~The following first appeared in the November 7th issue of The Floyd Press. Please note that this story gives details of the upcoming Biological Woodsmen Week in Floyd and Wendell Berry’s visit.
If you’re going to be a biological woodsman and practice restorative forestry, you embrace the concept that what you leave in the forest is more important than what you take. - Jason Rutledge
Students at Blue Mountain High School (BMHS) recently attended a talk by guest speaker Jason Rutledge, a Floyd farmer, forester and horseman who will soon be working on a Timber Stand Improvement operation at the Floyd EcoVillage, where the high school is located. Students learned about Rutledge’s process of horse logging and “worst first” single tree selection for timber extraction. Interested students will be documenting land changes as part of a botany class.
In his address to the students, Rutledge explained that he became disillusioned with modern forestry when he was a student at Virginia Tech, feeling that the forestry program focused on harvesting trees without regard for the living system of the forest, of which trees are a component. He spoke about the ecological services that trees provide, including shade, fresh air and cooling, which, due to the recent increase in climate temperature, is more important than ever.
“The strongest single way to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere is to grow trees. Trees inhale the carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their plant bodies. We should grow every tree we can, as healthy and as big as possible, and stop cutting down trees all at one time because that leads to less forest overall, and we need more forest,” Rutledge said. He pointed out that animal logging is low impact and does not contribute to the burning of fossils fuels, which scientists have reported to be directly linked to climate change.
Rutledge spoke about the term “restorative” forestry, as opposed to “sustainable” forestry, saying that the forests of today are in decline. “I don’t understand how we can sustain a decline. I’d like to switch the debate to what is restorative.” Students learned that clear cutting timber invites invasive species into the woods and that Floyd County and its region is one of the most botanically diverse places in the world. They learned that the forest product industry is the largest industry in Virginia and the second highest wage earner.
In 1999, with a Ford Foundation grant, Rutledge co-founded the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation (HHFF), a non-profit group that promotes restorative forestry. Rutledge describes restorative forestry as “imitating nature and identifying the very best trees on a site and cultivating them.” He is the owner of Draftwood, which produces green certified forest products using horse powered restorative forestry practices, and, along with his son Jagger and other biological woodsmen, he has been featured on the History Channel’s reality show Ax Men.
Raised by his grandparents, who were Virginia sharecroppers, Rutledge said he learned independence and dignity from his grandfather and that the most rewarding part of his work has been training apprentices to carry on the tradition of horse logging. “It’s not only important to teach them how to do it but to inspire them as to why to do it in a restorative way,” he said, adding that young people bring new skills to the practice.
Rutledge has also spoken to Floyd County High School students about restorative forestry and has recently participated in horse plowing the first 1/4 acre of the school’s new Farm School, off Route 221 North. He considers it an honor to share what he knows, especially with young people. “The kids are our only chance of a real future. They are so open-minded and curious. That’s why I keep doing what I do.”
On a hike to the 10 acre piece of EcoVillage land that is slated to be restored, the first thing Rutledge pointed out to BMHS students was that the property was once a Christmas tree farm. “It’s hardly a forest,” he said, explaining that some pines would have to be logged to allow a diversity of trees to grow. A later hike to a 2 ½ acre tract on the property gave the students a chance to see a natural forest.
Rutledge is also co-founder of the Biological Woodsmen Week (BWW), an HHFF educational event, now in its 9th year. The week features onsite draft horse pulls, demonstrations, panel discussions and more. “We have held BWW’s in Fauquier, Augusta, Rockbridge, New Kent and Albemarle, and similar Draft Horse Events in Greenville, Tennessee, at the Blue Ridge Institute in Ferrum, Virginia and the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Virginia,” Rutledge said.
He explained that the HHFF, which acts as international network for horse loggers all over the world, has also sponsored several smaller “Open Woods Days” events in various counties throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. The Kentucky events took place at the invitation of Wendell Berry, the renowned author, environmental activist, farmer and English professor who writes novels, essays and poetry about agriculture, rural life and community.
This year the BWW – November 19th to the 23rd – will take place in Floyd for the first time. Based at the EcoVillage, the event will feature “A Conversation with Wendell Berry.” The Kentucky born native will conduct a book signing at the Floyd EcoVillage on Friday, November 22 at 4:00 pm. Berry will speak at the Floyd County High School auditorium at 7:00 pm and will participate in a panel of national experts on the topic of forests and community. A moderated question and answer period is also scheduled.
The week of Woodsmen activities will include restorative forestry operations happening at several locations, including the Timber Stand Improvement project at the EcoVillage. On the last day of the week long event, Saturday the 23rd, there will be a Woodsmen’s Play Day at the EcoVillage site, featuring a timber felling contest, draft horse demonstrations and a friendly draft horse pulling contest.
BWW activities are free. Advanced ticket sales for “A Conversation with Wendell Berry” are $10 (via floydecovillage.com). Tickets at the door will be $15. Proceeds from Berry’s talk will “go right back to the ground,” which Rutledge explains as supporting the participating Woodsmen who volunteer their time demonstrating the long term economic and environmental benefits of worst-first animal logging. Anything left over will go to benefit the work of HHFF.
Rutledge estimates that there are about five major Biological Woodsmen practitioners within a 100 mile radius. Four of them, some of whom Rutledge has trained, will be attending, camping with their horses at the EcoVillage and participating in the week’s events. He expects the week to be inspirational and educational, as well as good fun. ~ Colleen Redman