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Ellen Graf and Zhong-hua Lu

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Ellen Graf and Zhong-hua Lu

by Peter Smallidge

In 1997, Ellen Graf found a piece of land that was magical with the mixtures of lichen-covered rock, trees, water and wind. Located entirely on the Rensselaer Plateau, the land is now home for Ellen and husband Zhong-hua Lu who was born and raised in China. This land is typical of other properties because there are stories and history that can be told from the trees, the past land use, and the people who lived and worked the forest and the trees — in this case, rugged sheep farmers who rented parcels according to a feudal system under Van Rensselaer.

Ellen is from the midwest, but has lived in upstate New York for 40 years. Her husband Zhong-hua Lu came to America in 2002. Both Ellen and Zhong-hua are artists. Ellen has worked as a master mask maker for theatre for 30 years and is a non-fiction writer (author of The Natural Laws of Good Luck). Ellen has also worked in support of people with mental health issues, and for the NY State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. Their woods are part of their life and lifestyle, and serve many purposes. Their talent in art allowed them to find branches and other beautiful pieces of wood that they added to teapots they created together. Ellen used wood as parts of animal masks that included everything from moose to luna moths and every aspect of human nature, good and evil! Ellen currently makes small nature dolls inspired by the landscape that are similar to Scandinavian trolls or gnomes and definitely provide good luck and good companionship. The houses are made of hollow trees and have lichen covered roofs. Zhong-hua has recently forayed from traditional Chinese brush paining into oil landscape painting exclusively inspired from the land in Cropseyville.

Ellen is a life-long forest lover and able to identify most trees and vegetation. Her love of the forest began as a small child when her father took her to the smoky Mountains and she met a man named Gleb who lived off slugs and other delicacies. Her father, of Swiss heritage, was a mountain climber and later took her to her ancestral Switzerland, which has much in common with Cropseyville though much higher in elevation. Zhong-hua was born in 1958, and his entire childhood was defined by famine. He and his sisters learned to forage all the edible grasses and leaves, and, out of necessity, used slingshots to bring down songbirds. Zhong-hua was sent to the countryside by Chairman Mao to be a village schoolteacher when he was just sixteen, before he had a chance to grow a beard where he learned even more techniques for surviving in a rustic situation. For all his preparation, Zhong-hua was not prepared for the deep, deep snow and subzero temperatures of upstate New York. His solution is cashmere sweaters purchased at the Good Will. The result—Ellen and Zhong-hua now can keep their house 10% cooler and use much less wood than in the pre-cashmere era.

One of their favorite pastimes is to walk the old logging trails with their Great Pyrenees and their little mutt. The walks are a source of endless joy and reconnect them to nature and the land. In the winter time they like to cross country ski. Any time of year they enjoy the company of children and grandchildren. Rowan, now three and a half, has always been able to hike like an adult and especially likes playing explorer in the new stands of pine. Ellen and Zhong-hua have five children, Ellen’s three daughters and son, and Zhong-hua’s daughter. Now there are seven grandchildren, all forest lovers. The oldest is eight. When he was three, he held out his hand to his hovering mom and said, “Get back mom, I just want to wander the world by myself.” He disappeared into the underbrush.

The Rensselaer Plateau is a plateau with elevations of 1,000 to 2,000 feet located in central Rensselaer County. Ellen and Zhong-hua own 51 acres, including four stands of productive forestland, which are similar to other parcels in the history of logging and land clearing. The soils are not especially productive, so farming wasn’t common. A small horse pasture was on their property, and the actions of the horses helped keep the trees clear. More recently, without horses, the trees have started to regenerate in the pasture. Ellen and Zhong-hua know this is a natural process, but they miss the texture that the pasture added to their property.

Eastern white pine has regenerated from an old horse pasture north of the house. There are a multitude, but the DEC forester said this is a good regeneration to allow. Beyond the pasture there is a mixed stand dominated by eastern white pine with northern hardwoods such as red maple, sugar maple, and northern hardwoods. Surrounding this stand is a stand of hardwoods including northern red oak, red maple, beech, and hickory. The largest tract is a stand of eastern hemlock and northern hardwoods: eastern hemlock, black birch, sugar maple, northern red oakm and white ash are the dominant tree species in this area. Sections of this stand are very steep and from the eastern-most side there is an excellent view of Tamhannock Reservoir. The soil is mostly very stony loam on sloping ground.

There is no evidence or worry yet about hemlock wooly adelgid. There is little in the way of understory. The white pine, in many areas, tower above the other trees. The white pine appear to be older than the rest of the forest, and in some cases may have begun to decline due to previous weevil damage.

In addition to enjoying the chance to walk and ski, Ellen and Zhong-hua have also invested time and toil to utilize and improve their woods. For many years they harvested all their own firewood from the land, working together just as they created together. Beyond firewood, they spend time keeping the trails clear and working to eliminate multiflora rose. Ellen and Zhong-hua enjoy their pond, and have put in hours of watery effort to control the weeds that grow in the pond. At some point they may rent equipment to help them really clear the pond weeds and restore the pond depth

They work with hand tools and chainsaws on these tasks, noting the importance of safety. Zhong-hua is an expert at chainsaw maintenance and repair. Their neighbor, whose father once owned the land, taught Ellen how to safely use a chainsaw. The concern for safety was unfortunately emphasized when a close member of the family, working as a professional logger in North Carolina, was killed instantly by a “widow-maker” branch that fell from the canopy.

Like all woodland owners, Ellen and Zhong-hua have neighbors. Some of the neighbors have become good friends and also enjoy walking on their land and joining in bonfires in the pasture. A newer neighbor, one who purchased an inholding within their property, has shared his frustrations. Their new neighbor ordered a pre-fab home that became stuck on the narrow, rocky road, and sat outside their window for two months. The neighbor often runs a generator that is loud and intrusive. The road leading to his house is no longer a public road, so the town will not plow the newcomer out in the winter. There is no well on his land and no plumbing.

Ellen became interested in forest management because in some areas the tree species that were thriving were not the ones she wanted there. In the case of the mammoth pines, some of them cracked their whole length and fell during storms, filling the pasture with their impressive carcasses. Zhong-hua did a great job cleaning that up, but he is uncommonly strong. Ellen also became aware of invasive species and wanted to learn how to control them. She also wanted to harvest some wood, particularly the big pines, but didn’t know if she needed to re-plant or just let the native hardwoods come back on their own.

Ellen has benefited as a member of NYFOA. She still works full time, and many Saturdays, so her ability to participate in events is currently limited. She looks forward to future opportunities to meet other members of NYFOA. The Forest Owner magazine and chapter newsletters are important ways that she stays connected to educational resources and with other owners who share their interests. Ellen is a professional writer and hopes to contribute through that skill by writing some articles.

Ellen added to her knowledge base and a desire to help others when she participated in Cornell’s Master Forest Owner volunteer training in 2016. Although each property is different, and has different needs based on what the owners want, her best advice is to love and respect nature, and to be safe. Ellen enjoys her role as a forest owner because it allows her to protect and to improve the forest. Ellen plans to remain involved as well with training opportunities provided by Cornell.

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