While the vernal equinox may mean little more than single-digit temperatures in Siberia’s cold forests, it’s the end of logging operations in Europe. Before the fast, violent, dexterous heavy equipment is packed away for another year, we went to see some heavy-duty logging in action.
Similarly to how the perspective of a television broadcast diminishes the speed of men’s tennis, we pygmy humans cannot appreciate the true height of an oak forest from our lowly vantage point of five-some feet off the ground. It’s not until an oak is felled and dragged intact from a forest that you realize its leviathan dimensions.
Full-grown oaks are the size of a megayacht anyone this side of Roman Abramovich would appreciate and the dragging is done by a stout little red tractor called a skidder. This particular one is a well-loved vintage Czech model called an LKT. It’s operated by Pilisi Parkerdő, the forest management company which manages the Budakeszi Forestry Unit, a 67 square mile forest in Hungary, just outside Budapest. A skidder is little more than a blunt, articulated tractor with a winch. The LKT can drag three tons of logs behind its seven-ton bulk and operate all day on little more than six gallons of diesel fuel.
It’s remarkable how quickly you can leave a modern metropolis, hop into a Land Rover Defender and go cruising down frozen dirt roads in first gear with nothing but woodpeckers and Fallow Deer for company. It gives you the time and the space to think about the particulars of a managed forest, which is essentially a wheat field with the time scale of a glacier. Trees are planted, looked after, then, decades later, felled. The strangeness comes from the contrast between the general pace of modern life and the pace of oak harvesting. The trees going down on the day of our visit must have been there since the early days of the Cold War. Growing millimeter by slow millimeter, they saw men shot into space, African colonies gain independence, global shipping go from break bulk cargo to containers, Formula One from Juan Manuel Fangio to Sebastian Vettel, computers from the ENIAC to the new iPad and now it’s a few seconds with a chainsaw and they’re down and the skidder will drag them out and they will be chopped up and burned in a wood-burning power plant. It’s terrifying, awesome and rather sad.
Regular people don’t come across glacial time scales in their lives but forest engineers do. What they see is a field of trees whose species are carefully selected for human use. To the untrained eye, a forest that’s a few decades old looks like it’s been there forever, but nothing could be further from the truth. The only patch of old-growth forest in Central Europe is Białowieża, on the border of Poland and Belarus. The rest are human constructions, reflecting, essentially, 19th-century German tastes.
Skidders are old-school, brutal machinery, and even though they’re operated in the winter, when the ground is frozen, they do leave scars behind as they drag the felled trees behind them. Forwarders reflect a more modern, gentler philosophy. They look like a truck on balloon tires towing a trailer, a robotic arm in between. Forwarders require forest operators to size the logs to fit their trailers but what they do with the logs borders on a hypnotic sort of hydraulic magic. The giant, lumbering behemoths, like Pilisi Parkerdő’s Ponsse Buffalo King, come to nimble life on steep slopes, and their robotic arms pick up massive oak logs and piruette with them like an assembly line robot in a car factory, but with a load of hundreds of pounds. Up close, a Ponsse forwarder is huge. It’s not advisable to get really close because they’re also very fast. Fast and huge: Those tires are the height of a grown man.
Fingers and feet frozen, our guide from Pilisi Parkerdő drives us bouncing in the Defender from the forest, Eurotrash in the form of the Vengaboys’s “Shalala Lala” blasting from the speakers. In minutes, we’re back in town, in minutes, we’re contemplating the specifics of a late seafood dinner. The forest used to be the private hunting grounds of the Communist party elite. It’s now closed to the public but benevolent trespassers are tolerated. The trees, they’ve lived through it all and now some of them are gone. But more will be planted and who knows what world they’ll inherit.
Special thanks to Pilisi Parkerdő for showing us around and to forest engineer Péter Kottek for his help in organizing our trip and for his invaluable insights into forest management. He knows what Durchforstung means.