Preparing the new ground

By Elton Camp

Creating a “new ground” converted unproductive, wooded land to use for crops. The first step in the months-long process was to kill the trees.

“Boys, go ov’er thar whar we’se puttin’ th’ new ground ’n’ git started on girdlin’ th’ trees,” Milas directed.

Tree girdling kills trees in place. It works best if done before leaves come out in springtime. The boys, carrying axes, trudged to the new ground and cut away deep sections of bark all the way around the trunks. Food from the leaves moves downward through the tissue underneath the bark. Without food, the roots die, and then the entire tree. Sprouts from below the girdled area must be kept cut for quickest results.

“This shore ez hard work,” Howard complained. He frowned as he rubbed his aching arm and shoulder muscles.

The job brought another problem: red bugs, also called chiggers. The mites cause a red, inflamed, intensely-itching area each place they attach to the skin.

“Maw, kin we have sum butter?” the woodsmen asked before bedtime. “Redbugs has kivered us up.”

The salted butter smothered the mites, thus shortening the duration of the irritating symptoms.

The task continued off and on over a period of several weeks. The following spring, most trees didn’t put on leaves. The bare branches and trunks slowly dried.

“As y’u has time, start clearin’ th’ underbresh,” Milas said. “We kin have th’ new ground reddy fer plantin’ by next sprang.”

He knew that the uncultivated, rich soil would produce abundantly for a time. It was worth the extra work, especially since he didn’t have to do it himself.

The boys cut the smaller bushes and young trees to the ground and gathered them into high piles to dry. In a few weeks the family had multiple fires burning day and night in the new ground.

“Go stoke up th’ fars,” Milas instructed when the flames began to burn low.

The fires burned out in the center where the heat was most intense. The boys slid or tossed unburned wood from the edges of the piles onto the glowing beds of red coals. The heat quickly ignited them. After several such stokings, the piles were reduced to white ash.

The first plowing of a new ground brought its own challenges. Roots were the main problem. With about as much of a tree below ground as above, the soil was matted with them. The plow stopped with a jerk whenever it hit a particularly large root. The plowman could be thrown with force against the plow stock.

“Ow, thet hurt,” Albert complained. He rubbed his bruised chest where it’d hit the bar between the plow handles.

He didn’t have to order the mule to wait. It’d learned that it was futile to pull against such resistance. Albert kept the animal backing up and making repeated attempts until he could position the plow so that it cut through the root. After the first season, the plowing would be far easier.

Yellowjacket nests were a constant danger. The stinging insects built extensive underground homes with small, round openings. The nest wasn’t seen or disturbed until the plow cut into it. This brought a swarm of the angry yellowjackets seeking to defend their domain. The wasps directed their stings to the nearest target with skin thin enough to penetrate–the unfortunate plowman.

“Yaller-jackets!” Albert hollered as the insects covered his face, neck and hands. They stung furiously and repeatedly.

He abandoned the mule and ran to the creek. The wasps continued to sting. Only when he’d coated himself with mud and water did the attack abate. He hated breaking up a new ground. The only comfort he got from the painful stings was that his paw would have one of the other boys take over the plowing for a day or two.