Miscommunication and the Language of the Maine Woods


A softwood plantation in northern Maine.


Every industry has its jargon and the kind of terminology that will baffle an outside listener and forestry is no exception. But what’s unique about this in forestry is that all the technical jargon is nearly overwhelmed by an immense amount of slang and colloquialisms that vary vastly across geographical regions and occasionally have, over time, affected the official lexicon. It can make for a confusing terminology; even for people who have been in the game for a while. In Maine, for instance, I would hazard a guess that the effect is even more pronounced due to the influence of French-Canadian culture as well as a corresponding variance in language. Indeed, documenting all the words and phrases that float around in forestry would be a gargantuan task to which one could devote an entire book. I don’t have much interest in that, and I don’t believe many people would have an interest in reading it anyway, but what I thought I could do instead is to clear up the confusion that exists around a few common terms, both official and colloquial.

Hardwood vs. Softwood.

Realistically, the terms hardwood and softwood are going to be the only forestry terms that most people will ever use or perhaps even hear in their everyday lives, yet the difference between the two can seem needlessly complicated and can actually trip up a lot of people. We all know hardwood is hard and softwood is soft, but at what density is something considered hard? In fact, the classification between “hard” and “soft” has absolutely nothing to do with the density of the wood. Balsa wood — the stuff you make rubber-band powered airplanes out of and fly three times before they crash and snap in two — is a hardwood. On the other hand, yew, which is a softwood found in Europe, is about as dense as walnut. The term softwood simply refers to trees with needles, while hardwood refers to broad-leaved trees. In Maine the confusion usually centers around aspen (often called popple by people around here, seeing how we are on the subject of vernacular); aspen is a hardwood tree slightly less dense than spruce, which is a softwood.  Generally, however, hardwoods do tend to be harder than softwood, so the name isn’t entirely a misnomer.

Twitchin’ Wood

When it comes to logging, it can be amusing to see the sheer diversity of terminology and how it can vary even from one person to the next. Skidding, twitching, and yarding wood usually refers to the same act of pulling felled trees out of the woods to the landing, the area where logs are piled. Skidding is probably the most official term, with the machines used for this purpose known as skidders; still, it’s a term used only as frequently as the others. Twitching seems to be more unique to Maine, as a Google search only reveals stories from within the Pine Tree State, which only adds to the phrase’s curiosity. I have a theory that it originates from the days of horse logging when the movement of the animals resulted in a more stop-and-go jerking action across the forest floor; but that’s a theory I cannot substantiate. It could also simply be a more obsolete word for “pull.” Use whatever term you want, but just don’t call it hauling wood; that refers to trucking the logs.

Spruce Budworm

By far, the largest and most important misnomer present in the current vocabulary of forestry is the name given to the terrible little worm that has caused Maine so much grief. The spruce budworm indeed feeds on spruce and damages spruce, but in truth the insect seeks fir. Its presence is largely a function of fir populations, and in fact, it is fir that is most damaged by subsequent defoliation. Unlike the differences between hardwood and softwood, or the proper term for bringing wood to roadside, this is one point that’s not a quibble or piece of trivia. In forestry, in preparing for future spruce budworm outbreaks, the difference between spruce and fir is the difference between being proactive and reactive; it’s the difference between making salvage cuts and long-term, economically-viable forest management. Certainly this is a topic that is deserving of an entire post, one of which I will expound in the near future. For now, suffice to say that the spruce budworm would more aptly be called the fir budworm.

These aren’t the only terms that can be a bit confounding, but ones that are certainly responsible for much miscommunication; so I thought I’d try to clarify. If you have any words to add to the list, or if you have a question, leave a comment; I’ll try to answer you.

Zachary Lowry

About Zachary Lowry

I am a 22 year old forestry graduate living in Fort Kent, and I am starting my new career and life in forestry working as an operations forester.