Maggie K. Smith, Berea College Farm Intern
Berea, KY—Agriculture and forestry at Berea College share a common root. Silas Mason, hired as the superintendent of campus grounds and professor of horticulture and forestry in 1897, established the first forestry program at Berea. He was so committed to forestry education that he purchased the first forest acreage with his own money. Today, if you walked into the College Forest you might think you’d traveled back to the time of Silas Mason. This week the forestry team has been learning the neo-traditional trade of biological woodsmanship, utilizing the equine muscle power for logging instead of fossil-fuel-powered machinery.
Jason Rutledge traveled to Berea from Floyd, Virginia, with his horses to offer his practical teachings on the benefits of horse logging, his career since 1974. Rutledge considers himself a biological woodsman, not a logger. He says:
“The biggest difference between a logger and a woodsman is that the purpose of loggers is to reduce the worth of the forest to logs and dollars. But a woodsman understands the interdependent relationships between species diversity and forest health. In order to continue to be a woodsman, you need woods”.
Rutledge has dedicated his life to restorative forestry, using the method of “worst-first, single-tree selection” to harvest trees while leaving specifically-selected trees to continue to grow. Each tree in the forest ages in its own time; growth and age are not just species-specific, but depend on the individual. Using his team of rare ‘Iron Suffolk’ horses, Rub and Kate, he pulls logs cut from the forest with remarkably little disturbance. The horse is the best method for log extraction when the goal is minimal disturbance because they can enter the forest via smaller paths and do not require the large clearings needed for modern machinery. And by using these biological power units (horses), there is also time to be thoughtful.
When looking for the route to enter a woodlot or forest there will usually be some needed trimming of brush and fallen trees, but this allows for scoping out the trees for forest replenishment, the practice of silviculture. If machinery were to be used this type of intentional understory management would likely not occur.
An important advantage of horse logging is that weather conditions are less of a hindrance. While working over the past week, the violent thunderstorms we’ve had would have washed out conventional skid trails and left the ground muddy with deep standing water, but with horse logging these risks and limitations are greatly reduced because there is less soil compaction and disturbance.
Other advantages of this low-input approach lie in the ability to salvage fallen trees for wood and extract timber on your schedule rather than that of a contractor. According to Rutledge “there are low-input costs. It ain’t free. It takes cultural skills.” And transferring those skills is precisely what his apprenticeships through Healing Harvest do.
Rutledge acknowledges the limitations of horse logging, but clearly sees the benefits outweighing them. A lot of time that goes into the care, preparation, and use of the horses; it’s almost ritualistic. The horses know the routine as well: hay, water, grain, harness, and off to work. The degree of intelligence demonstrated by these animals is magnificent.
Clint Patterson, the Berea College Forester, first developed an interest in Rutledge’s work after seeing him featured in Mother Earth News in 1987. As a forestry student he became disenchanted by an industry motivated only by fast growth and clearcutting to maximize profits. This disenchantment has stuck with him and influenced his vision for the Berea College Forest. Patterson believes that Berea College is a place for change and horse logging could be a part of it. “The dollar makes more trips around the community before it goes somewhere else. And slower, more careful, more mindful, less impactful forms of logging allow more time for the logs to find local uses” according to Patterson.
The Berea College Forestry Department used mules to pull out logs used for the Deep Green dormitory furniture as well as a few other future products. More projects are planned, including the development of a visitor center near the Silas Mason cabin, located near the Pinnacles. This center will draw in and educate visitors and allow the College Forest to host educational events. If horse logging is adopted, the horses could be boarded here as well.
Despite Berea College’s efforts to more proactively consider sustainability in its operations, change is often hindered by expediency, practical limitations and the near impossibility of satisfying all stakeholders. Horse-logging is a method with some real benefits, but can it and will it be used again in Berea College’s forest? Rutledge offers this thought to consider:
“I don’t think anyone knows what ‘sustainable’ is really. But what we do know is that the general state of the world is in decline. I just don’t understand how you sustain a state in decline? I practice restorative forestry; creating a forest that is very similar to a virgin forest, while using a single entry with neo-traditional harvesting techniques and plans.”
If Berea College implements this type of timber extraction method it will be the first college in the South to do so in modern times. It would also provide an exceptional learning opportunity, linking students today with those who worked and learned at Berea College over 100 years ago. And who knows what might follow – farming with horses?