Of New Grounds, Chiggers, Yellowjackets and Mules

Of New Grounds, Chiggers, Yellowjackets

and Mules

 

By Elton Camp

 

(This is a continuation of the series on life in the rural South during the early 20th Century)

 

            One of the most difficult farming tasks was clearing a new ground.  This was a way of converting unproductive, wooded land so that it could be used 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 is a way of killing a tree in place.  It can be started any time of year, but works best if done before new leaves come out in springtime. 

 

            The boys went to the new ground, axes over their shoulders.  Girdling requires cutting away a deep section of bark all the way around the tree.  Water moves up the tree through the more dense wood in the center of its trunk.  Food from the leaves moves downward through the tissue underneath the bark.  If food fails to reach the roots, they die, and finally the entire tree.  It can take from one to three years, depending on the type tree.  Sprouts from below the girdled area must be kept cut for quickest results.

 

            “This shore ez hard work,” Howard complained.  He stopped to rub his aching arm and shoulder muscles. 

           

            The axe had to hit the trunk from above at an angle to produce a deep cut.  A whack from the bottom removed a good-sized chip.  The process had to extend all the way around the tree.  Oaks and dogwood were particularly hard to cut. After a full day’s work the axes had to be sharpened on the grinding wheel. 

 

            Not only was the work difficult, it brought another problem: red bugs.  That was the name given to chiggers.  The mites themselves are red and a red, inflamed, intensely itching area developed around each place where one had adhered to the skin. 

 

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

 

            The salted butter, when rubbed on the mites, smothered them so that the duration of the irritating symptoms was shortened.

 

            The clearing continued off and on over a period of several weeks.  Many trees grew in the new ground.  The following spring, most of them didn’t put on leaves.  The bare branches and trunks began to dry out. 

 

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

 

            He knew that, having been out of cultivation for years, the 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 said when the flames began to burn low. 

 

            The wood burned out in the center where the heat was most intense.  The boys slid or tossed unburned limbs and logs from the edges of the piles onto the glowing beds of red coals where 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.  The nature of the area’s sandy soil meant few rocks would be encountered.  Roots were another matter entirely.  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 one.  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 had the creature back up and make repeated attempts until he could position the plow so that it cut through the root.  He pulled it from the ground and threw it toward a still-standing tree.  After the first season, the plowing would be far easier. 

 

            Yellow jacket nests were a constant danger.  The stinging insects built extensive underground homes.  Only a small, round opening provided evidence of their presence.  The nest wasn’t disturbed until the plow cut into it.  This brought a swarm of the angry yellow jackets 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 screamed as the insects covered his face, neck, and hands.  They stung furiously and repeatedly. 

 

            He abandoned the mule and ran for the creek.  The wasps continued to inflict painful stings.  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 furious attack was that his paw was likely to have one of the other boys take over the plowing for a day or two. 

 


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Synopsis
A continuation of the series on life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.
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