23: A Walk in the Woods

29 01 2013

“And you still have the forest after all these years,” I said.  “Do you have the ring?”

“No,” said Grandfather.  “And I never had the ring.  It would have gone to my brother, Heinrich.  We persuaded our father, who had inherited the ring, to allow us to sell it in Chicago during the Great Depression.”

“He did?  A souvenir of Napoleon?  And after having it in the family that long?”

“It wasn’t exactly a souvenir from Napoleon himself.  And it was necessary to sell it during the Depression in order to keep the land, the forest, the mill, and the employees.  We couldn’t lose the land.  We couldn’t lose the business.  And we couldn’t lose the men, otherwise they would have lost everything, too.”

We traveled slowly along a one-lane dirt trail and came to a stop in a small clearing, one just big enough to allow the truck to turn around.  Grandfather parked the Studebaker under the shade of a big basswood tree.

He opened the door, stepped out, took a deep breath, and then reached behind the seat to remove a strange-looking vest. “Reach behind your side, Konrad.  There’s a rucksack.”

I got it out.

“You may put our lunch inside the pack,” he said while he put on his vest.

“I haven’t seen one of those before.”

“This?  It’s called a cruiser’s vest.  Foresters wear them because they have many pockets in which to carry things.  Tape measure.  Compass.  Prism.  Abney level.  The back even has a pouch so I can carry a clipboard, maps, books, and such.”

“You have all that in that vest?”

“Not today.  That’s all in a chest at home.”

“What are you carrying today?”

“This stick,” he said, referring to the ash staff.  “And a knife.  And a few other things.”

I finished putting Grandmother’s lunch items in the rucksack.

“Come over here, Konrad.  Bring the pack.”

I walked to the other side of the truck and held out the rucksack.

Grandfather took it.  “Turn around.”  I did.  “Hold out your arms.”  He put the pack onto my shoulders and back.  “Turn back around.”  He then adjusted the straps.  “How’s that?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Turn around again.  We mustn’t forget this.”  He reached into the cab and retrieved the bag with the jar in it.  He put that inside the rucksack with the lunch.

He took hold of his walking stick and pointed into the forest.  “Let’s go.”

He walked ahead slowly and with a pronounced limp, but steadily.  I followed his nearly invisible track.

In time, he stopped.  He held a hand out toward me, and then he turned it palm up and swung it about himself in a sweeping arc.  He looked into the canopy of the forest, inviting me to do so, as well.

Leaves.  Tens of thousands of leaves.  Green.  Dark green, bright green, shadow and light.  The sun shone silently, yet its shining enthused the leaves with shimmer and glimmer, with glint and gleam, and the leaves sang their song of silent light.

“Do they remind you of anything?” Grandfather asked.

I stood still wondering. “Stained-glass windows.”

Grandfather nodded.  “Henry Ward Beecher once mused about the number of cathedrals to be found in forest shades, haunted by tremulous music.”

He looked and listened.  Then, “As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Within these plantations of God a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods we return to reason and faith’.”

“What kinds of trees are these?”

“The official state tree of Wisconsin.”

I had to think a little.  “Sugar maple,” I recalled.

Acer saccharum.  Sugar maple.”

“These are big.”  They were bigger than any sugar maples I had seen elsewhere growing in yards and on farms.

“More than one hundred feet tall,” Grandfather said.  “Has your father told you what is done with maple?”

“Soft maple is used for pulp and paper, crates, and boxes.  Hard maple is used for furniture, interior woodwork, cabinets, and flooring.  Maple is really good for bowling alley floors.  The lanes, I mean.”

“Veneer,” Grandfather added.  “Ascetic acid and wood alcohol.  But you forgot something I should think you’d know, Konrad.”

“I did?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.  Syrup.”

“Maple syrup.”

“Have you made maple syrup?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  For years and years, every March.  It was part of our income.”

“How much syrup did you get from a tree?”

“It varies, depending upon size and health.  Five to forty gallons of sap can be tapped from a tree over a period of several weeks.  Sap flows best when nights are freezing and days are sunny and warm.  Pressure inside the sapwood can reach twenty pounds per square inch.  However, it takes about thirty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup or four pounds of sugar.

“You made both?”

“Yes.  Mostly syrup, though.  We sold it to stores and shops in Waupaca, Stevens Point, and Appleton.  Some went to Madison and Milwaukee.”

“But that wasn’t your only income.”

“Oh, no.  Much of our income came from felling trees and selling the logs to mills such as my brother Heinrich’s.  When we were younger, the mill and the forest were one business under our father Maynard’s supervision.  When Maynard got old, Heinrich took over management of the mill, and I took over management of the forest.  Heinrich still gets wood from these woods.  But he must get more from elsewhere around here and farther north.”

“What does he do with it all?”

“His is a small mill.  He and his people tend to do specialty work.  Select hardwoods for floors, interior woodwork, furniture.  Oak framing.  Also window sash and frames. Doors. Scrap wood they make into fence posts and firewood.  However, Heinrich has recently started doing more with waste.  He is using sawdust and fibers to make particle board and press board.  Most of his products go to contractors and craftsmen in the Fox Cities and Green Bay.

“As for me, I earned much of our income advising other woodlot owners who wanted to sell timber to our mill and others.   In addition, I collected and sold seed and nuts from especially fine tree specimens to various tree nurseries.  Seedlings and saplings, too.  Hickory nuts have gone to grocery stores and specialty food shops.  Shagbark hickory nuts, that is.  Bitternut hickory nuts, as you can guess, are not edible.  The wood is excellent for smoking meats, however.  I have sold bitternut hickory refuse to meat processors for that purpose.  Your grandmother, of course, sold fruit from our orchards over the years.”

“What about walnuts?” I asked.

“Black walnuts are edible, but they aren’t as good as English walnuts.”

He pointed with his staff and resumed walking.  I followed along.

The forest kept changing as we traveled.  It stood entirely green under the mid-summer sun, but the hues varied, the shades and tints of the leaves differed from stand to stand, from tree to tree.  So, too, did the sizes and shapes of the leaves.

We came to a part of the forest much different from those parts we had earlier traversed.  As we entered the stand, an awesome hush surrounded us.  Our footsteps became nearly silent, and the air near the ground hardly moved.  Even the light had become more subdued.

“What is this place?” I whispered.

“Does it remind you of anything?”

I thought as I surveyed the scene now surrounding.  “A church.  A big church.  An old church.”

“Listen,” said Grandfather.  “What do you hear?”

I did listen.  “I see what you mean about different trees making different sounds.  I mean, I hear what you mean.”

“Yes.  The wind in the needles, it sounds like chanting, doesn’t it?”

“Chanting?”

“Ah, perhaps you haven’t heard such music yet.  You will have to visit a Catholic church or cathedral, an abbey, a monastery to hear it sometime.”

We listened for several minutes.

“William Cullen Bryant once said that the groves were God’s first temples.  Before any such buildings were made by man, he knelt in such a darkling wood, as Bryant described it.  In the still twilight, among the gray trunks reaching high toward heaven and the sound of the invisible breath swaying the green tops, amid such cool and silence, man offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks and supplication.”  Grandfather asked me, “Do you think that is true?”

“Well, the Bible says that God planted a garden eastward in Eden.  The garden seems to have been more a grove of trees than a truck farm. Maybe it was an orchard. The Bible says that God walked with the man and the woman in the garden in the cool of the day.”

Grandfather nodded.

“What kinds of trees are these?” I asked.

“Eastern white pines.  Pinus strobus.

“These are really tall.”

“Some of them are approaching two hundred feet,” Grandfather said.  “With the eastern cottonwood, eastern white pines grow to be the tallest trees this side of the Great Plains.  That height, plus their straight form and the quality of their wood made them what we might nowadays call a strategic material.”

“A what?”

“A commodity or a resource that the government says possesses strategic value.  Something so important it merits national interest.  Centuries ago, the British government considered these white pines of the American colonies extremely important.  Can you guess why?”

“Didn’t they have any pines?”

“Yes.  But not like these.  Not in Great Britain, and not anywhere else in Europe at the time.”

“I guess that would be it, then.  These pines were better than what they had.  There was more good wood in them.  The wood was of a higher grade.”

Grandfather nodded.  “What is white pine good for?”

I recited what my father had taught me.  “White pine is light, straight-grained, and easily worked.  Even though it’s light, it’s fairly strong for its weight.  It resists warping.  It’s therefore handy for a large number of things: construction lumber, cabinets, interior woodwork, woodenware, window sash and frames.”

“And ships, Konrad,” Grandfather added.  “You know, of course, that centuries ago ships were made of wood and that they moved by the wind acting against sails.”

“Yes.”

“American eastern white pines were especially valuable for use as ship masts.  As you said, white pine is relatively light, but strong.  The trees grow straight and very tall.  One pine could often be made into a mast, all of one piece.  No lashing shorter logs together.  And one tree could support a lot of sail cloth.  White pine could thus outperform other wood.

“Because the British claimed much of the land in North America where white pine grows, they had something other European nations didn’t have.  Because the navy was critical for protecting a nation’s economic and political interests, fleets needed to have good ships.  Good wood made good ships, and the American colonies had good wood.  White oak for the keel and ribs and hull and deck.  White pine for the masts.

“The British government considered the white pines so valuable that they claimed ownership of virtually all mature trees, even while they grew in forests outside the existing land grants.  The Royal Navy didn’t buy the timber, and it didn’t buy the land on which the timber grew.  The British government just took it.  American colonists didn’t like the White Pine Acts and protested them as much as the taxes on tea and stamps.”

We left the pine grove to visit other parts of the forest.  The sizes and shapes of the trees continued to vary.  Most, of course, stood in communion, intermingling limbs in sharing sky and sun, intermingling roots in sharing soil and water.

Some stood outside forest stands and spread themselves way out, providing pavilions in the meadows.  We ate lunch under one such tree, a giant white oak.

I asked Grandfather, “How many kinds of trees do you have in the forest?”

“Seventy-one species.”

“You’ve counted them?”

“Yes, though inventory is a better word to use.  I have conducted forest inventories, and I have managed seventy-one species of trees on these lands.  Alder.  Birch.  Cherry.  Apple.  Pear.  Plum.  Ash.  Aspen.  Poplar.  Willow.  Cottonwood.  Ironwood.  Boxelder.  Butternut.  Walnut.  Hickory.  Oak.  Maple.  Cedar.  Pine.  Spruce.  Fir.  Hemlock.  Elm.  Hackberry.  Hawthorn.  Witch-hazel.  Juneberry.  Mulberry.  Nannyberry.  Serviceberry.  Sumac.  Dogwood.  Hop-hornbeam.  Locust.  Tamarack.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I didn’t know there were that many kinds of trees.”

“There  may be 40,000 species of trees in the world.  Between 700 and 750 species exist in North America, with more than 100 species to be seen here in Wisconsin.  Not all of them are native to the state, of course.  People have brought some  from elsewhere because they have use for them or they just like them.  The Norway maple is one example.  It comes from Europe.  The gingko is another example.  It comes from China and Japan.  Both are good trees for planting in urban environments, where they can handle pollution fairly well: smog, road salt, lime leached from buildings, and petroleum wastes.  Siberian elm is another one that’s tough.”

“So how many trees do you have in your forest?” I asked.

Grandfather looked at me.  “Do you mean, how many individual trees of all species?”

I nodded.

“You think I’ve actually counted all these trees?”

“Sure.” He knew so much, it was only to be expected.  “Haven’t you?”

“Well now, Konrad.  That’s a question.”  He thought for a moment.  “I believe I could give you an estimate based on my last cruises, but I’d have to check my records.  You see, the number of trees in a forest will change year by year.

“Trees die.  Trees are killed by insects and fungi and bacteria, by lightning, by windstorms, by fire.  Sometimes trees are killed by animals.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers can girdle a tree with their pecking.  Bucks can rub their antlers on a young tree so much that they’ll strip off too much of the bark.  Beavers cut trees down.  And, of course, people kill trees.  Not just by harvesting.  They’ll bash trees with machines.  Compact the roots with machines.  Poison them with road chemicals and farm chemicals, with air pollution and water pollution.

“Trees are born, too.  They put out seeds, and the seeds are planted by gravity, by animals such as squirrels and chipmunks, by birds, by winds. Some seeds are planted by water; they float along in a current and get planted elsewhere on a bank or on a beach or on a floodplain.  And, of course, people plant trees.

“Trees come and go.  In a forest, the actual count can change within a matter of weeks.  One does a cruise to come up with an estimate of the count of the various species for a given season.  And that count will vary from site to site.  Not all sites are the same.  Some sites are good for trees, and some sites are poor.  Certain trees like one site, and other trees like another site.  It’s a matter of the kind of soil present, the amount of water available day to day and season to season, whether the site slopes toward the sun or away from the sun, and the climate affecting the site.  There is much to consider.”

“So it’s impossible really to know how many trees you have,” I said.

“Not impossible.  If you wanted to go through the trouble, you could have aerial photographs taken of your land — you know, have an airplane fly over and take pictures with a camera — and then you could sit down at a table with special viewers called stereoscopes and count.  But even that would be an estimate; it’s hard to see everything clearly and for what it is.

“One would say that taking an actual count is impractical, unless you have a rather small tract of land.  It would be easy, for example, for you to count the trees living at your parents’ farmstead.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be too difficult to count the trees on the Smith farm.”  Grandfather paused.

He added, “I suppose there are some old-timers in Germany who know each one of the trees in their care.  Germans have been practicing forestry in some form or another since the 16th century, you should know.  And it can be very intensive.  Here in the United States, forest conservation and management is only about sixty years old.  We can thank men like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt for getting it started.  And the job is much bigger than in Germany.”  Grandfather asked, “Do you know how big this country is?”

“No.”

“The United States and Canada together are about 4.6 billion acres in size.  Prior to the coming of us Europeans, between a third and a half of that was populated with trees.  Now, about a third of North America is still in forest.  That’s still 770 million acres.  That’s in spite of intense logging by us Europeans.  Something like 100 million acres got cut between 1650 and 1850, with another 40 million acres between 1850 and 1860.  Steam engines helped speed the process, even though logging has always been hard, hard work.  Do you know, for example, how long it may have taken your forbears to carve out the Smith farm?”

“No.”

“On average, it took one man, with the help of fire and oxen, one month to clear one acre and make it suitable for farming.  Nevertheless, two to three million acres of forest a year disappeared for farms throughout the 19th century.  Decade upon decade, pioneering settlers considered it a virtue to convert wilderness forest into productive farmland.”

“You mean, it was good for people to clear the forest for farms.”

“Not only good for making a home and making a living, and not only good for business, it was also good also for the soul, or so it was thought.  Forest land was waste land.  Waste was evil.  Employment was good.  Industry was good.  Putting an end to waste and doing something productive was good.  Wilderness was evil.  Civilization was good.  Taming the wild with development was good.

“And, of course, the Industrial Revolution increased the demand for wood products, and it produced more and more means to cut the wood more and more quickly, more and more extensively.  Americans preferred wood charcoal for smelting and forging metals such as copper, tin, lead, and iron.  Steam engines on riverboats and locomotives and in various mills used wood for fuel.  Homes used wood for heating and cooking.  Those homes themselves, as well as shops and schools and churches and even factories, typically were made of wood.

“By the time my father took possession of this small forest, some 225 million acres of trees had been cut in the United States and Canada.  Even with the advent of coal for use as fuel, logging still went strong here in Wisconsin and in the neighboring states of Michigan and Minnesota.  By the time I took over management of this small forest nearly fifty years later, half of the virgin timber in the United States and Canada had been cut.

“Even so, new growth has been occurring.  Much of it has been natural: trees planting trees according to the ways of nature.  Much of it has been artificial: done by men at the behest of men concerned for the survival of the forest.  Individuals and corporations have been planting trees for some decades now.  About a tenth of the forest land in North America has been replanted by people.  I understand we now have gained back about a quarter of the forest.  As I said, when I was a young man, we had about half of what there was when Columbus came this way.  Now that I am old, we are back to three-quarters.  And this is good.”

 

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One response

31 01 2013
Amedar Consulting

I savor, cause I found just what I used to be looking for. You’ve ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

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