Caring for local trees, resources and each other

  • Years before they founded Woodsmith Forestry, Eric Donnelly and Ezra Ward honed their outdoor skills in a high school club called Survival Living. CONTRIBUTED BY EZRA WARD

  • Ezra Ward and Eric Donnelly shared many adventures throughout their teens and 20s, including a canoe trip in New York State in 2015. Since 2020, they co-direct Montague-based Woodsmith Forestry, providing a wide variety of services to local property owners while prioritizing the well-being of their colleagues and our area's natural resources. CONTRIBUTED BY EZRA WARD

  • In addition to chainsaw skills, Karen Marquis brings other talents to her work at Woodsmith Forestry, including tractor driving, tree climbing, small-scale milling, forest management and arboriculture skills. CONTRIBUTED BY EZRA WARD

  • Woodsmith Forestry workers use a portable sawmill to convert logs into lumber on-site, along with many other services related to tree work and conserving natural resources. CONTRIBUTED BY EZRA WARD

For the Recorder
Published: 12/5/2022 4:51:30 PM
Modified: 12/5/2022 4:51:07 PM

With a chainsaw in her hands, Karen Marquis, 24, is masterful. She also assembled the wood splitter that’s indispensable in her work with the crew at Woodsmith Forestry, based in Montague.

“The people on our crew make me laugh every day,” said Marquis. “I also enjoy returning to a job site and seeing how spaces have changed. It’s exciting to see structures going up that are built with lumber we milled on-site.”

After experiencing sexism in many contexts, Marquis appreciates that she doesn’t have to think about it at Woodsmith. “In interactions with clients and with other companies, sure, it comes up,” she said. “But not among ourselves.”

Her colleague Gabrielle Hardyn, also 24, agreed. “I’ve experienced sexism in the industry, but not at Woodsmith.” While working at other tree-related businesses, Hardyn heard that she was “too weak” or the work “too dangerous.” At best, she received backhanded compliments.

“Some clients preferred to deal with a male co-worker instead of me, even though I’m as capable as the men I’ve worked with,” said Hardyn, who’s grateful that a group called Women Foresters Collaborative formed earlier this year in New England.

“It’s a non-issue at Woodsmith, and that’s a relief,” said Hardyn. “My colleagues are my favorite people; I adore everyone who works here. It’s the most enjoyable place I’ve ever worked. And when we’re done working, sometimes we just hang out, like when we watched a recent lunar eclipse.”

Founded in 2020 and co-owned by two lifelong friends, Woodsmith Forestry offers local property owners many highly skilled services while fostering respect, building community, and helping to conserve resources.

For Ezra Ward, 30, and Eric Donnelly, 31, tree work is one of many ways the two have collaborated to make the world a safer, kinder, more interesting place.

Their business offers standard services like pruning and removal, cabling, brush chipping, general tree care, and storm damage clean-up. They do backyard logging – to thin or clear lots, create view cuts, or increase solar gain – and onsite sawmilling (up to 27 feet long and 23 inches wide).

The list of goods and services goes on: firewood, chips, and lumber are available on a limited basis. They do field mowing, trail clearing and habitat box installation, and can create rustic benches, bridges and playgrounds.

They aid property owners involved with the Chapter 61 program, which extends tax savings to those with ten or more acres and encourages conservation, support for wildlife, recreation, carbon sequestration, and improved water quality.

Woodsmith offers education and consulting, as well, including workshops and a weekly radio spot called “Out on a Limb” which airs Tuesdays around 5:30 p.m. on 93.9 FM.

The multi-faceted enterprise is highly professional, with an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) arborist on staff, and prioritizes conservation and workers’ well-being.

“We buy most of our supplies locally and in bulk,” said Donnelly, “to reduce plastic waste and trucking miles.” In their chainsaws, they use organic canola oil instead of petroleum, and the business repurposes as much wood waste as possible into chips, mulch, firewood and lumber.

Woodsmith offers workers fair compensation – as well as incentives for those who bike to work – while supporting other organizations in efforts to increase composting and recycling.

The combination of skill, heart, and innovation at Woodsmith stems from backgrounds steeped in the natural world.

“We let our kids play in the woods,” said Ezra Ward’s mother, Dawn Marvin Ward, whose nature-based programs for children and families are regionally popular. “His dad and I met in an outdoor adventure club in college,” she said. Her husband, Steve Ward, was a forester in the Quabbin region for almost 30 years.

Ezra Ward and his sister Jacqueline are “still in the woods,” said their mom. “Ezra spent his entire life in and around nature, and Woodsmith is a natural extension of the years Ezra and Eric spent bonding in the woods and in many other contexts.”

The two friends went through firefighter training together, as well as a Navy Seal challenge course. “They’re inseparable,” said Dawn Marvin Ward, “and they care about similar things. When Eric got married recently, Ezra coordinated a recycling program at the three-day event.”

In an era when headlines sometimes represent young people as apathetic, the talents and accomplishments of the two best friends are inspiring. Firefighter training is challenging enough, but Ezra Ward pursued extra instruction as a “hotshot,” enabling him to work as part of an elite cadre in the Alaska Fire Service. Hotshot crew members are the most highly trained, skilled and experienced type of wildland firefighters.

He also trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and ambulance driver, studied sustainable agriculture and outdoor leadership in college, and worked as a carpenter and educator. “He’s not all serious, though,” said Ward’s proud mom. “He’s also a trained clown, and can be really goofy. But whatever he chooses to do, Ezra goes forth with intense purpose. When he wanted to sail, he trained on a tall ship. He doesn’t do anything halfway.”

Donnelly also has a long history in the woods. An outdoor program called “Survival Living” at Amherst Regional High School – along with classes in wood technology – sparked his interest, and the Shutesbury native was determined to pursue a career involving caring for trees and forests.

“Ezra and I did Survival Living together,” said Donnelly, who studied ecological forest management at the University of Vermont and then worked throughout western Massachusetts as a Forestry Technician, and later as a staff forester for Bay State Forestry Service.

Ward also began his forestry career locally, working for The Whole Tree in Leverett. He became a certified arborist in 2018 and subsequently was a crew leader for Carr Tree & Timber in southern Vermont.

And like Ward, Donnelly is astonishingly multi-dimensional, having worked on Vermont and Montana trail crews and as a sea kayak guide in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. An avid cyclist, he also helped run the outdoor education program at Amherst Regional High School for many years.

Dawn Marvin Ward recalls when the two friends were teens: “Sometimes it got a little intense. One time, they asked me to drop them off at Mount Toby on a severely cold February day and to pick them up in two days. When I asked where their gear was, Ezra said the only thing they were bringing with them was an ax. They survived, and thrived!”

Not surprisingly, the two friends created a business that attracts other spirited people. Crew member Andrew Row, 26, a timber framer and father of two young children, has guided wilderness expeditions and is avidly interested in simple living. “I love working hard with this crew, getting our heart rates going.”

Ruth Howe, 29, especially enjoys driving the tractor. “I’m headed to New York City for a month to sell Christmas trees,” she said. “But I’ll be back. I love this crew.”

At 34, Eric “Palo” DePalo, is the crew’s eldest member. A self-described fan of “good poetry and bad puns,” DePalo enjoys “driving around to take a look at trees I’ve pruned.” His favorite thing about working at Woodsmith is “learning how I can be a member of my community.”

Property owners looking for a solid crew to bolster, remove, or care for existing trees – or any of the other services offered by Woodsmith – are in for a treat when they engage this group of fascinating, diligent young people who are technically superb but don’t forget to enjoy themselves and each other along the way.

For more info about Woodsmith Forestry: https://www.woodsmithforestry.com.

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and is a musician, an artist and a mom. She can be reached at eveline@amandlachorus.org.


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