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The importance of trees, part two


The drive to and from our house leads through the wilderness of northwest Durham. At night, it's a good idea to go below the speed limit--it's not a matter of if, but when, a deer will pop out onto the road. I've seen hedgehogs, rabbits, even a fox flirt with the idea of crossing. A school of ducklings blocked a line of traffic each way along Umstead Road one day as their mother led them defiantly across by foot. Sometimes the animals don't make it, of course; I drive past them, too, the casualties of our commute.

But there's one sight I was not prepared for. Acres of tall trees used to stand and sway at the intersection of Cole Mill Road and Umstead, right across from Cole Mill Access point to Eno River State Park. They stood on either side of Umstead, like a green gate just past the Eno River Bridge.

Then one day when I drove home, the trees weren't there anymore. A massive clearcut, which seemed to take place in a matter of hours, wiped some eight acres on both sides of the street. Jagged trunks stuck out of the bare ground like crooked teeth. The word clearcut is misleading, as anyone who's seen one up close knows: It's messy and stark and uneven. A thin strip of trees were left along the Cole Mill edges--so thin, in fact, that even in June the full green branches do little to obscure the wreckage.

I feel stupid that it bothers me so much. The land is privately owned, and the owners were free to sell its timber. I wonder how much they got for it, and if they live nearby or see the space as often as those of us who drive past it at least twice a day. Those of us not living in old farmhouses are just as culpable in the clearing of this land, where homes get thrown up almost as quickly as the trees are removed, the earth graded and sculpted into grid-shaped lots, a little mulch thrown around. Our culpability makes those of us who care feel helpless to reverse the trend.

What's unusual about this patch was the fact that it has been left more or less in the same exposed, ravaged state since the logging almost a year ago. As of yet, there's no drug store or gas station there. Just scrub pines and dead branches that are slowly nursing new vegetation, vines and weeds that soften the look of the patchy decimation. The hawks, songbirds and vultures won't return any time soon, though perhaps the fox and the rabbit have been able to make a new home there, lured away from the dangerous road. Who knows how long it took the old towering pines to grow--70 years? I doubt the wave of development into North Durham will leave it alone for even one more year.

The roots of those absent trees used to hold water and soil in place; now runoff heads straight into the Eno, just yards away. What can we do? Wade Shelton, director of land protection at the Eno River Association, says he knows very little about the spot. Land owners come to him, he says. "We don't tell anyone what to do with their land. We just help them if they want to protect it."

Luckily, many people do want to protect their land. The Eno River has had several great successes this year with land donations and voluntary conservation easements, which have managed to preserve much of the buffer along the river. Thank goodness, at least, that the other side of the clearcut is an entrance to parkland, with stands of trees given freely back to the forest. They go on greeting us in spite of everything.

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