Along my back driveway, I planted a row black locust trees, for a variety of reasons. The fact that they fix atmospheric nitrogen improves the soil. They provide excellent timber for fences, and outstanding firewood. They coppice readily, so they provide a renewable resource.
And they provided (along with the raspberries I planted between them) a thorny wall against the hordes of annoying kids in the house next door. This way I didn’t have to yell at them (Get off my lawn!), but it definitely de-incentivized hopping my fences to go play with their friends. BWAHAHAHA!
But now I was hoist with my own petard. Every time I’d go to get in the truck, it would cost me a pint of blood. So I got out my trusty loppers and carved a hole in the foliage.
Now, I can hear the granola-fueled wails of the ecofemininists (they exist!) about how as a man I’m subjugating Gaia and am no better than the Nazis were because I cut a living tree!
You laugh, but I’ve had these arguments before. It gets shrill pretty quickly. But here’s the platform, in a summary form.
Yes, trees are living things. So are cows. So are soybeans and maize. I don’t think that we should wantonly destroy life. But, humans are here. We, for better or worse, are the dominant force for change globally. Whenever the forest and man clash, the forest loses.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little planning and effort, humans can integrate with the forest. I plant trees all the time. But only occasionally do I cut one down, and even less frequently is it a living tree. I do my best to appreciate the many things that trees do: clean the air, clean the water, keep soil erosion at bay, and shade my house so it isn’t so blasted hot in the summer. I eat nuts and fruit from them. And maybe a tree is happy to just be a tree! So I largely leave them alone.
But sometimes the forest has to give a little back. I don’t want roots cracking my house foundation, so I kill off the seedlings before that happens. And when a tree gets in the power lines, that’s not helpful either. So I cut them out of the lines.
Mostly, though, despite the concept of a self-regulating natural world (Lovelock’s “Gaia” theory), I actually improve upon nature with my actions. I prune my apple trees so that they don’t grow into a tangled thicket and die an early death while improving yield at the same time. I cut branches off my locust trees so that I can coexist with them instead of decrying them as a bother and razing the lot. I cut off dead limbs that are disease vectors. Limbs that are not structurally sound I will cut off cleanly, saving the rest of the tree the trauma that inevitably results from the wind tearing a piece off.
And as for those who espouse the virtues of the forest primeval, with Amerindians frolicking about in a Disney-esque peace and love scenario? I scoff at their ignorance. The forest that Europeans encountered was the largest man-made environment in the world. The Amerindians routinely burned the eastern forests, clearing out the underbrush. The forest that Anglos compared to a manicured park did not grow…it was grown, precipitating an abundance of food-bearing trees. For more on this, see 1491 by Charles Mann.
To guide this back into woodworking, how long did it take a tree to make your boards? Hardwoods are typically ready for harvest between 70 and 100 years old. So I ask, does the lifespan of the project you make match that figure? If not, then how is your work responsible? It uses trees faster than they can grow. It’s certainly possible for furniture to last for hundreds of years, even when made of softwood. So is your construction sturdy enough to last? And can it be repaired? One reason I use hide glue almost exclusively is that I can steam a joint apart and repair a broken part, leaving the remainder intact. PVA or epoxy doesn’t let you do that, which means that damaged pieces are discarded rather than repaired. That isn’t very responsible in my view.
So yes, prune your trees. It’s good for them! Plant more if you can. Remember that the timber on your bench is not just a commodity, but a precious resource that came at the life of another creature. Give it the respect it deserves.