Since my mother’s death, my 92-year-old father Erwin Thompson has taken on clearing brush on our 100-acre place, Evergreen Heights, in a major way. This project is in addition to completing several new novels, calling square-dances, and hosting a weekly musical open house.
Since I grew up in the era of the Jane Fonda workout, a breakthrough for mature women, I’ve been teasing my father that his brush-clearing project is his workout program. Unfortunately, his workout probably doesn’t have the same commercial potential as Jane’s because not that many folks have a 100-acre parcel to workout on.
Still, the principles behind what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and the enormous benefits we’ve seen in his health in the last year hold promise. His heart, lungs, voice, outlook, and sleep have all improved since he’s been dedicating himself to the Brush-Clearing Workout Program.
Janet: Pop, how long have you been clearing brush?
Erwin: Since I was big enough to hold an axe I guess.
Janet: What was it that called to you to begin clearing brush in the wide-scale way you have been in the last year or so?
Erwin: I got tired of it reaching out to swipe us off the tractor as we mowed the field.
Janet: You also had a memory of what the place looked like when you were a boy, and a vision of what you hoped it would look like again if you applied yourself with concerted effort.
Erwin: Yes. It will never look like it did when I was a boy.
My Grandfather Riehl had three steady hired men. The tillable soil was all tilled. The rougher ground was planted in chestnut trees which were grafted varieties that my grandfather had produced; first by cross pollination and then by grafting the wood of the promising seedlings onto other unproved seedlings. These he had planted on the hills that were too steep and rough to farm. To keep the weeds down he pastured sheep on this area.
Janet: Tell us why the brush is there is the first place. Since you are the professor of brush-ology, give us the basics.
Erwin:There are two kinds of land classification, and then of course all of the shades in between. The residents of the good, flat, all-tillable lands in central Illinois are living in The Prairie The other end of the scale is The Forest.
The folks on The Prairie do not have much of a brush problem. They farm right up to the fence rows and in many cases there are no fences.There is no ready source of seeds for the brush growth, as the farmers are almost in a world by themselves.
Ideally, what you want in The Forest is fine, big trees. These big trees discourage the growth of brush by their tall shaded environment with a thick mat of pine needles accrued from the passing years. This discourages the growth of brush.
Between these base points, there is what is called The Edge. This is where we are. The seeds of the brush are carried by the birds, the wind, the rains which wash the seeds on down the hills and along the banks of the streams.
The railroads used to clean out their box cars and throw the leavings along the right of way out here in the country where they figured nobody would even notice. We did. That is how wild oats came into our part of the country. This is an ornery weed that is totally worthless and very persistent in re-seeding itself.
The thing that is really bad about the brush along the edge of the fields is that the trees reach out for the light of the field, and grow in that direction. Often they are so low that they hit the operator when mowing the field unless they just layout another ten feet, and this of course takes that much away from the open ground and adds to the underbrush.
Janet: How do you cut brush?
Erwin: In older times there was just one way, and that was a good sharp axe. Today, to at least partially offset some of the disadvantages that we have inherited in what some people call “progress,” we have the chain saw. I also use the pruning shears that my aunt and uncle used in their grafting work. Between these two great tools I can handle anything that has appeared in front of me so far.
The major trouble comes when the vines wrap around the larger trees. Sometimes the tops become so inter-twined that the tree will not fall even after it is cut.
Two possible solutions in addition to just leaving it hang and hope that it will fall some day. Sometimes on the smaller ones I make a cut about four feet above the ground level, and this will drop the tree trunk four feet nearer the ground. Sometimes it works.The safer way is to hook the tractor onto the mess and keep pulling until it comes apart.
So we have the brush on the ground. I have a big flat bed trailer for my tractor. We load the brush on the trailer and take it to a burning pile. It takes work. I have a neighbor who is built like Paul Bunyan’s ox. I call him my “pet elephant.” I have another neighbor who lives near the burning pile. He keeps it burned.
That is how I do it. I recommend brush clearing for health and mental health. There is a firm satisfaction in seeing the erstwhile messy edge of the field become once more looking like a field.