A Reverence For Wood

Submitted by WS

“That century of magnificent awareness preceding the Civil War was the age of wood. Wood was not accepted simply as the material for building a new nation—it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, “a substance with a soul.” It spanned rivers for man; it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.” – A Reverence For Wood

An interesting theory was posited by David Fleming that I liked. It was simple for me to understand, and I don’t care to disprove it in any way. He basically said that the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain because they ran out of trees in the 18th century. To put it simply, metal working techniques that required the use of charcoal were very energy and substance intensive. Charcoal burns hotter than wood, and as you might not know, charcoal is derived from wood in a process called pyrolysis—it’s when you heat something in the absence of oxygen. Charcoal used to be essential in metal working, and the more metal working that was done in Britain, the more charcoal that was needed. At some point though, trees became a scarcer commodity so other fuel sources had to be found. This lead to the discovery of coal and other combustible fossil fuels to aid in industrial processes. These fossil fuels being seemingly endless and easily mined turbocharged industrialization. The Industrial Revolution was born out of the scarcity of trees.

Trees and its various gifts were close to Europeans of old. They knew the value of a tree and could make use of it in many ways. To see virgin forests was something remarkable to the early explorers of the New World. Giovanni da Verrazzano—the first Euorpean to explore the Atlantic coast of North America between Florida and New Brunswick in 1524, took note of the trees, “The trees were of firres, cipresses and such like are wont to grow in cold Countrey’s.” In 1534 Breton explorer Cartier noted that the New World was a “pleasant countrey full of all sorts of goodly trees, Ceders, Firres, Ashes, Boxe and Willowes.” And finally, even Captain John Smith’s impression of the New World was concerned with wood more than anything else. “The treasures of this land have never been opened, nor her originalls wasted, consumed or abused … overgrown with all sorts of excellent woodes for the building of houses, boats, barks or shippes.” Strikingly, early American maps differed in a crucial way to European maps of the time—they had trees drawn upon them. Eric Sloane—author of A Reverence For Wood—makes the hilarious point that the New World was not seen as one of freedom, rather it was seen as a “gigantic warehouse of wood.”

Moving to the pioneer days of American history, we can see a reverence for trees in our early flags. To name a few flags who thematically featured a tree as a sign of independence were the: Bunker Hill Flag, Continental Flag, Washington’s Cruiser’s Flag (flown by Washington and his 6 schooners to aid in his attempt to drive the British from New England), Liberty Tree Flag, Vermont Flag, and finally the Massachusetts (navy) Flag. When the Massachusetts Bay colony had to think of a symbol for their first coinage, they chose trees. The Pine Tree shilling along with a Willow Tree and an Oak Tree seemed like the obvious choice for the designer of the coins. Joseph Jenks remarked, “ What better thing than a tree, to portray the wealth of our country?”

Indeed the tree should have been a mark of independence. The trees of North America provided nearly everything the colonists needed. British merchants were hard pressed on finding goods to sell to the early Americans. Though silk, glass, nail-rods, teas, and spices found a market in North America, there was little room for anything else for a nation rich in lumber. The amount of goods and tools made by the early Americans out of wood is staggering. To name a few: hay fork, a brace (like a brace and bit), hammer, pestle and mortar, sled, tree nails, dough knife, hickory twig broom, sap pail, shovel, boats, wash stick, bench, table, chairs, neck yolk, spikes, rake, mixer, noggin, meat pounder, sap funnel, tankard, plate eel trap, baskets, piggin, oven peel, spoons, stirrers, drums, forks, churns, cups and the list goes on and on. Not to mention the wooden saw mills that primarily used wooden parts save for a few blades and cranks to process logs into usable lumber.

The mill wheels were another primarily wooden endeavor that produced a lot of interesting goods. Ground chestnut-oak made a dark yellowish tan that women used to dye woolens. Birch bark made an oil perfume as well as a yellow dye. Tulip tree bark made a rich golden dye. Norway maple made a rosy tan. The ink used at schools also came from the mill using pitch-pine lampblack and butternut juice. Furniture stain could be produced from red oak bark. Medicinal things were also produced besides dyes and stains at the mills. Slippery elm for a sore throat, black elder for skin infections, bayberry for dysentery, and ground aspen bark for quinine (used for leg cramps and malaria). And finally, when spring came these mills would satisfy the demands of people that asked for sassafras teas, spice teas, birch beer, root beer, maple beer and spruce beer.

One particular tree should be noted for its medicinal quality. A fad developed for it, and as far as the efficacy of it, I dare not say, but the sassafras tree became exceptionally popular in America as well as England as a cure all for many diseases. The craze became popular after Doctor Nicolas Monardes wrote in 1569, “It healeth opilations, it comforteth the liver and stomach and doth disopilate; to give appetite to eat; in the headache, in griefes of the stomach; it causeth to cast out gravel and stones; it removeth the impediments that cause barrenness and maketh woman to conceive; in the toothache; in the evil of the poxe and eville of the joints.” In fact, due to sassafras demand in England, British merchants would load their ships with the goods mentioned earlier (silk, glass, nail-rods, teas and spices) as well as bricks just to get enough weight on their ships for the journey to America. The colonists were already proficient in brick making, so these bricks that were brought by British merchants were sold at a loss. The back haul was where the money was made. And the British merchants would back haul chestnut oak, hickory, and of course sassafras. The sassafras would become the first cash crop in America. “In 1622 the Jamestown Colony was committed to the Crown to produce 30 tons of sassafras, with a penalty of ten pounds of tobacco on each man who did not produce one hundred pounds of it.” Indeed the sassafras craze reached its peak when rumors that it retarded old age began circulating at home and abroad.

If one tree could be given thanks to beyond all others for the pioneers of old, that honor would go to the apple tree. Orchards were painstakingly planned because apples were likely to be on the dinner table in some form all year round. Apples weren’t just for eating of course. Teas, ciders, and beers were served at every meal. So often in fact that water was often forgone and children would be raised on apple derived drinks.

It was the mark of an amateur to have an apple orchard come into full bloom bearing fruit all at the same time. Techniques were, for reasons I can not fathom, discovered for causing an apple tree to bear early. These techniques can roughly be described as beating the trunk of a tree or even shooting buckshot at a tree to help it produce earlier or in an off year. The reverse could also be true, techniques were discovered that would retard ripening. If done correctly, apples could be harvested after the first snow had arrived.

Harvesting apples was a delicate task. Heavy gloves were worn. It was believed that your hands should not touch the apple. The stems were snapped off in an upward motion, for pulling the stem out of the apple would cause rotting to start at once. The apples were handed from a picker to a packer. The packer would pack the apples on a sled full of hay (because apparently a wagon jiggled too much). Then a black cloth was laid over the apples and then the sled was dragged over yet more hay to the packing cellar. If the apples were stored in a barrel, two men would lift the barrel to move it. If a man was caught rolling a barrel, he would lose his job. An old almanac said, “Watch a man gather apples, and you will see either a careful man or a careless man.”

Storing apples was an art unto itself. The apples may be packed in a box of dry sand with a cornstalk bottom. Or each apple may be wrapped in paper and stored in a box of grain. Others dug a hole in the Earth and put a coarse charcoal base at the bottom of the hole, then lay their apples, then put cornstalks on top of the apples, then put dirt on top, and then finally, another cornstalk layer. The most simple storing technique was storing apples in a cellar by hanging them by their stem. It was claimed that storing an apples in the right conditions at the right temperature could preserve it for two years. And all for what? To make apple duff, apple brandy, apple butter, apple cake, applesauce, apple leather, apple slump, candy apple, and many more apples dishes.

Of course with all this love of wood and its various uses of it, it’s safe to say there was almost a full assault on the forests. The English even went so far as to criticize Americans saying that we, “hate trees and cannot wait to cut them down.” In the 1850’s hardwoods were used to power American railroads. In 1865 wood for fuel may have hit its peak. Steamboats and locomotives were still using wood for power. The Worcester Railroad used 8,000 cords (a cord being 128 cubic feet of wood). The Western Railroad used 18,000 cords. And all the railroads of Massachusetts used 53,710 cords. Saw mills were so busy that navigation on rivers was impeded by sawdust and wood chips. Sometimes the river blockage burned and river fires would go for weeks. The wastefulness would cause log river jams. And in one case of an average sized mill in Orono, Maine, they were required by a fire-prevention law to burn 36,000 cords of scrap wood every year.

The use of wood was absolutely staggering, and truly in some respects beyond wasteful. Because fencing material was primarily made of wood, and wire fencing was not yet established as a good alternative, many farm lots were abandoned in the South simply due to a lack of trees and stones to repair fences. Wooden fences were crucial to farmers who had no other means of keeping in animals. Post Civil War, the U.S. Army made inventory of the nation’s staggering 7 million miles of wooden fences. They calculated over 2 billions dollars worth of wood fencing. And the cost of repairing these fences came in at about 100 million dollars per year.

To wrap up this fire hydrant of wood information, I want it clearly understood, this country was built from trees. I had to stop and reflect often what the Indians might have thought of everything the white man did with wood. It must have been baffling and awe inspiring what was done. It must have seemed unusually wasteful. And in some cases it must have seemed downright magical. We surely learned many things from the Indians, but what Europeans brought to the continent as far as technical prowess and mastery of wood was absolutely unprecedented. It’s a shame to hear of the wasteful acts, but within this history is a blueprint for living with nature.

To speed up to today, it must be noted: we as Americans owe a lot to our trees. They are a precious commodity. And to round it all back again, the Industrial Revolution began when England ran out of trees. Alternative fuel sources saved the trees of the time from being decimated. Today nearly 20% of the UK’s renewable energy supply is biomass—or more commonly called “trees.” The U.S. (as of 2012-2014) supplied the UK with 74% of its biomass needs (98% of our “biomass” is sent to Europe). There’s something eery about it. It seems foreboding. England is hungry for trees again. If the Industrial Revolution began when England moved away from trees as an energy source, it seems like another era has begun when England is using trees for energy again—American trees, our trees.

One Comment Add yours

  1. The ships of the US Navy in the 1812 war were made of black locust, native only to the US.
    Stronger than oak and far more rot resistant.
    As I recall, we won that one.

    Liked by 1 person

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