Monday, August 26, 2013

Juniperus Virginiana Justgotohellus*

* Not its actual taxonomic name, but it should be.

See those evergreen trees behind that stylish, classy, impeccably-trained dog? That's Juniperus Virginiana, otherwise known as the eastern redcedar. If you look closely at the background, you can see more of them, like a dark, evil, ever-growing smudge on the horizon.

They are a bane, a pox, a nightmare; bushy, aromatic cockroaches that cover the prairie like a malignant cancer. If unchecked by fire, cutting or other means of control, they spread unbelievably quickly, and form equally unbelievably dense stands of trees that, quite literally choke out everything else. How quickly? In Oklahoma alone it's estimated we lose 300,000 acres to cedar infestation every year. That's 700 acres, a day!

They're bad news for just about everything, including quail, quail hunters and quail hunters' dogs. It's so bad that in some areas I hunt, if I didn't run Astros/Alphas on the dogs I'd never have a clue where they were. And this on the allegedly treeless Oklahoma plains. And although the trees in the picture are bush-like and rather small - like some benign shrubbery - don't let that fool you: redcedars can and do get properly huge, especially in the protected draws and canyons so prevalent in my part of the world.

And it's not like you can just walk through, or under, rather, a grove of redcedars. Their branches extend all the way down the length of the trunk. So not only will a thirty, forty, or fifty-foot-tall redcedar choke out every other tree around it from above, its lower branches are so low and so dense that it effectively chokes out any kind of movement under it, too. Get a bunch of large cedars growing in close proximity, and they form about as gloomy, dense and utterly impenetrable a wall as you're likely to encounter.

So yesterday we took a drive down to the in-laws' homestead (the same place where this pic was taken, but at different times) to do a little scouting and to cut some firewood (and no, you can't burn eastern redcedar in a fireplace or stove, or at least I refuse to. Even seasoned for years, it still burns too hot, too quickly, too irregularly and produces way too much popping for me to feel comfortable burning it in large amounts).

There's quite a bit of dead-standing walnut and oak in the various draws and canyons of the property, but the problem is, many of those dead-standing trees are completely swallowed in forests of large, mature eastern redcedars. In fact, most of those dead-standing hardwoods are dead-standing precisely because they're surrounded by forests of large, mature eastern redcedars...

So here's the procedure for cutting firewood in eastern redcedar country: First, identify what tree you want to cut down for firewood. Then, count how many redcedars you must cut down to reach it. Then, start cutting. But you can't just take your chainsaw, walk up to a cedar and cut it down. Oh, no. First, you must cut your way to the trunk of the tree (remember all those dense, lance-like ground-level branches?). Then, once you've cut a path to the trunk, you must fell the cedar tree away from the path you're cutting to your firewood tree. Because that's also the path onto which you're going to (hopefully) be dropping your firewood tree. When the cedar tree falls, it will of course hang up in the tree next to it, so you've got to repeat the process all over again, and in all likelihood that tree will hang up in the tree next to it, and so on. Lather, rinse, repeat...

Once you've finally got a sort-of path cleared to your firewood tree, you've got to make damn sure that you fell the tree exactly where you've cut your path. If you don't, it will of course start to fall directly into an adjacent cedar tree, and hang up. And then you're screwed, because then you have to go cut that tree down, and hope it doesn't hang up in the tree next to it. Lather, rinse, repeat...

It's a dangerous, exhausting, time-consuming, frustrating, equipment-breaking, wildly inefficient way to gather winter heat. I spent five hours yesterday cutting cedar trees, in the process repeatedly getting stabbed, poked, whacked, scratched, bitch-slapped, impaled, dehydrated and heatstroked, just so I could go back next week and spend another five hours cutting a pick-up load of actual firewood. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The older I get, the better "woodstove-as-rustic-decoration-and-potted-plant-stand" sounds. I could really get into "Blizzard's on the way. Better call the propane guy!"


  1. pellet stove. and burn the damn cedars in place. Probabl'y won't make you a favorite with the in-laws though.

  2. I once killed an Oklahoma longbeard all cuddled up inside the arms of a loving cedar. And you know how I feel about pretty setters . . .

  3. Having grown up east of the Mississippi my perspective is not as dim Chad, they are part of my memories and were always present. I do believe I can understand your incensed rant however. As I said I grew up east of the Mississippi and hunting through cedar thickets for the last 30 years is part of life here. The logs are worth grabbing up. They don't equal a bois d'arc fence post, but its right close. Someone threatend my mailbox last January on a particularly icy afternoon. Being duck season I modified it to get it working. Last week the boss asked when I would replace the mailbox. A 15 foot cedar log, chainsaw, old mailbox from neighbor that was taken out from the same incident, and some minor thought gave me a new(except the recycled mailbox) place to get junk mail. Cedar chests, cedar walk-in closets, cedar blocks to put in closets. I say you have an opportunity to make some cash. Research the uses of your bane. Native americans used them frequently. How about some juniper gin?

  4. That damned stuff, or variations thereof, has taken over the west! Fire suppression and overgrazing have made the habitat rife for exploitation, and this stuff exploits! It's worth mention that not only does it crowd out everything else, but the needles it drops acidify the ground and retard the growth of other plants beneath the canopy, making it impossible to out-compete. Add the propensity of cedar (it's actually juniper, but who's counting)to monopolize groundwater, and you've got a real plague. We removed several thousand acres of the stuff on the place I guided in the eastern Sierra, and saw the return of springs and seeps, along with a boom in antelope and mule deer. We even got a little covey of quail.

    There are uses for it, as someone pointed out, but there's so bloody much of the stuff that it's hard to see it as anything more than a pain in the ass. On my little place, I've done a lot of clearing, but have no choice but leave some stands for habitat and erosion control.

  5. Actually Wyknot there are some companies exploring those options, but it's a sort of chicken-and-egg thing, what's gonna come first the market or the demand? I will say that I'm considering a portable sawmill, because a lot of those larger cedar logs would make beautiful tongue-and-groove or siding, posts, furnuture, etc.

  6. All true. However, ERC makes a BEAUTIFUL, and highly functional, longbow. My favorite bow wood, overall is ERC. That said, it is damn difficult to work for a number of reasons. Even finding a bow worthy piece to begin with is like searching for a necklace of golden hen's teeth strung on a braid of unicorn hair. Upon finding a six foot long, straight, limb/knot free length of wood, enough sapwood has to be removed to get close to the vibrant heartwood that makes the bow so pretty and snappy in the first place. But don't gouge out too much, or you won't have enough wood left to make the bow. It's damn soft wood.

    But, if you can tease a bow out of it, it is really fine bow wood. It also takes over pastures and CRP...

    1. Hi Dan, just noticed all your comments in the old blogs. Thanks for commenting! Yep, it is beautiful wood. I've got some trees down in the bottoms that are really straight and knot-free (for cedar...) I might see if I can find some bow-worthy wood. I've been telling myself for years that I want to make my own bow...