Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
“Trees” by Albert Joyce Kilmer 1886–1918
When I was a child, my parents would take me on walks in the woods and teach me the names of trees, and in the fall we would collect nuts from the shagbark hickory and black walnut trees.
I climbed trees and made hideouts in trees. My favorite was a tall, smooth-skinned beech tree with horizontal branches that was perfect for scouting out the woods around me. In the fall, I collected lovely maple leaves, pressed them between sheets of waxed paper and hung them in the window for the sun to shine through. After receiving a painting set as a gift, I painted bare-branched trees, trying to capture the particular natural shape that each species is born with. I saw trees as useful for nests and nuts and twigs for starting camp fires. But it wasn’t until I heated solely with firewood that I saw trees for the other ways they are useful.
Heating solely with firewood can require an education in wood and its uses. If you live east of the Mississippi, you may prefer oak for your woodstove, folks who live in the dry west rely more on tamarack and pine. Of course, there are many choices of hard and soft woods in between.
But it’s not just the kind of trees that you need to have knowledge of when you burn wood, but also where in the forest the trees come from. Was the tree already dead? Are there quite a few dead trees, so if you take one will there be others for birds to nest and find dinner in? Is the tree close to other trees so when it falls it might get hung up causing all kinds of trouble to get it down? Is the tree close to a road or trail so you can get the wood out of the forest and onto a truck or sled? Does the tree have many branches, growing close together, thus guaranteeing much knotty wood to split?
Once I lived on a mountainous 80 acres and heated solely with firewood, I saw trees in a new way. While building a cabin, I realized that the skinny lodge pole pines on the other side of the pasture would make great beams to hold the walls together. A forked maple became a wonderfully artistic hat rack; and some dead cedars were used as fence posts.
I continue to enjoy the forest for the beauty of the trees and the food and housing they provide, but I also see them as a valuable and useful resource. Do you have a favorite useful tree species? Post a comment below and tell us about it.
Photo by Fotolia/Steve Estvanik