CONYERS - Jagger Rutledge sat down for a break in the middle of the woods on the old Susong property and said it was almost serene, despite the roar of chainsaws from his fellow woodsmen nearby and the large draft horses exerting great effort as they dragged cut trees.
"It's surreal, even peaceful," he said. "Here we are cutting trees right next to graves."
Rutledge and the group headed by his father, Jason Rutledge, were called here by the Monastery of the Holy Spirit to clear up storm damage at the Honey Creek Woodlands, a conservation burial ground.
The group is a part of the Healing Harvest Forestry Foundation from Copper Hill, Va. Instead of bulldozers and heavy machinery, the woodsmen - and woodswomen - use logging methods from the 19th century that focus on "worst first" cutting of trees, and using draft horses to move lumber out in a way that will leave an area in the best shape for recovery.
The group has cut trees in Vermont, Virginia, North Carolina and New York using its ecological-friendly harvest methods. This is its first project in Georgia, and also its first clearing of a cemetery.
"We do this work with a high regard for the ecological system," Jason Rutledge said. "So high that we don't use petroleom-based oils on our chain saws to where we're spraying oil droplets everywhere as we cut. The six woodsmen and two apprentices use biodegradable vegetable-based oils."
The foundation members brought with them a portable saw mill to immediately turn the trees into lumber. From what are mainly oak trees that the group is salvaging, the saw mill is cutting them into planks and beams to be used in construction of a chapel at the cemetery.
The monks started the cemetery last year to provide a natural setting where people of all faiths may be interned deep in the heart of 2,100 acres of monastery property.
But plans took a turn when a tornado struck the area - part of the series of storms that hit the Atlanta area in March. In a matter of a few minutes, the tornado had uprooted trees and left a path of destruction at the cemetery a few months before it was to open.
"It certainly felt like a setback for us the first time we saw it," said Brother Augustine Myslinski, one of the monks who had been working on the burial grounds. He said the storm had uprooted trees to the point where it was impossible to walk through the tangled mess of limbs, trunks and root balls.
The monks were told of the Rutledge's group and their work by Dr. Billy Campbell and his wife, Kimberly, of Memorial Ecosystems Inc., the company partnering with the monastery to establish the cemetery.
Dom Francis Michael Stiteler, abbot of the monastery, said after some consideration, and prayer, he and the other monks thought the group's work on preserving forests was a good match for what they had sought to do with the cemetery.
The cemetery began on a parcel of previously harvested pine trees leading to a grove of hardwood trees near a stream. Stiteler said they hoped to eventually restore the area to a native piedmont forest that includes more hardwoods like oak and hickory.
In a way, Stiteler said the storms proved to be a blessing.
"We're trying to look at this as a positive thing," said Stiteler, as he watched the woodsmen cut a large fallen oak from its exposed root ball. "We saw the devastative force of nature, but also see that there is some good from it."
The woodsmen said they found several native plants that they hope will be given a chance to thrive after their work is done. Ginger, solomon seal, wild cherry and sugar maple - also known as rock maple - were some of the plants found and left untouched.
"In many ways, this is very exciting," Stiteler said. "It was 70 acres of harvested pine trees, and we could have just replanted trees and harvested them again in 30 years. But we wanted to do something where we could return the land to its natural beauty while still getting some return for the monastery."
For more information on the cemetery, go to www.honeycreekwoodlands.com. For more information on the Healing Harvest Forestry Foundation, go to www.healingharvestforestfoundation.org.
Jay Jones can be reached at email@example.com.