Woodcraft 24: Stewardship

8 11 2014

“It looks like you never cut your forest down,” I observed.

“Well, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  My father had opportunity to cut the whole thing down when he took possession.  He could have done what so many of the big lumber barons did do here in the Great Lakes states and again in the states of the Southeast.  He could have cut all the best trees for furniture and woodwork.  He could have cut all the good trees for lumber.  He could then have cut all the fair trees for pulp and paper.  All the poorest he could have cut for posts, for firewood, for charcoal.  Then he could have sold the land for farming.  That’s called mining the forest: log it and leave it, taking what it has and giving nothing back.

“That’s what happened in the northern portion of this state.  Loggers came in and mined the trees.  Then farmers came in and mined the soil.  And there was devastation.

“But your great-grandfather didn’t do that. Not only would that have been bad business, as he would say, but also bad stewardship. Three sections of land came into his possession, almost as a gift.  Perhaps it was an act of Providence working through an act of the Devil.  At any rate, he had three sections of land.  The common man in America could only hope and strive for such an estate, and maybe, just maybe he could attain it.  The common man in Germany had no hope for such an estate.  My father got one, and he was going to take care of it.

“As I said, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  One may cut trees without killing the forest.  It’s rather like your mother cutting roses or zinnias or pansies.  She can harvest flowers for placement in a vase; she doesn’t have to kill the entire plant to do so.  If she takes care of her roses, those plants will live for years and years, providing the sights and scents of beautiful flowers season after season.  So it is with a forest.  Come along.  Let’s walk, and I will explain.”

“How are you doing, Grandfather?” I asked.  “You’ve been walking a long way already.  And that peg leg…”

“I can do this, Konrad,” Grandfather insisted.  “But how are you?  You’ve been walking quite a way.  And that rucksack…”

“I can do this,” I echoed.

“Very well, then.  Let’s go.”

We walked.  In time, we passed through a stand of red pines.

“Pruning,” Grandfather said.  “That’s what can be done to improve the quality of the lumber inside a tree trunk.  Cut the lower branches off as they die back because they get too much shade and not enough light.  Branches may be pruned while they are still green, too.  Pruning them while they’re small in diameter means that the knots in the wood will be small. They won’t be as deep in the wood, as well.  The trick is to prune as many branches as possible without taking too many and slowing the growth of the tree itself.  In addition, one must prune properly so that the tree can heal itself as quickly as possible.  One must minimize the risk of infection by disease.

“In a similar way, one can improve the quality of a stand of trees by the careful cutting of individuals.  Come with me to the higher ground outside this plantation.”

We walked to a stand of oaks located on some small, steep hills.

“You can easily see that these trees are not as fine as most of the ones we’ve seen elsewhere.  This is because the site is poor.  The soil isn’t as good.  The availability of water isn’t as good.  So we get trees that aren’t so good.”

The oaks stood short with most of their trunks curved or bent or twisted.

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

“Black oaks mostly.  A few northern pin oaks.  On this site, these trees will never amount to much.  That is, they have little commercial value.  One may need the land, though, to produce something of commercial value.  Red pines could do fairly well here.  Red pines have more value than scrub oaks.  One may, therefore, decide here to do a clearcut.  One could clear all these oaks off and replant the acreage with pine seedlings.  And that’s what I did back there on the ground that’s not so steep.”

I looked back into the evergreens.

“I clearcut the scrub oak and planted red pine seedlings. Then over time, it’s thin the plantation.  One usually plants more trees than the site can handle as they get older and older.  One assumes that a certain number of seedlings and saplings will be killed by drought and by various pests.  As the remaining trees grow, they start to crowd one another.  They need to be thinned, the way your mother thins sprouts out of her flower beds each spring.  Trees thinned early can go for pulp and paper.  Trees thinned later can go for posts and poles.  All the time, it’s do the necessary pruning.  Eventually, one harvests pines big enough for lumber.  Then plant again.”

“But you didn’t do that here,” I said.

“No.  Too steep.  Clearcutting is often hard on a landscape.  Not only does it make the land look like a terrible battle has been fought, it makes the land more prone to erosion.  Runoff from rain and snowmelt will scour the unprotected soil and send it where it doesn’t belong: into rivers and lakes.  Besides, I wanted to keep some of this land in scrub oak because of the other plants and animals that like it.

“Now, some sites are so poor that only jack pine will grow.  Jack pine is good only for pulp and paper — thinking commercially, of course.  They are relatively fast growing.  One can manage them almost the way a farmer manages crop fields.  Clearcut the stand for pulp.  Burn it over to get the seeds left behind to sprout.  Jack pine cones must be burned to get them to open.  That’s why jack pine is known as a fire species.  It pioneers areas that suffer forest fires.  Let the trees grow several decades.  Then clearcut them again.

“One can do something similar with aspens.  Aspens can be cut the way farmers mow hay fields.  The aspens will sprout and grow back, replacing the grove that was cut.  The grove may be cut again and again, the trees used for pulp.”

We entered a stand of trees populated with larger oaks, red and black.  “Trees that are sick and dying can be cut and hauled away to the mill: trees likely to pass infection on to others nearby and trees infected, but don’t yet show obvious signs of being sick.  These can be cut to protect the others, and it can be done while the wood inside is still good, or at least fair.  I have had to do this here, for example, because of oak wilt.  I have done that with American elms because of Dutch elm disease.

“Such harvests are called sanitation cuts.

“Trees infested with damaging insects may also need to be cut and hauled away.  Many trees can repel, or at least tolerate, insect pests, but not always.  Sometimes, if a plague is underway, the trees must be cut and hauled while the wood is still of some merchant value before it’s thoroughly despoiled.  I’ve done that at times for spruce and for fir, for birch, for tamarack.  I’ve done that for stands that have been infected with root rot, such as tamarack. The trees are done for, so one may as well harvest them.

“Doing so is called a salvage cut. The idea is to get what good wood there is remaining before it’s further infested with insects that like to eat dead trees, and before it is infested with fungi that like to rot dead trees.”

We entered an area that had no canopy.

“A bad storm blew through here some years ago,” Grandfather said.  “It knocked down many nice trees. These had to be harvested quickly and taken to the mill.  But you can see that new trees are growing.  Nuts were already in the ground, ready to sprout at the time of the storm: hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts, and acorns.  Other seeds flew in on the breezes: birch, willow, cottonwood, aspen, maple, ash, and elm.  Birds planted some: black cherry, hawthorn.

“And what you see brings us again to selective thinning.  There is enough space here, enough sunlight and water and soil for all the small trees now, but not for long.  In the years to come, these trees will be crowded, and they will struggle and strain for resources.  In selective thinning, one moves in and cuts out the trees considered undesirable so the ones considered desirable can grow better.  Thinning takes out poor trees so that fine trees can grow taller, faster, and stronger.  Here, one may decide to thin out the butternuts in favor of the walnuts.  One may decide to thin out the boxelders in favor of the sugar maples.  One may decide to thin out the hawthorns in favor of the cherries.”

We walked into another section of oak woods.  This had a number of white pines mixed in with the various hardwood trees.

“You see the pines,” Grandfather said.  “Now, if one were to decide that the white pines were most important, one could perform a seed-tree cut.  The oaks would be harvested, leaving behind the tall pines.  These would be allowed to produce seed.  Nature would scatter the seed over the acreage, and new pines would start growing and get themselves well established.  The old pines could then be harvested before they get too old.  The new pines would grow fairly quickly because the old oaks wouldn’t be present to give them too much shade.”

We came to a stand containing a wide variety of trees, all of various sizes.  Ash, elm, walnut, and cherry grew with hackberry and hop-hornbeam, as well as basswood.  Oak and hickory, however, dominated the overstory.  Sugar maple composed much of the understory.

“Here,” Grandfather said, “one may decide to perform a release cutting.  If, for one reason or another, one prefers maple to oak and hickory, then one will cut the oaks and hickories to give the maples more light.  That would release them to grow faster.  The maples, however, can tolerate less light.  They will still grow, even if more slowly, and eventually take over.  As it is now, someday this will become a stand of maples.

“Oaks and hickories cannot tolerate shade as well as maples; oak and hickory seedlings cannot grow under them.  So, if one wants this to continue being a woods of oak and hickory, then one must thin the maples so that new oaks and hickories can grow in their place.  Even then, many of the old trees must be cut to allow enough light for the young ones to prosper.  But not too many.  It would also be good to leave enough trees to provide enough shade to keep pioneer trees and shrubs from moving in and crowding out the younger generation.

“I can mention the shelterwood cut.  That’s a technique of harvesting trees that removes a large number, but also leaves a large number.  Here, for example, the first shelterwood cut would remove all the maples and other undesirable trees, and also a large number of the oaks and hickories.  Those cut go to the mill and to market.  Those left produce seeds for a new generation. Those left then protect the newer, younger trees from too much heat or too much wind, and from invaders.  Here, these large trees remaining would allow enough sunlight into the forest to allow the younger generations of oaks and hickories to compete against those maple seedlings trying to make this into a maple grove.

“One can think of shelterwood cuts as harvests that remove trees generation by generation.  Loggers come in one year and take a certain age group out.  Ten, twenty, forty years later, loggers come back in and take another age group out.  The kind of stand is maintained as desired.  Nature isn’t allowed to convert the stand from oak to maple, or from pine to oak.”

“Foresters seek to encourage fine trees, especially those with market value.  They seek to help them thrive.  They want them to be as robust as possible while they grow to maturity.  Good mature trees have the most good wood for converting into an array of wood products. They are thus the most valuable.

“However, mature trees don’t stop growing: they can grow old and become overmature.  The problem with that is the risk of disease and insects.  Old trees are more susceptible to problems.  Pests have an easier task afflicting overmature trees.  Such trees, when so afflicted, get spoiled.  Some, much, or most of the wood gets spoiled.  So the idea is to harvest the trees when they are as big as possible, but before they get spoiled.

“Here, in this stand, one may decide to perform selective cutting.  As I see it, that’s the technique of harvesting best suited for these hardwood forests, and it’s the type of harvesting I prefer.  In essence, it follows the example of nature while at the same time trying to improve nature’s performance.  Diseased and defective trees are removed more quickly for the benefit of the better trees.  Large old trees are removed before they become decrepit. They are carefully cut and hauled away while they still have merchant value.  They don’t just die and waste away.

“In selective cutting, certain trees are carefully selected, carefully removed.  Trees continue to reproduce themselves, so artificial planting after harvest is unnecessary.  Trees continue to protect themselves from wind damage by providing their own windbreaks.  Moreover, the risk of fire is smaller because not a lot of slash is left behind after logging.  Even so, some slash remains to rot and replenish the soil.  Only the logs get taken.

“And, what is most important to my way of thinking, the forest itself remains.  The nature of the forest remains.  The quality and characteristics of the forest remain.  The sequence of change, the pattern of growth and development, the ecological diversity, the environmental cycle, all can continue.”

 

woodcraft 8

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Woodcraft 18: Live Wood Wednesday

7 10 2014

The next morning, at the conclusion of breakfast, my grandfather said to me, “Well now, Konrad.  Let us go out to the patio.”

We got up from the table in the dining room, leaving my sister, my mother, and my grandmother to do as they wished.  We went through the kitchen.  I held the back door open, and Grandfather swung through.  He selected a chair and, prior to taking a seat, pointed with a crutch at another.  There I sat.

And we sat, looking back toward the alley.  Grandfather said nothing, though I could see he was looking at the purple ash tree.  I looked at it myself.  I focused on the tree’s trunk at first to review my handiwork now that some eighteen hours had passed.  Yes, it still looked like a good job to me.

I looked at Grandfather, who still studied the tree.  I looked back at it.  After a couple minutes, I looked elsewhere.  The ash was the only tree on Grandfather’s property, but it wasn’t the only tree in the neighborhood.  Most grew in the front yards of the rows of houses lining the streets.  Quite a number, however, grew in back yards.  Front and back, the population consisted mostly of maples, plus some willows and spruces.  A few others existed that I could not name.  All tended to be on the small side, none having achieved the size suitable for, say, a tire swing or a tree house.  Nevertheless, most seemed noticeably bigger than the ash.

As I compared the ash with the others, I noticed something.  The ash tree’s leaves didn’t look as green as those on the other trees; they didn’t look as fresh.  “Grandfather, do the leaves on the purple ash look wilted to you?”

“I believe so, Konrad.  Yes.”

“Does the tree need some water?”

“The leaves certainly do.”

“How long has it been since you’ve had rain here?”

“Eleven days.”

I nodded.  “Would you like me to water the tree, Grandfather?”

Grandfather took up a crutch to use again as a pointer.  “There’s a spigot.  See?”

“Yes.”

“Your grandmother has a bucket in the utility room inside.  Otherwise, you’ll find a couple more in the garage.”

I had seen the one in the utility room.  I went in to get it.  Back outside, I carried it to the spigot, set it underneath, and turned the handle.  “How much water should I use?”

“Generally speaking, growing plants in this part of the country like about an inch of rain a week.”

I didn’t know how to translate such an amount of rainfall into buckets.  That would make a good story problem for arithmetic back in school, I figured.

“Think of filling a pool within the drip line of the tree one inch deep,” Grandfather said.

“Drip line?”

“Think of the crown of the tree as an open umbrella.  Rain hits the umbrella and rolls off.  Correct?  It rolls to the outside edge of the umbrella and drizzles away to the ground.  The drip line of a tree is what you could consider the circle under the outside edge of the umbrella of leaves.”

“Oh.”  I studied the ash tree and the lawn area underneath.  I looked at the bucket.

“That’s a five-gallon pail, if it helps,” Grandfather said.

It didn’t.  Not really.  My knowledge of mathematics hadn’t gotten as far as to inform me that the area of a circle drawn at the average distance from the tree trunk to the drip line would be p multiplied by the square of the radius, or one half of the circumference multiplied by the radius.  If I took my measurements in inches, then all I would need to do next is multiply the area by one — the one-inch depth — to get what I needed in cubic inches of water.

A gallon contains 231 cubic inches. I could have calculated the volume of that bucket by multiplying the top radius by the bottom radius and adding that to the square of the top radius and the square of the bottom radius, multiply all that by the height, multiply all that by p, and then divide all that by three.  That assumes that I would have measured the thing in inches.  But I didn’t know all that.

My grandfather did.  He was a forester.  Foresters have to know such math in order to do forest mensuration, surveying, and engineering.  He knew, but he wasn’t telling.

I just guessed.  “How about two buckets?”

“Close enough.”

I filled the bucket to the top and carried it to the tree.  I had to use both hands because, at my young age, it was heavy.  A gallon of water weighs about 8.33 pounds.  Five gallons weighs almost 42 pounds.  I suspect I lost a couple pounds along the way, slopping and spilling.  I dumped the bucket in the shade of the tree near the trunk.

I went back, filled the bucket again, hauled it again, and dumped it again.

Then I proceeded to take the bucket back into the house.

“Your grandmother has an old towel in the utility room there.  You may use it to wipe out the pail.”

It wasn’t that the pail was dirty.  All I had put into it was water, but that was one of the many maintenance practices that my grandfather performed, even though a pail may be made of rust-resistant galvanized steel.  “That’s fine,” he would say.  “And you can then make it rust proof if you wipe it dry after each use.”

I came back out to the patio and resumed my seat.

And there we sat.  Just sat.  Grandfather said nothing.  That left me hearing nothing other than the occasional car traveling the street and some mid-summer birdsong.  I didn’t know birds all that well.  Robins were common, and it is the state bird of Wisconsin, so I knew that one by sight and by sound.  I also knew the sounds of blue jays and cardinals and mourning doves and crows.  That was about it.

“What time is it, Grandfather?”

“About a quarter past seven.” He hadn’t looked at a thing prior to giving his answer, or so I thought.

“How do you know that?”

“The sun.”

“You can tell time by the sun?”

“The sun moves across the sky at a reliable pace.  As long as one can see it, or the shadows it casts, one can use it as a time piece.”

“Well, yeah, but you can’t get that close to telling the time, can you?”

Grandfather reached into his pocket.  He didn’t wear a wrist watch; he still used a nice-looking gold pocket watch, the kind that had the door that flips open and clicks shut.  He pressed the release and held it out for me to see without looking at it himself.

“7:13,” I read out loud.

Grandfather closed the door and put the watch back into his pocket.

And there we sat.  Grandfather continued not to say anything.  I looked at him now and again, and he looked as though he were sitting in church, listening.

I was used to sitting in church.  We did it every Sunday: Dad, Mom, Joanna, and I.  Because Dad was Lutheran, like his parents, we went to a Lutheran church on Sunday mornings.  Mom was Baptist, like her parents, but we went to the Lutheran church anyway on Sunday mornings.  We went to a Baptist church on Sunday evenings and on Wednesday evenings otherwise.  Except during Lent.  Then we would attend Lutheran services on Wednesdays.

Anyway, I sat in church fairly well.  Both Mom and Dad trained Joanna and me to be silent and reverent, even if we weren’t able all the time to be attentive.  They understood that.  They would translate some of the hymns and what the minister had said in his sermon for our benefit after church, but not understanding, or getting tired or bored, was no excuse for getting rowdy.  We learned how to sit still and be quiet.

I remember my mother telling Joanna and me about Samuel, a prophet, priest, and last of the judges of Israel who ministered at the time of Saul and Jonathan and David. He had been dedicated by his mother, Hannah, to the Lord’s service prior to his birth.  His mother had placed him in that service at the Tabernacle with Eli when he was still a child.  Mother told us the story of how Samuel, as a child, had himself started hearing the Word of the Lord.  The Lord spoke to him the first time at night, with everything quiet and still.  Mother wanted us to know how to be quiet and still so that we might know the Word of the Lord.

I worked hard at being quiet and still that morning with Grandfather, but there was nothing happening: no organ playing music, no man in a black robe reading the Bible or speaking about the Bible, no pretty stained-glass windows.  I liked stained-glass windows.  I liked the colors, the lighting, the pictures.  I even liked the workmanship.  They helped me sit still and be quiet in church.  But there was nothing there in that back yard.  Or so I thought.

“What time is it?” I asked again.

“Not quite 7:30.”

I didn’t challenge Grandfather’s estimate, even though it had seemed more like an hour had passed, not fifteen minutes or so.  Fifteen minutes made an entire recess at school.  We kids could do a great deal in fifteen minutes.  What was I doing then?

Grandfather spoke.  “Konrad, have you ever pretended to be a tree?”

I looked at him.

He looked at me.

No, the thought had never crossed my mind, so I wondered how to answer.

Grandfather asked, “Have you ever thought about what it would be like being a tree?”

I spoke what already was on my mind.  “Boring, I suppose.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well…”  I thought for a moment or two.  “Trees don’t do anything.  They just stand there.”

“Ah.  They stand there.  Rooted in the same place for decades.  In some cases, they stand in the same place for centuries.  In a few, they stand in the same place for millennia, for two or three or even four thousand years: the redwood, the sequoia, the bristlecone pine.  We have a bristlecone pine in this nation of ours that is four thousand six hundred years old.  Do you know how old that is?”

“Forty-six hundred years,” I answered.

Grandfather smiled.  “Ja.  Forty-six hundred years.  That means that tree was already mature when Abraham was born.  That tree lives in what we now say is California.  Imagine the tree living in what the Lord said through the prophet Zechariah is the Holy Land.  That tree would have been present to experience most of what has been described in the Bible.  It would be able yet to experience perhaps some or all of what the Bible says is yet to come.  As John Muir said, there is no fixed limit to the lifespan of a tree.  Parts may age: leaves, twigs, branches, roots.  Cells die, and new cells are made.  Trees live.  Unless something or someone kills them, trees live.  They live on, standing still, waiting in ultimate patience for the providence of their Creator, waiting for the sunlight and atmosphere and water and minerals they need to live and live on.”

“Have you pretended to be a tree?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  Many times.  Sometimes for an entire day.  Sometimes for an entire night.”

“No!”

“Yes,” Grandfather insisted.  “I have many times just stood — or sat, to be honest — in the woods as though I were a tree.”

I stared at him in wonder.

He quoted, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  He asked, “Have you heard the name Henry David Thoreau yet, Konrad?”

I thought for a moment.  “I don’t know.  Maybe.  I can’t remember.”  If I had heard the name, or seen it, it would have been at school.  What Grandfather had quoted sounded new and strange, though.  I hadn’t heard such words before.

“Have you heard the name Walt Whitman yet?”

“Maybe. There might be something he wrote in our reading book at school.”

“He spoke of what one can learn in the way of a lesson from a tree.  He spoke of it as being, in his opinion, the greatest moral lesson one could learn from Nature.  He summed it in one word: inherency.  That refers to something as it is in and of itself.  That which is essential and characteristic.  Innate.  Intrinsic.”

Grandfather asked, “Do you remember the Words God uses to tell us of Himself?  That is, do you remember the Words He uses to identify Himself for us?”

“I am that I am,” I said.

“Right.  As you know, the Bible has many names for God.  Most seem to act more like titles than as proper names. God Most High .  Everlasting God.  Almighty God.  The Lord Provides.  The Lord is Peace.  The Lord your Sanctifier.  The Lord my Shepherd.  The Lord our Righteousness.  Heavenly Father.  They act like saying ‘your majesty’ and ‘your highness’ to a king or queen.

“But there is that one designation, that one identifier that identifies the one God.  I am that I am.  In Hebrew or in any language, it is His name forever, a memorial for all generations.  It is unique, as God is unique.  It is simple, and yet it is ever so sublime.  It says, in essence, ‘I have no name as you understand and use names.  No one and no thing can name Me because I am the Creator of all.  I am the Lord of all.  I am absolutely independent, and am dependent on no one and no thing.  I am not created; I am self-existent and self-energizing and self-perpetuating.  I am the beginning and the ending, and yet I have neither beginning nor ending.  I am inherence at its quintessence: love, justice, righteousness, power, knowledge, wisdom, life.  I am Life.  I am meaning and I am significance.  I am the Answer to the question, “why?”  I am Why.  I am.’ ”

I hadn’t tracked the words of our family’s ministers, Lutheran and Baptist, all that well, but I was sure I hadn’t heard such words as these yet.  And I had just as much trouble tracking them.

Grandfather said, “Trees tell us, they give us an inkling of inherence. They teach us what is perennial, what is on-going and everlasting.  They remind us of what is real, and of what is true.  As Bernard of Clairvaux said, we can find something great in the woods.  Trees and stones can teach us what we can never learn from masters.”

I sat amazed.

“Konrad,” Grandfather said, “do you remember what Christ Jesus said during his entry into Jerusalem that last week of His mortal life?  Do you remember His reply to those who told Him to rebuke the disciples and keep them from shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed be the King that cometh in the Name of the Lord’?”

“He said, ‘If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out’.”

“Very good, Konrad.  You have good teachers in your school, and you are a good student.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Have you memorized Psalm 96?”

“No.”

“It is written, ‘Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof.  Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His Truth’.”

We continued sitting.

Grandfather asked, “Yes, trees stand still.  But Konrad, do they never move?”

“Well, I suppose they move to some extent in the wind.”

“Isaiah prophesied, ‘All the trees of the field shall clap their hands’,” said Grandfather.

“He was using some kind of figure of speech,” I said.  “He was speaking like a poet or somebody.”

“Aspens clap,” Grandfather said.

“They do not,” I protested.

“Yes.  I have heard them.  As you say, they applaud the performance of the wind as it dances between sky and earth.”

I looked at him for a while, thinking.  “Oh, you mean the leaves.  The sound the leaves make in the breeze.”

“Different leaves make different sounds.  Aspens and poplars and cottonwoods clap.  It’s because of the shape of their leaves and the shape of the stems that attach the leaves to the twigs of the trees.  The size and shape of the leaves makes a difference, you should know.  Some are big and some are small.  Some are thick and some are thin.  Some are simple and some are compound.  Of those that are compound, some are palmate and some are pinnate and some are bipinnate…”

“Whatever that means,” I said.

“I could go on describing the shapes; there are nearly a dozen kinds.  I could also describe venation, margins, tips, and bases.  The point is, the differences in shape make for differences in sound.  Some trees clap.  Some trees clatter.  Some crackle, and some cackle.  Some trees rustle.  Some flap, and some flutter.  Some sigh and swish and whisper.”

“And you can tell the differences just by listening?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Surely.”

Since my father could tell the differences in pieces of wood by touch and by smell, I had no reason to doubt that my grandfather could tell the differences in trees by listening to them.

“But trees move in other ways,” he announced.

“How so?”

“Some trees march, and some trees wade.”

“No!”

“Yes.  Aspens can march across a landscape.  You see — or you can see if you wait long enough — that they send roots outward.  From these roots arise new stems that become saplings, that then become trees.  These trees send out more roots, and they send up more trees.  It’s called coppice reproduction. Trees farther back may get sick and die, but the huge mass of roots lives on.  That entire colony of trees lives on and moves on, ever outward. Indeed, some say that a stand of aspens, because of the root mass, is actually one life form.  As such, such organisms can be considered the largest living things on the planet.

“And, yes, mangrove trees do wade.  They send prop-roots into creeks and bays and other backwaters.  They gradually creep into quiet open water to colonize it, making swamps and making islands called keys.

“But of course you know that trees move in other ways,” Grandfather continued.  “They grow.  Up and down.  The cottonwood, for example, can grow upward and outward in its reach for light as fast as five feet a year.  The bur oak can grow downward and outward in its reach for water so well that even native prairie grasses cannot thrive.  And the great sequoia: from a seed that weighs just an ounce or so can grow a titan of 300 feet and 12 million pounds.”

“You’ve seen all that?” I asked.

“Yes. Of course, that required getting off my seat in my woods and moving a little to do so.  It’s called taking a vacation once in a while.”

I nodded.

“And trees move in another way, too.  Would you like to learn a new word?”

“I’m always learning new words,” I replied.  “Mom… I mean, Mother and Father see to that.  And my teachers.”

“How about heliotropism?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“That means that a leaf moves in response to sunlight.  It means that a leaf moves so as to catch the sunlight better.  The leaves of some trees can and do move, even if slowly or slightly, so as to align their surfaces broadside against incoming sun rays.”

“Have you seen that, too?” I asked.

“Actually, yes.  It takes practice, though, and patience.”

“Wow!”

“Do you know, Konrad, why leaves like the sun?”

Now there was a question that a teacher could ask.  And the man asking the question probably knew a whole lot more about the subject than any of my teachers at the parochial school.  Maybe he knew more than any of the teachers in all the public schools of Port Edwards, and Nekoosa, and Wisconsin Rapids.  How was I going to answer the question without making a dunce of myself?

I decided to take it slow and be simple. “Photosynthesis.”

“Ah, you know that word.”

“Yes.”  How well I knew it was another question.

And it came: “What can you tell me about it?”

“That’s why leaves are green.  They have chlorophyll.  The stuff is colored green.  It’s the stuff that takes in sunlight and uses it to make plants grow.”

“How so?”

“Hmmm…”  Now I was getting in deep.  I thought for some time.  Grandfather waited.  I had come to realize he could be as patient as a snow-covered oak waiting for spring.  I said, “Maybe trees use sunlight like we use electricity.  It’s power.”

“Not bad, Konrad.  Not bad at all.  Yes, leaves use sunlight as the energy needed to convert carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil into sugars and starches and other organic, energy-rich chemicals.  More specifically, the energy of light is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.  Oxygen is given off as a by-product, a leftover.”  Grandfather then asked, “Do you know that, each year, one acre of trees can supply enough oxygen for eighteen people?”

“No.”

“Anyway, the hydrogen is split into protons and electrons, and those are added to the carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates.”

I nodded, not understanding much of anything he was saying.

“Do you know why chlorophyll is green?” he asked.

Now there was a question.  I had never thought about it.  “No.”

“Chlorophyll a and b absorb most of the red light and the blue-violet light coming from the white sun.  As it turns out, then, a lot of green is reflected, and that’s what we see as a pigment.”

“So, what about when trees turn colors in the fall?” I asked.  “What about when the ash turns purple?”

“Ah.  Well, in the autumn, trees stop the process of photosynthesis.  Deciduous broadleaf trees, that is.  Winter is coming.  It will be cold. The tree can’t work when water is ice.  So, it shuts down for the winter.  It goes into dormancy.  How does the tree know when winter is coming?  The sun.”

“You mean, trees can tell time the way you can?”

“In a way, perhaps.  As you know, in the autumn, days get shorter and nights get longer.  Trees can sense that.  They can also sense cooling temperatures.  They stop manufacturing chlorophyll because they intend to go dormant.  What chlorophyll is left dehydrates, breaks down, and fades away.  As it disappears, it reveals pigments in the leaves that have other colors, yellow and red and even blue.  Carotenes, xanthophylls, anthocyanins: how are those for words?  Additional pigments capture more light in different wavelengths and pass it on to the chlorophyll for use in spring and summer.  Eventually in autumn, those colors fade away, too, and all that’s left is the brown of dead plant cells.”

“What about the purple, though?”

“Oh.  The purple comes as result of mixing.  It’s as if Jack Frost is there mixing his paints to color the leaves in the autumn.  Different combinations and quantities of green, yellow, red, and blue can yield such colors as burgundy, orange, russet, bronze, and rust.”

“I’ve never seen a purple tree,” I said.  “I hope I can see this one when it turns.”

 

woodcraft 6





24: Stewardship

29 01 2013

“It looks like you never cut your forest down,” I observed.

“Well, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  My father had opportunity to cut the whole thing down when he took possession.  He could have done what so many of the big lumber barons did do here in the Great Lakes states and again in the states of the Southeast.  He could have cut all the best trees for furniture and woodwork.  He could have cut all the good trees for lumber.  He could then have cut all the fair trees for pulp and paper.  All the poorest he could have cut for posts, for firewood, for charcoal.  Then he could have sold the land for farming.  That’s called mining the forest: log it and leave it, taking what it has and giving nothing back.

“That’s what happened in the northern portion of this state.  Loggers came in and mined the trees.  Then farmers came in and mined the soil.  And there was devastation.

“But your great-grandfather didn’t do that. Not only would that have been bad business, as he would say, but also bad stewardship. Three sections of land came into his possession, almost as a gift.  Perhaps it was an act of Providence working through an act of the Devil.  At any rate, he had three sections of land.  The common man in America could only hope and strive for such an estate, and maybe, just maybe he could attain it.  The common man in Germany had no hope for such an estate.  My father got one, and he was going to take care of it.

“As I said, Konrad, there is a difference between cutting down trees and cutting down the forest.  One may cut trees without killing the forest.  It’s rather like your mother cutting roses or zinnias or pansies.  She can harvest flowers for placement in a vase; she doesn’t have to kill the entire plant to do so.  If she takes care of her roses, those plants will live for years and years, providing the sights and scents of beautiful flowers season after season.  So it is with a forest.  Come along.  Let’s walk, and I will explain.”

“How are you doing, Grandfather?” I asked.  “You’ve been walking a long way already.  And that peg leg…”

“I can do this, Konrad,” Grandfather insisted.  “But how are you?  You’ve been walking quite a way.  And that rucksack…”

“I can do this,” I echoed.

“Very well, then.  Let’s go.”

We walked.  In time, we passed through a stand of red pines.

“Pruning,” Grandfather said.  “That’s what can be done to improve the quality of the lumber inside a tree trunk.  Cut the lower branches off as they die back because they get too much shade and not enough light.  Branches may be pruned while they are still green, too.  Pruning them while they’re small in diameter means that the knots in the wood will be small. They won’t be as deep in the wood, as well.  The trick is to prune as many branches as possible without taking too many and slowing the growth of the tree itself.  In addition, one must prune properly so that the tree can heal itself as quickly as possible.  One must minimize the risk of infection by disease.

“In a similar way, one can improve the quality of a stand of trees by the careful cutting of individuals.  Come with me to the higher ground outside this plantation.”

We walked to a stand of oaks located on some small, steep hills.

“You can easily see that these trees are not as fine as most of the ones we’ve seen elsewhere.  This is because the site is poor.  The soil isn’t as good.  The availability of water isn’t as good.  So we get trees that aren’t so good.”

The oaks stood short with most of their trunks curved or bent or twisted.

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

“Black oaks mostly.  A few northern pin oaks.  On this site, these trees will never amount to much.  That is, they have little commercial value.  One may need the land, though, to produce something of commercial value.  Red pines could do fairly well here.  Red pines have more value than scrub oaks.  One may, therefore, decide here to do a clearcut.  One could clear all these oaks off and replant the acreage with pine seedlings.  And that’s what I did back there on the ground that’s not so steep.”

I looked back into the evergreens.

“I clearcut the scrub oak and planted red pine seedlings. Then over time, it’s thin the plantation.  One usually plants more trees than the site can handle as they get older and older.  One assumes that a certain number of seedlings and saplings will be killed by drought and by various pests.  As the remaining trees grow, they start to crowd one another.  They need to be thinned, the way your mother thins sprouts out of her flower beds each spring.  Trees thinned early can go for pulp and paper.  Trees thinned later can go for posts and poles.  All the time, it’s do the necessary pruning.  Eventually, one harvests pines big enough for lumber.  Then plant again.”

“But you didn’t do that here,” I said.

“No.  Too steep.  Clearcutting is often hard on a landscape.  Not only does it make the land look like a terrible battle has been fought, it makes the land more prone to erosion.  Runoff from rain and snowmelt will scour the unprotected soil and send it where it doesn’t belong: into rivers and lakes.  Besides, I wanted to keep some of this land in scrub oak because of the other plants and animals that like it.

“Now, some sites are so poor that only jack pine will grow.  Jack pine is good only for pulp and paper — thinking commercially, of course.  They are relatively fast growing.  One can manage them almost the way a farmer manages crop fields.  Clearcut the stand for pulp.  Burn it over to get the seeds left behind to sprout.  Jack pine cones must be burned to get them to open.  That’s why jack pine is known as a fire species.  It pioneers areas that suffer forest fires.  Let the trees grow several decades.  Then clearcut them again.

“One can do something similar with aspens.  Aspens can be cut the way farmers mow hay fields.  The aspens will sprout and grow back, replacing the grove that was cut.  The grove may be cut again and again, the trees used for pulp.”

We entered a stand of trees populated with larger oaks, red and black.  “Trees that are sick and dying can be cut and hauled away to the mill: trees likely to pass infection on to others nearby and trees infected, but don’t yet show obvious signs of being sick.  These can be cut to protect the others, and it can be done while the wood inside is still good, or at least fair.  I have had to do this here, for example, because of oak wilt.  I have done that with American elms because of Dutch elm disease.

“Such harvests are called sanitation cuts.

“Trees infested with damaging insects may also need to be cut and hauled away.  Many trees can repel, or at least tolerate, insect pests, but not always.  Sometimes, if a plague is underway, the trees must be cut and hauled while the wood is still of some merchant value before it’s thoroughly despoiled.  I’ve done that at times for spruce and for fir, for birch, for tamarack.  I’ve done that for stands that have been infected with root rot, such as tamarack. The trees are done for, so one may as well harvest them.

“Doing so is called a salvage cut. The idea is to get what good wood there is remaining before it’s further infested with insects that like to eat dead trees, and before it is infested with fungi that like to rot dead trees.”

We entered an area that had no canopy.

“A bad storm blew through here some years ago,” Grandfather said.  “It knocked down many nice trees. These had to be harvested quickly and taken to the mill.  But you can see that new trees are growing.  Nuts were already in the ground, ready to sprout at the time of the storm: hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts, and acorns.  Other seeds flew in on the breezes: birch, willow, cottonwood, aspen, maple, ash, and elm.  Birds planted some: black cherry, hawthorn.

“And what you see brings us again to selective thinning.  There is enough space here, enough sunlight and water and soil for all the small trees now, but not for long.  In the years to come, these trees will be crowded, and they will struggle and strain for resources.  In selective thinning, one moves in and cuts out the trees considered undesirable so the ones considered desirable can grow better.  Thinning takes out poor trees so that fine trees can grow taller, faster, and stronger.  Here, one may decide to thin out the butternuts in favor of the walnuts.  One may decide to thin out the boxelders in favor of the sugar maples.  One may decide to thin out the hawthorns in favor of the cherries.”

We walked into another section of oak woods.  This had a number of white pines mixed in with the various hardwood trees.

“You see the pines,” Grandfather said.  “Now, if one were to decide that the white pines were most important, one could perform a seed-tree cut.  The oaks would be harvested, leaving behind the tall pines.  These would be allowed to produce seed.  Nature would scatter the seed over the acreage, and new pines would start growing and get themselves well established.  The old pines could then be harvested before they get too old.  The new pines would grow fairly quickly because the old oaks wouldn’t be present to give them too much shade.”

We came to a stand containing a wide variety of trees, all of various sizes.  Ash, elm, walnut, and cherry grew with hackberry and hop-hornbeam, as well as basswood.  Oak and hickory, however, dominated the overstory.  Sugar maple composed much of the understory.

“Here,” Grandfather said, “one may decide to perform a release cutting.  If, for one reason or another, one prefers maple to oak and hickory, then one will cut the oaks and hickories to give the maples more light.  That would release them to grow faster.  The maples, however, can tolerate less light.  They will still grow, even if more slowly, and eventually take over.  As it is now, someday this will become a stand of maples.

“Oaks and hickories cannot tolerate shade as well as maples; oak and hickory seedlings cannot grow under them.  So, if one wants this to continue being a woods of oak and hickory, then one must thin the maples so that new oaks and hickories can grow in their place.  Even then, many of the old trees must be cut to allow enough light for the young ones to prosper.  But not too many.  It would also be good to leave enough trees to provide enough shade to keep pioneer trees and shrubs from moving in and crowding out the younger generation.

“I can mention the shelterwood cut.  That’s a technique of harvesting trees that removes a large number, but also leaves a large number.  Here, for example, the first shelterwood cut would remove all the maples and other undesirable trees, and also a large number of the oaks and hickories.  Those cut go to the mill and to market.  Those left produce seeds for a new generation. Those left then protect the newer, younger trees from too much heat or too much wind, and from invaders.  Here, these large trees remaining would allow enough sunlight into the forest to allow the younger generations of oaks and hickories to compete against those maple seedlings trying to make this into a maple grove.

“One can think of shelterwood cuts as harvests that remove trees generation by generation.  Loggers come in one year and take a certain age group out.  Ten, twenty, forty years later, loggers come back in and take another age group out.  The kind of stand is maintained as desired.  Nature isn’t allowed to convert the stand from oak to maple, or from pine to oak.”

“Foresters seek to encourage fine trees, especially those with market value.  They seek to help them thrive.  They want them to be as robust as possible while they grow to maturity.  Good mature trees have the most good wood for converting into an array of wood products. They are thus the most valuable.

“However, mature trees don’t stop growing: they can grow old and become overmature.  The problem with that is the risk of disease and insects.  Old trees are more susceptible to problems.  Pests have an easier task afflicting overmature trees.  Such trees, when so afflicted, get spoiled.  Some, much, or most of the wood gets spoiled.  So the idea is to harvest the trees when they are as big as possible, but before they get spoiled.

“Here, in this stand, one may decide to perform selective cutting.  As I see it, that’s the technique of harvesting best suited for these hardwood forests, and it’s the type of harvesting I prefer.  In essence, it follows the example of nature while at the same time trying to improve nature’s performance.  Diseased and defective trees are removed more quickly for the benefit of the better trees.  Large old trees are removed before they become decrepit. They are carefully cut and hauled away while they still have merchant value.  They don’t just die and waste away.

“In selective cutting, certain trees are carefully selected, carefully removed.  Trees continue to reproduce themselves, so artificial planting after harvest is unnecessary.  Trees continue to protect themselves from wind damage by providing their own windbreaks.  Moreover, the risk of fire is smaller because not a lot of slash is left behind after logging.  Even so, some slash remains to rot and replenish the soil.  Only the logs get taken.

“And, what is most important to my way of thinking, the forest itself remains.  The nature of the forest remains.  The quality and characteristics of the forest remain.  The sequence of change, the pattern of growth and development, the ecological diversity, the environmental cycle, all can continue.”

 

woodcraft 8





18: Live Wood Wednesday

16 01 2013

The next morning, at the conclusion of breakfast, my grandfather said to me, “Well now, Konrad.  Let us go out to the patio.”

We got up from the table in the dining room, leaving my sister, my mother, and my grandmother to do as they wished.  We went through the kitchen.  I held the back door open, and Grandfather swung through.  He selected a chair and, prior to taking a seat, pointed with a crutch at another.  There I sat.

And we sat, looking back toward the alley.  Grandfather said nothing, though I could see he was looking at the purple ash tree.  I looked at it myself.  I focused on the tree’s trunk at first to review my handiwork now that some eighteen hours had passed.  Yes, it still looked like a good job to me.

I looked at Grandfather, who still studied the tree.  I looked back at it.  After a couple minutes, I looked elsewhere.  The ash was the only tree on Grandfather’s property, but it wasn’t the only tree in the neighborhood.  Most grew in the front yards of the rows of houses lining the streets.  Quite a number, however, grew in back yards.  Front and back, the population consisted mostly of maples, plus some willows and spruces.  A few others existed that I could not name.  All tended to be on the small side, none having achieved the size suitable for, say, a tire swing or a tree house.  Nevertheless, most seemed noticeably bigger than the ash.

As I compared the ash with the others, I noticed something.  The ash tree’s leaves didn’t look as green as those on the other trees; they didn’t look as fresh.  “Grandfather, do the leaves on the purple ash look wilted to you?”

“I believe so, Konrad.  Yes.”

“Does the tree need some water?”

“The leaves certainly do.”

“How long has it been since you’ve had rain here?”

“Eleven days.”

I nodded.  “Would you like me to water the tree, Grandfather?”

Grandfather took up a crutch to use again as a pointer.  “There’s a spigot.  See?”

“Yes.”

“Your grandmother has a bucket in the utility room inside.  Otherwise, you’ll find a couple more in the garage.”

I had seen the one in the utility room.  I went in to get it.  Back outside, I carried it to the spigot, set it underneath, and turned the handle.  “How much water should I use?”

“Generally speaking, growing plants in this part of the country like about an inch of rain a week.”

I didn’t know how to translate such an amount of rainfall into buckets.  That would make a good story problem for arithmetic back in school, I figured.

“Think of filling a pool within the drip line of the tree one inch deep,” Grandfather said.

“Drip line?”

“Think of the crown of the tree as an open umbrella.  Rain hits the umbrella and rolls off.  Correct?  It rolls to the outside edge of the umbrella and drizzles away to the ground.  The drip line of a tree is what you could consider the circle under the outside edge of the umbrella of leaves.”

“Oh.”  I studied the ash tree and the lawn area underneath.  I looked at the bucket.

“That’s a five-gallon pail, if it helps,” Grandfather said.

It didn’t.  Not really.  My knowledge of mathematics hadn’t gotten as far as to inform me that the area of a circle drawn at the average distance from the tree trunk to the drip line would be p multiplied by the square of the radius, or one half of the circumference multiplied by the radius.  If I took my measurements in inches, then all I would need to do next is multiply the area by one — the one-inch depth — to get what I needed in cubic inches of water.

A gallon contains 231 cubic inches. I could have calculated the volume of that bucket by multiplying the top radius by the bottom radius and adding that to the square of the top radius and the square of the bottom radius, multiply all that by the height, multiply all that by p, and then divide all that by three.  That assumes that I would have measured the thing in inches.  But I didn’t know all that.

My grandfather did.  He was a forester.  Foresters have to know such math in order to do forest mensuration, surveying, and engineering.  He knew, but he wasn’t telling.

I just guessed.  “How about two buckets?”

“Close enough.”

I filled the bucket to the top and carried it to the tree.  I had to use both hands because, at my young age, it was heavy.  A gallon of water weighs about 8.33 pounds.  Five gallons weighs almost 42 pounds.  I suspect I lost a couple pounds along the way, slopping and spilling.  I dumped the bucket in the shade of the tree near the trunk.

I went back, filled the bucket again, hauled it again, and dumped it again.

Then I proceeded to take the bucket back into the house.

“Your grandmother has an old towel in the utility room there.  You may use it to wipe out the pail.”

It wasn’t that the pail was dirty.  All I had put into it was water, but that was one of the many maintenance practices that my grandfather performed, even though a pail may be made of rust-resistant galvanized steel.  “That’s fine,” he would say.  “And you can then make it rust proof if you wipe it dry after each use.”

I came back out to the patio and resumed my seat.

And there we sat.  Just sat.  Grandfather said nothing.  That left me hearing nothing other than the occasional car traveling the street and some mid-summer birdsong.  I didn’t know birds all that well.  Robins were common, and it is the state bird of Wisconsin, so I knew that one by sight and by sound.  I also knew the sounds of blue jays and cardinals and mourning doves and crows.  That was about it.

“What time is it, Grandfather?”

“About a quarter past seven.” He hadn’t looked at a thing prior to giving his answer, or so I thought.

“How do you know that?”

“The sun.”

“You can tell time by the sun?”

“The sun moves across the sky at a reliable pace.  As long as one can see it, or the shadows it casts, one can use it as a time piece.”

“Well, yeah, but you can’t get that close to telling the time, can you?”

Grandfather reached into his pocket.  He didn’t wear a wrist watch; he still used a nice-looking gold pocket watch, the kind that had the door that flips open and clicks shut.  He pressed the release and held it out for me to see without looking at it himself.

“7:13,” I read out loud.

Grandfather closed the door and put the watch back into his pocket.

And there we sat.  Grandfather continued not to say anything.  I looked at him now and again, and he looked as though he were sitting in church, listening.

I was used to sitting in church.  We did it every Sunday: Dad, Mom, Joanna, and I.  Because Dad was Lutheran, like his parents, we went to a Lutheran church on Sunday mornings.  Mom was Baptist, like her parents, but we went to the Lutheran church anyway on Sunday mornings.  We went to a Baptist church on Sunday evenings and on Wednesday evenings otherwise.  Except during Lent.  Then we would attend Lutheran services on Wednesdays.

Anyway, I sat in church fairly well.  Both Mom and Dad trained Joanna and me to be silent and reverent, even if we weren’t able all the time to be attentive.  They understood that.  They would translate some of the hymns and what the minister had said in his sermon for our benefit after church, but not understanding, or getting tired or bored, was no excuse for getting rowdy.  We learned how to sit still and be quiet.

I remember my mother telling Joanna and me about Samuel, a prophet, priest, and last of the judges of Israel who ministered at the time of Saul and Jonathan and David. He had been dedicated by his mother, Hannah, to the Lord’s service prior to his birth.  His mother had placed him in that service at the Tabernacle with Eli when he was still a child.  Mother told us the story of how Samuel, as a child, had himself started hearing the Word of the Lord.  The Lord spoke to him the first time at night, with everything quiet and still.  Mother wanted us to know how to be quiet and still so that we might know the Word of the Lord.

I worked hard at being quiet and still that morning with Grandfather, but there was nothing happening: no organ playing music, no man in a black robe reading the Bible or speaking about the Bible, no pretty stained-glass windows.  I liked stained-glass windows.  I liked the colors, the lighting, the pictures.  I even liked the workmanship.  They helped me sit still and be quiet in church.  But there was nothing there in that back yard.  Or so I thought.

“What time is it?” I asked again.

“Not quite 7:30.”

I didn’t challenge Grandfather’s estimate, even though it had seemed more like an hour had passed, not fifteen minutes or so.  Fifteen minutes made an entire recess at school.  We kids could do a great deal in fifteen minutes.  What was I doing then?

Grandfather spoke.  “Konrad, have you ever pretended to be a tree?”

I looked at him.

He looked at me.

No, the thought had never crossed my mind, so I wondered how to answer.

Grandfather asked, “Have you ever thought about what it would be like being a tree?”

I spoke what already was on my mind.  “Boring, I suppose.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well…”  I thought for a moment or two.  “Trees don’t do anything.  They just stand there.”

“Ah.  They stand there.  Rooted in the same place for decades.  In some cases, they stand in the same place for centuries.  In a few, they stand in the same place for millennia, for two or three or even four thousand years: the redwood, the sequoia, the bristlecone pine.  We have a bristlecone pine in this nation of ours that is four thousand six hundred years old.  Do you know how old that is?”

“Forty-six hundred years,” I answered.

Grandfather smiled.  “Ja.  Forty-six hundred years.  That means that tree was already mature when Abraham was born.  That tree lives in what we now say is California.  Imagine the tree living in what the Lord said through the prophet Zechariah is the Holy Land.  That tree would have been present to experience most of what has been described in the Bible.  It would be able yet to experience perhaps some or all of what the Bible says is yet to come.  As John Muir said, there is no fixed limit to the lifespan of a tree.  Parts may age: leaves, twigs, branches, roots.  Cells die, and new cells are made.  Trees live.  Unless something or someone kills them, trees live.  They live on, standing still, waiting in ultimate patience for the providence of their Creator, waiting for the sunlight and atmosphere and water and minerals they need to live and live on.”

“Have you pretended to be a tree?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  Many times.  Sometimes for an entire day.  Sometimes for an entire night.”

“No!”

“Yes,” Grandfather insisted.  “I have many times just stood — or sat, to be honest — in the woods as though I were a tree.”

I stared at him in wonder.

He quoted, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  He asked, “Have you heard the name Henry David Thoreau yet, Konrad?”

I thought for a moment.  “I don’t know.  Maybe.  I can’t remember.”  If I had heard the name, or seen it, it would have been at school.  What Grandfather had quoted sounded new and strange, though.  I hadn’t heard such words before.

“Have you heard the name Walt Whitman yet?”

“Maybe. There might be something he wrote in our reading book at school.”

“He spoke of what one can learn in the way of a lesson from a tree.  He spoke of it as being, in his opinion, the greatest moral lesson one could learn from Nature.  He summed it in one word: inherency.  That refers to something as it is in and of itself.  That which is essential and characteristic.  Innate.  Intrinsic.”

Grandfather asked, “Do you remember the Words God uses to tell us of Himself?  That is, do you remember the Words He uses to identify Himself for us?”

“I am that I am,” I said.

“Right.  As you know, the Bible has many names for God.  Most seem to act more like titles than as proper names. God Most High .  Everlasting God.  Almighty God.  The Lord Provides.  The Lord is Peace.  The Lord your Sanctifier.  The Lord my Shepherd.  The Lord our Righteousness.  Heavenly Father.  They act like saying ‘your majesty’ and ‘your highness’ to a king or queen.

“But there is that one designation, that one identifier that identifies the one God.  I am that I am.  In Hebrew or in any language, it is His name forever, a memorial for all generations.  It is unique, as God is unique.  It is simple, and yet it is ever so sublime.  It says, in essence, ‘I have no name as you understand and use names.  No one and no thing can name Me because I am the Creator of all.  I am the Lord of all.  I am absolutely independent, and am dependent on no one and no thing.  I am not created; I am self-existent and self-energizing and self-perpetuating.  I am the beginning and the ending, and yet I have neither beginning nor ending.  I am inherence at its quintessence: love, justice, righteousness, power, knowledge, wisdom, life.  I am Life.  I am meaning and I am significance.  I am the Answer to the question, “why?”  I am Why.  I am.’ ”

I hadn’t tracked the words of our family’s ministers, Lutheran and Baptist, all that well, but I was sure I hadn’t heard such words as these yet.  And I had just as much trouble tracking them.

Grandfather said, “Trees tell us, they give us an inkling of inherence. They teach us what is perennial, what is on-going and everlasting.  They remind us of what is real, and of what is true.  As Bernard of Clairvaux said, we can find something great in the woods.  Trees and stones can teach us what we can never learn from masters.”

I sat amazed.

“Konrad,” Grandfather said, “do you remember what Christ Jesus said during his entry into Jerusalem that last week of His mortal life?  Do you remember His reply to those who told Him to rebuke the disciples and keep them from shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed be the King that cometh in the Name of the Lord’?”

“He said, ‘If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out’.”

“Very good, Konrad.  You have good teachers in your school, and you are a good student.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Have you memorized Psalm 96?”

“No.”

“It is written, ‘Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof.  Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His Truth’.”

We continued sitting.

Grandfather asked, “Yes, trees stand still.  But Konrad, do they never move?”

“Well, I suppose they move to some extent in the wind.”

“Isaiah prophesied, ‘All the trees of the field shall clap their hands’,” said Grandfather.

“He was using some kind of figure of speech,” I said.  “He was speaking like a poet or somebody.”

“Aspens clap,” Grandfather said.

“They do not,” I protested.

“Yes.  I have heard them.  As you say, they applaud the performance of the wind as it dances between sky and earth.”

I looked at him for a while, thinking.  “Oh, you mean the leaves.  The sound the leaves make in the breeze.”

“Different leaves make different sounds.  Aspens and poplars and cottonwoods clap.  It’s because of the shape of their leaves and the shape of the stems that attach the leaves to the twigs of the trees.  The size and shape of the leaves makes a difference, you should know.  Some are big and some are small.  Some are thick and some are thin.  Some are simple and some are compound.  Of those that are compound, some are palmate and some are pinnate and some are bipinnate…”

“Whatever that means,” I said.

“I could go on describing the shapes; there are nearly a dozen kinds.  I could also describe venation, margins, tips, and bases.  The point is, the differences in shape make for differences in sound.  Some trees clap.  Some trees clatter.  Some crackle, and some cackle.  Some trees rustle.  Some flap, and some flutter.  Some sigh and swish and whisper.”

“And you can tell the differences just by listening?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Surely.”

Since my father could tell the differences in pieces of wood by touch and by smell, I had no reason to doubt that my grandfather could tell the differences in trees by listening to them.

“But trees move in other ways,” he announced.

“How so?”

“Some trees march, and some trees wade.”

“No!”

“Yes.  Aspens can march across a landscape.  You see — or you can see if you wait long enough — that they send roots outward.  From these roots arise new stems that become saplings, that then become trees.  These trees send out more roots, and they send up more trees.  It’s called coppice reproduction. Trees farther back may get sick and die, but the huge mass of roots lives on.  That entire colony of trees lives on and moves on, ever outward. Indeed, some say that a stand of aspens, because of the root mass, is actually one life form.  As such, such organisms can be considered the largest living things on the planet.

“And, yes, mangrove trees do wade.  They send prop-roots into creeks and bays and other backwaters.  They gradually creep into quiet open water to colonize it, making swamps and making islands called keys.

“But of course you know that trees move in other ways,” Grandfather continued.  “They grow.  Up and down.  The cottonwood, for example, can grow upward and outward in its reach for light as fast as five feet a year.  The bur oak can grow downward and outward in its reach for water so well that even native prairie grasses cannot thrive.  And the great sequoia: from a seed that weighs just an ounce or so can grow a titan of 300 feet and 12 million pounds.”

“You’ve seen all that?” I asked.

“Yes. Of course, that required getting off my seat in my woods and moving a little to do so.  It’s called taking a vacation once in a while.”

I nodded.

“And trees move in another way, too.  Would you like to learn a new word?”

“I’m always learning new words,” I replied.  “Mom… I mean, Mother and Father see to that.  And my teachers.”

“How about heliotropism?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“That means that a leaf moves in response to sunlight.  It means that a leaf moves so as to catch the sunlight better.  The leaves of some trees can and do move, even if slowly or slightly, so as to align their surfaces broadside against incoming sun rays.”

“Have you seen that, too?” I asked.

“Actually, yes.  It takes practice, though, and patience.”

“Wow!”

“Do you know, Konrad, why leaves like the sun?”

Now there was a question that a teacher could ask.  And the man asking the question probably knew a whole lot more about the subject than any of my teachers at the parochial school.  Maybe he knew more than any of the teachers in all the public schools of Port Edwards, and Nekoosa, and Wisconsin Rapids.  How was I going to answer the question without making a dunce of myself?

I decided to take it slow and be simple. “Photosynthesis.”

“Ah, you know that word.”

“Yes.”  How well I knew it was another question.

And it came: “What can you tell me about it?”

“That’s why leaves are green.  They have chlorophyll.  The stuff is colored green.  It’s the stuff that takes in sunlight and uses it to make plants grow.”

“How so?”

“Hmmm…”  Now I was getting in deep.  I thought for some time.  Grandfather waited.  I had come to realize he could be as patient as a snow-covered oak waiting for spring.  I said, “Maybe trees use sunlight like we use electricity.  It’s power.”

“Not bad, Konrad.  Not bad at all.  Yes, leaves use sunlight as the energy needed to convert carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil into sugars and starches and other organic, energy-rich chemicals.  More specifically, the energy of light is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.  Oxygen is given off as a by-product, a leftover.”  Grandfather then asked, “Do you know that, each year, one acre of trees can supply enough oxygen for eighteen people?”

“No.”

“Anyway, the hydrogen is split into protons and electrons, and those are added to the carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates.”

I nodded, not understanding much of anything he was saying.

“Do you know why chlorophyll is green?” he asked.

Now there was a question.  I had never thought about it.  “No.”

“Chlorophyll a and b absorb most of the red light and the blue-violet light coming from the white sun.  As it turns out, then, a lot of green is reflected, and that’s what we see as a pigment.”

“So, what about when trees turn colors in the fall?” I asked.  “What about when the ash turns purple?”

“Ah.  Well, in the autumn, trees stop the process of photosynthesis.  Deciduous broadleaf trees, that is.  Winter is coming.  It will be cold. The tree can’t work when water is ice.  So, it shuts down for the winter.  It goes into dormancy.  How does the tree know when winter is coming?  The sun.”

“You mean, trees can tell time the way you can?”

“In a way, perhaps.  As you know, in the autumn, days get shorter and nights get longer.  Trees can sense that.  They can also sense cooling temperatures.  They stop manufacturing chlorophyll because they intend to go dormant.  What chlorophyll is left dehydrates, breaks down, and fades away.  As it disappears, it reveals pigments in the leaves that have other colors, yellow and red and even blue.  Carotenes, xanthophylls, anthocyanins: how are those for words?  Additional pigments capture more light in different wavelengths and pass it on to the chlorophyll for use in spring and summer.  Eventually in autumn, those colors fade away, too, and all that’s left is the brown of dead plant cells.”

“What about the purple, though?”

“Oh.  The purple comes as result of mixing.  It’s as if Jack Frost is there mixing his paints to color the leaves in the autumn.  Different combinations and quantities of green, yellow, red, and blue can yield such colors as burgundy, orange, russet, bronze, and rust.”

“I’ve never seen a purple tree,” I said.  “I hope I can see this one when it turns.”

 

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