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Dorian Hyland and Jim Baxter

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Dorian Hyland and Jim Baxter

by Peter Smallidge


Dorian Hyland realized after years of living in a city, “I wanted to walk outside my door into the woods.” For years she thought about what she wanted most if she and husband, Jim Baxter, were to move back east from careers in Arizona. A creek, a pond, a long distance view were all on the list of wants, but the hiking through woods, uphill and down, seemed to offer a kind of peace and connection to nature they didn’t have living in Tucson, Arizona.

Dorian and Jim met in Tucson while doing service work for their faith. Jim had always been in one kind of service or another, with experiences as a fire captain at age 25, then a paramedic, then nurse and eventually nurse practitioner. Dorian’s background was as a writer and included teaching as an instructor at a community college teaching remedial english, writing, literature, and business writing. She wrote for local newspapers, served as an editor, did free-lance work, and helped students prepare their senior thesis and dissertations.

After spending most of her adult life in Arizona, Dorian felt it was time to return home. She knew of the Catskill Mountains from trips between NYC and her father’s home in Troy. The family would visit friends and relatives via the Taconic Parkway a couple of times a summer. The Catskill landscape became fixed in her heart. She always wanted to return.

Jim was not so sure he wanted to return east and shovel snow for the rest of his life. His family comes from old Pennsylvania stock, around Allentown, the kind that cleared the land before the revolution; they faced challenges and overcame them with hard work, understanding, and virtue. Jim still has those qualities. He continues that tradition of hard work by doing most of the cutting of wood, and digging for the trees. And in working on the land and taking himself, the dogs, and the cat on long walks through the woods, he finds himself standing at a certain place up the hill behind the house, and thinking, “Wow. I live here.”

Jim and Dorian own 27.75 acres of mostly wooded land on the outskirts of Catskill in Greene County. They share in the decisions about how to restore and revitalize the woods which they were told were pretty healthy. Despite that assessment and after the MFO training, they recognize there is the opportunity to reduce over-competition and crowding among the trees, to remove unhealthy trees, to protect seedlings from deer browse, or to replace what had been destroyed during its much earlier stint as a farm. These activities will fall to the work schedule of the plan they will prepare this winter.

Probably the most prevalent tree is the chestnut oak. When Dorian first saw the leaves she was excited to think they had (true) chestnut trees. Marilyn Wyman from Cornell Cooperative Extension helped her learn these were chestnut oak. Maybe not as exciting as American chestnut, these were still interesting because they don’t grow everywhere. The other name for chestnut oak, rock oak, reveals the habitat where it is commonly found, growing on their rocky soils.

Dorian and Jim have, perhaps, an overly ample supply of white pines and probably eight kinds of oak that mix among some red and silver maples, tons of hickory, sporadic cherry, and serviceberry. Along the property line on the edge of the ridge they have an endless supply of birch and white pine that started 16 years ago after a micro-burst touched down and cleared the trees. They still find pieces of the farmer’s aluminum barns tossed up there. They call the pieces in the trees “tornado art.” A few oaks are nearly 36” in diameter, though they are dying. The only shrub on the woods, besides the swamp buttonbush and the native highbush blueberries, is maple leaf viburnum. These don’t get much chance to grow tall because the deer eat those that they can’t protect.

Dorian’s son, Eli, is Jim’s energetic and enthusiastic helper. He helps Jim cut down trees, whack invasive species, and dig holes for planting new trees. They purchase their trees through Greene County Soil and Water or through the DEC Saratoga Tree Nursery. The three of them clear old paths and attack the seemingly endless supply of invasive species that were planted by the previous owners and colonized their land.

A favorite part of the land is the swamp, located about two thirds of the distance from the house. They originally called it a marsh, not knowing the difference between swamp and marsh until their farmer neighbors to the west laughed and said, “it’s a swamp.” They were right. There are native high bush blueberries around the edges, which they are trying to rehabilitate and rejuvenate as the trees grow to the edges.

Since they arrived on the property, the nearly acre-sized swamp has evolved from open to half full of buttonbush. Wild iris grows along the edges if the water isn’t too high. Woodland ducks stop over making Jim and Dorian feel like they are their motel. They declined a hunter’s request to shoot the ducks who overnight there. “It seemed rude to shoot overnight guests when they’re on their way trying to survive the winter” (no matter how tasty).

Keeping track of how weather and flora change the swamp, the reflections of the new growths, and the natural loss of other plants is fascinating. They are ever vigilant for the tracks of animals they never see, whether because they are nocturnal or shy, it’s another delight to know they have passed through. Just knowing the animals are there makes Dorian and Jim feel like they are part of something rather than imposing their will.

Dorian’s sons come up to hike, and slide on the ice when the swamp freezes over. They snowshoe or cross country ski on the property. “We have one young hunter from Brooklyn who loves to hunt the woods; we call him our weeder. He supplies them with enough venison for the year and to share. Our first year we had an eight point buck with five huge does, six fawns of varying ages, plus two young bucks who wintered in the hummocks of the hemlocks. All the neighbors knew that the herd hunkered down in the snow. Then our hunter got the buck.”

Once the big buck was gone, they have had less damage to seedlings, though remaining deer were able to destroy newly planted, poorly protected trees. Now they have become more deliberate and calculating, building wire cages for each tree and shrub they plant. Jim and Dorian check for young trees that sprout in areas which they clear, and cover them until them are old enough to fend for themselves. Along the edges of the woods they plant shrubs and understory trees which they hope will multiply on their own someday, and move deeper into the woods.

They have had some success planting elderberry, which multiplies, and a large caged patch is set aside as food for the birds. In the two acre open area there’s a vegetable garden and some fruit trees. Most of their shrubs and plants are natives that they planted. They surrounded plantings and open areas last year with an eight foot high fence covered at the base with branches to protect their investment and efforts. Then they saw the research plot at Cornell’s Suislaw Forest where the black mesh fence was only five feet high around a small patch and was able to dissuade deer from devouring new growth. They say “live and learn; black mesh will be on our list to protect any new growth we plant from here out.”

It turns out that clearing, planting, and protecting is an ongoing process. Dorian thought they would be able to do this in “Oh, 5 to 10 years and be on our way.” Now, she says, “my sons expect to continue the process we’ve hardly stared.”

Jim and Dorian mostly use the land simply to appreciate it. Upon arrival, they wondered if they would become used to it. Instead they find that each season changes the look so that they always discover something new, like after a heavy rain or snow.

Their best discovery was at a talk Marilyn Wyman of CCE gave which mentioned striped maples as a native invasive species. Since they are invasive and ever self replenishing, we use striped maple as fence posts — they last about six years before becoming kindling. She also told them the way to check for Hemlock Wooly Adelgid is to look for small branches broken off the top of trees by wind and storm. Turning them over might help identify whether their hemlocks have been infected.

Their greatest challenge has been to create a good forest management plan. They watch the ForestConnect webinars, and check the Cornell site for research about whatever they are doing. In addition to working with Marilyn Wyman they also talk with the CCE natural resources and regional manager Ron Frisbee, as well as the CCE horticulturist, Tracey Testo. So they keep themselves from doing less effective improvements.

A few years back, while Jim and Eli were cutting trees that blocked their paths — dead hanging trees called “widow-makers” — Dorian was considering the potential for injury. She convinced Jim to take the Game of Logging. He enjoyed it so much, he finished the second course, and got his certification. They hosted a Game of Logging training session two years ago, and may be ready for another. The woodchipper they bought helps mostly with the garden and with new plantings, relieving them of the need for buying products whose history they cannot confirm. The flame thrower helps reduce the annual weeds they couldn’t remove by hand.

As MFO volunteers, Jim and Dorian note that most neighbors have lived there for decades and aren’t interested in things like wood walks or joining NYFOA . So Jim and Dorian mostly talk to those who haverecently moved there, and offer suggestions about where they can find information about their woods or to check the resources available like soil and water offerings.

They haven’t felt educated enough to make a formal plan, but their experiences have given them a sense of how long a process they face. That said, this is the winter they will get their goals on paper. And their slow progress has allowed them to learn things that ultimately will benefit wildlife. From one webinar, we learned that creating shelters for small animals to escape predators gives those animals a greater chance of survival. They implemented that activity this past summer while a young friend helped Dorian clear paths, which were covered by downed braches by last winter’s storms. They put the branches around divots created next to a stump. Making places like this wasn’t a high priority in their plan, but that plan isn’t set in stone.

“We love inviting children to discover the small joys of the woods,” Dorian said. A friend of theirs, who they hired to pull weeds in the garden, said she almost never got to wander in the woods, having grown up in towns in Greene County. “We sent her into the woods with paper and books to identify flowers and mushrooms. She was gone for over an hour and came back to get us so she could show us what she had found and identified. She was so excited! Each summer she returns to help us clear paths, work in the woods, and then go searching again by herself.”

Membership in NYFOA lets Dorian and Jim know that their closest neighbors may not share their dedication to preservation or restoration. However, Jim and Dorian have learned from other NYFOA members, and been able to deepen their understanding and knowledge. Their experiences have become richer, they better grasp their goals, and now know how they can contribute.It all seems daunting because there is so much to learn. The first time Dorian walked in the woods she thought, “I have to learn everything. I think I’ll feel that way for a few more decades.”

Author, Peter Smallidge, is NYS Extension Forester and Director, Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Support from the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and USDA NIFA.

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