph the last of the big trees as they return to the soil.    Margo is baking peanut butter cookies, the kind you put the chocolate kiss on top when they come out of the oven hot--so have to quit now and return to cookie quality control checks.