19: Live Wood Thursday

17 01 2013

We were out on the patio again the following morning by 7 o’clock.  I looked at the purple ash tree, and it didn’t look well.  The leaves, obviously wilted, had lost their luster and had instead become drab and dull.

“That tree must need more water than other trees,” I said.  I figured as much based on what my other grandfather had said about plants on his farm.  Corn, for example, needs more water than potatoes or wheat.  Timothy needs more water than brome.

I had seen the same thing in my mother’s flower gardens.  Her fuchsias needed to be watered more frequently than her geraniums, impatiens more than marigolds, delphiniums more than hollyhocks.

So, I got out Grandmother’s bucket and proceeded to water the ash tree again.  Grandfather watched, saying nothing.

I asked, “Where is the best place to put the water?  Near the trunk?  Can the tree get it faster or easier that way?”

“That’s true for seedlings and saplings.  As a tree gets larger, though, the roots spread out more and more.  The more widespread the root system, the better it is to water a tree the way the rain does.”

“All over evenly,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So how far do roots go under a tree?”

“Well, the common wisdom has been that, in good soil, a tree’s roots more or less match a tree’s branches.  That is, it’s been thought that the roots go down as far as the branches go up, and that roots go out as far as the branches go out.  The notion is really rather inexact, however.  It’s true that some trees do send roots down deep.  The hickory, for example: it has a deep-driving taproot.  In most cases, though, a tree’s roots stay within four feet of ground level.  That’s where the tree will find most of its water and most of its minerals.  As for the extent of the system, that can be surprising.  Roots can and do grow well beyond the lateral reach of the branches above.  You can model it this way: put a goblet on a dinner plate.”

“A what?”

“What?”

“What’s a goblet?”

“A wine glass.”

“We don’t drink.”

Ach.  That’s true.  I forgot.”  Grandfather paused to think.  “All right, then.  Try this.  Think of an ice pop.  Now pretend that your mother insists that you hold it over a paper plate so you won’t make a mess of yourself.  The wooden stick is the tree trunk.  The frozen orange stuff represents the tree’s crown with all its branches and leaves.  Think of it, perhaps, as a sugar maple in its autumn glory.  Put the bottom end of the stick on the plate and hold it.  The plate represents the relative extent of root growth.”

I nodded. “Now you’ve made me hungry for one.”

“We just had breakfast. You ate better than I did, or was allowed to. And you had real orange juice.”

“This afternoon,” I said.  “When it’s hot.  That’s when they taste the best.  Let’s get some  ‘cicles this afternoon.”

“I can’t,” Grandfather protested.  “If your Grandmother sees me trying to eat one, she will wrap her fingers around my throat to keep me from swallowing it.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“You know what I mean,” Grandfather said.  “But, if the ice cream boy comes around today, I’ll see what I can do for you.”

Ice cream boy.  Back then, if a municipality was big enough, younger teenaged males had opportunity to earn a little money during summer vacation by selling frozen treats in various neighborhoods.  The dealers had special rigs for them.  They were tricycles, except they went backwards, so to speak.  The two wheels were out front, and over the axle was mounted a chest.  Inside the chest was a load of ice cream bars, ice pops, and other confections kept frozen by a quantity of dry ice: super-cooled carbon dioxide.  The chest had handlebars attached, and on the handle bars was a set of jingle bells.  The driver sat on a bicycle seat mounted in front of the rear wheel.

An enterprising boy would pedal the rig around and around within his assigned sales territory and jingle those bells to let people know he was passing through.  Kids, and adults, would dash out to the street and wave him to a stop.  He would sell what he had to offer and make change using one of those nifty steel coin holders he wore on his belt.  He could put coins in slots in the top.  He could eject coins by pushing little plungers.  Back then, coins could buy a lot of stuff, and both men and women carried coin purses.  Those frozen treats?  They cost ten cents each.

I hauled four buckets of water out to the tree.  I didn’t just dump the water near the trunk, as I had done the day before.  I tried slopping it around.

When finished, I took my chair again and said, “That tree must really be thirsty.  I hope that’s enough.”  I felt as though I had had a morning workout.

“Trees can pump a lot of water, when they’re healthy,” Grandfather said.  “A big willow growing in its preferred site, near a creek or a marsh, can pump fifty gallons a day.”

I did a little arithmetic in my head.  Four buckets of five gallons each came to twenty gallons.  (That was a calculation I could handle.)  “So twenty gallons of water may not be enough now.”

“Ash trees are not willows,” Grandfather said.  “That one is a special cultivar of white ash, actually.  White ash trees tend to favor sunny, well-drained high ground.  They like the company of oak, hickory, beech, basswood, black cherry, and red maple.  Of the six species of ash that grow here in the eastern half of the country, it’s the most abundant, and it gets to be the biggest: up to 120 feet tall in good forest conditions.  And it typically produces the best color in the autumn.”

“White ash,” I said.  “It doesn’t turn white in the fall, does it?  If there are so many of them around, I’ve never seen such a thing.”

“No, Konrad.  The white ash doesn’t turn white in autumn.  Maybe in winter with fresh, wet snow or hoarfrost.  But then, most trees turn white in such events.  No, the white ash gets its name — to distinguish it from other ash trees, I suppose — because the undersides of its leaves are pale.  They are a whitish green in comparison with the dark green topsides.”

“Oh.”

“Has your father told you what is to be made of white ash wood?”

“Sure.  Tool handles: shovels, spades, forks, hoes, rakes, and such.  Sports items such as baseball bats and hockey sticks and tennis racquets.  Oars and paddles for boats.  Furniture, at least certain parts.”

“Very good, Konrad.  I am impressed.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Grandfather continued.  “Now black ash is more like a willow in that it prefers sites that are on low ground and near water, whether underground or nearby in a river or swamp.  It likes the company of northern white cedar, balsam fir, red maple, and yellow birch, among others.”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “It doesn’t turn black in the fall.  The name comes from something else about the tree.”

“The twigs.  The terminal buds of the twigs are quite dark.”

I could only guess as to the definition of a terminal bud.

“Do you know the uses of black ash wood?”

I thought for a while.  I couldn’t recall my father using it or speaking of it.  “No.”

“That’s not surprising.  It isn’t employed as much as it used to be.  In times past, people would cut the fresh green wood into strips to make baskets and hoops.”

I nodded.

“There is green ash,” Grandfather said.  “It’s the most widely distributed of the ashes, which means it has the biggest range.  Here in the Midwest, it likes the company of boxelder, red maple, silver maple, cottonwood, willow, bottomland oaks and hickories.  It looks like a lousy version of the majestic white ash, and its wood is used for the same purposes.  That’s if a logger can find a green ash that doesn’t have a poorly formed trunk.  But it’s a tough tree, quite adaptable to a variety of sites and conditions.  It’s good for windbreaks, for example.  It gets its name because the difference in leaf color top and bottom isn’t as distinct as it is on white ash.”

Grandfather continued.  “And there’s blue ash.  It’s relatively rare.  It can be found in moist bottomlands, but it is especially adapted to dry limestone heights.  The tree is the most drought resistant of the American ashes.  The name comes from its sap, which turns blue when exposed to air.  Pioneers used to mash the inner bark with water to make a dye for cloth.”

“So there are five kinds of ash trees,” I said.

“Sixteen, actually,” said Grandfather.  “Sixteen in these United States.  Sixty-five worldwide.  And the purple ash doesn’t count.  As I said, it’s a cultivar of white ash.”

Grandfather asked, “Have you heard of Yggdrasill?”

I shook my head, as though startled.  “Have I heard of what?”

“Yggdrasill.  The World Ash Tree.”

“No.  Definitely not.”

“It was known to our ancient Teutonic ancestors, and to their Norse brethren,” Grandfather said.  “The tree was of cosmic proportions.  One of its roots reached Jotunheim, the place of the giants.  One of its roots reached Niffleheim, the place of darkness and cold.  And one of its roots reached Asgard, the place of the gods.”

“There is no such tree, is there?”

“You don’t think so?  What about the Tree of Life, mentioned in the Bible?”

“In the Garden of Eden,” I said.  “Well…”  I had to think for a while.  “As far as I know, there is no Eden anymore.  No one has ever found Eden, or the place where Eden used to be.  So I suppose there no longer is a Tree of Life.”

“But it’s the Tree of Life,” Grandfather said.  “Can it really be dead?”

“Hmmm…”  That didn’t sound good.  How could the Tree of Life die?  I mean, it was evidently a special creation of God.  When Adam and Eve rebelled against the Word of God and were expelled from the Garden, God saw to it that angels guarded the Tree of Life, keeping them from an inappropriate return, from eating of its fruit at an inopportune time.  Its fruit would enable a person to live forever.

“The Genesis account says that the way to the Tree was kept by the cherubim and the flaming sword,” Grandfather said.  “Does that mean that the Tree was guarded against sinful men and women?”

“Yes.”

“Does it also mean that the Tree was preserved, that the way to the Tree was protected and maintained, so that access would always be available?”

“Does it?”  I hadn’t thought about that before.

“The Revelation account of John says that the Tree of Life will be growing in the New Jerusalem.  It says that the Tree will be growing on both sides of the River of Life.  It says that the Tree will yield fruit every month, and that the leaves will be for the healing of the nations.  It says that those who keep the commandments of Christ will have right to the Tree of Life.  Perhaps we can think of that as right-of-way.  Jesus Christ says that those who overcome will be allowed to eat of the Tree of Life.”

“So do you think the Tree still exists?” I asked.

Grandfather answered, “I often wonder if there isn’t some seed, some cutting kept somewhere safe.”

“Do you think that the Tree of Life is an ash tree?”

Grandfather smiled.  “That would be telling.”

 

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