The Sounds of Winter

Winter is the time for pruning around here. The cold, aimless months of January and February are marked in the orchard by bare limbs and North wind. By rainy days that leave the ground sodden. By the sounds of chainsaws, bypass pruners, and by echoing tones from on high.

               From the outside, growing pecan trees, or any other orchard crop for that matter, may seem peaceful, quaint, or romantic. And it is at times. But, there are those who may think that once the tree is in the ground, all you do is return in the fall and leisurely gather the crop. I know because I have encountered these people myself. How I wish they were correct.

               The fact of the matter is that when you plant a pecan tree, you are planting yourself decades worth of year-round work. There are endless jobs that must be done beyond the planting of a tree. There’s fertilizing, keeping the irrigation operational, the constant summer-long battle of beating back the weedy competition, mowing between the tree rows, searching for and spraying insect pests, spraying for diseases, don’t even get me started on repairing of broken down equipment, and then of course, there’s pruning.

               Pecan trees need to be pruned annually from the time they go into the ground, through at least the 3rd growing season, and then periodically throughout the tree’s life. Each winter, there is always something that needs pruning. The pruning of trees large enough to produce nuts in any significant volume will require a saw. Sometimes this means walking from tree to tree with a chainsaw on the end of a long pole. When that job is done, you have created even more work in the cleanup of limbs.

This year I had an orchard of 15 year old trees that were beginning to crowd. This meant I needed to either remove some trees or hire someone with a machine that I can’t afford myself to hedge-prune it for me. Lots of advantages to hedging so I chose that path. The machine’s operator did a good job. The trees look better, they’ll get more sunlight. He also left me with a hurricane’s worth of wood to clean up. I got it done with a grapple—a pair of giant steel jaws—mounted to my tractor’s front-end loader. Later, I pulled a limb rake behind the tractor to finish the little stray trimmings off before the rains filled the low spot in which I pile the limbs. With that done, I have since focused my attention on the young tree plantings.

               The first year or two after planting, I actually find the job of pruning rather relaxing. I walk from tree to tree, giving each one my attention. In most cases, when the trees are this young I simply remove all the branches and will be left with a single, central leader, which leaves the trees looking like a series of poles sticking out of the ground. This doesn’t take a lot of thought and my mind can wander where it will as I work. The prunings are so small that they can be thrown into the grassed middles between the tree rows where they will later be chewed up by the mower.

               By year three, most of the trees have limbs developing at head height or above, which means I can begin picking and choosing which ones to leave from there up. There are no two trees alike and, as such, no two trees are pruned in quite the same way from here on out. I keep an image in my mind of the perfect tree and use what each one presents to try and shape it into the closest approximation of that image.

               I tackle this job with a pair of long-handled by-pass pruners. At least, that’s the technical term for them. I just call them loppers. Another reason I enjoy this type of pruning is that it occurs absent of the sound of rumbling diesel engines or the whine of chain saws. I can hear the world around me. And this is where the romantic part comes in.

               Mixed flocks of sparrows and warblers, bluebirds, and house finches peep and chirp as they flutter from tree to ground and back again before flying ahead of me, continuing this ritual as we move further down the line. Woodpeckers— Red bellied, Downy, Sapsuckers, and Flickers let loose with erratic chirrs and the tapping of wood. Chickadees and titmice scold and offer their opinions of my work.

               Despite the constant chatter of such birds, there is one call that rises above the din. The sound of a bird heard more often than seen. Sandhill cranes join us on the Coastal Plain of south Georgia in November. One day, like magic, their unmistakable, guttural cries are heard above the fields and then they’re here for the winter. These honking croaks can be disorienting in a way. You look up expecting to see them. Though it sounds as if the birds are directly on top of you, there’s nothing in sight, or so it seems.

               After a few moments of searching, your eyes orient to the perception of the sky’s depth. All of a sudden, high, high above—much further than you expected—you see them. A V-shaped formation—small silhouettes against the clear winter sky. They appear small for such a large sound. But appearances can be deceiving.

               It may surprise you to know that sandhill cranes can fly over one mile high and their calls can travel over a distance of two miles. The result of a long windpipe that coils into their breast and creates a low-pitched, raspy vibrato that rolls over the land. These long-necked birds that appear so small against the depths of the sky stand nearly 4 feet tall.

               As they fly above, one flock after another will pass over. These flocks may number from 12 to 18 birds or more and are made up of mated pairs and their juvenile offspring, which remain together throughout the winter. These family units join up with other similarly structured flocks to form loose throngs of hundreds to thousands of birds. Interestingly, sandhill cranes mate for life—as long as two decades and they return each year. So, they know their way around the place. Their flocks are like a gathering of old friends passing through. Over the next several months—into March— we will hear them call, see them flying above, and watch as they gather in the surrounding peanut fields to feed during the day.

               Though they seem to prefer our peanut fields, sandhill cranes will eat pretty much anything they can slide down their long gullets—berries, seeds, tubers, mice, lizards, snakes, insects, frogs, snails. You name it. They’re not picky eaters.

               Florida has its own population of sandhill cranes, which range over into southeastern Georgia around the Okefenokee swamp. They sometimes mix together in winter with migrating flocks from the North. The cranes that pass through and winter on and around our farm; however, spend their summers on the prairies and marshes of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario. They’re much like the Northern retirees who pass through on their way to Florida for the winter. Only, the cranes have a friendlier disposition.

               As I move down the tree rows, the short winter day’s afternoon light angles across the orchard, throwing shadows on the ground. My arms are getting tired. The elbow that’s been sore for over a year now is throbbing and the blades of my loppers seem to be getting dull, squeaking as I open and close them. But, I feel good. I feel useful. I feel satisfied. Its been a productive day.

               I look back at the bright yellow circles on each tree that mark my work. These are the open wounds left where the branches have been. These wounds will heal over and the tree will be better for the pruning. Off in the distance, I hear the sandhill cranes cackling. Their calls mark the winter season that passes swiftly around here.

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