I took my coffee this morning under an enormous old-growth tree. When I entered the park, I saw all the people clustered in the usual spots by the shore line. Then I looked at the tree. It stood alone on top of the hill. Its solitary stance was reinforced by time, because it’s competition blocked other things from growing. Hence, there is an aloneness to any old tree like this that almost invites company. Consider how many poems through the ages have been penned beneath an old tree; how many picnics celebrating new love, how many burials. A tree is a strange and natural kind of companion. If you don’t think so, saddle up against an old tree, put your back against its breadth, and look out on the world. This one was truly old. When I surveyed it, I imagined that it would take two or three people linking hands together to circle its circumference.
An old-growth tree is different from a sapling. Go to any section of forest where young trees are growing. There is no order, because each young tree seeks to cancel out the other. I have been in parts of forest where it occurred to me that if a bear came, it would be hard to run because the trees were so densely packed. On the other hand, go to a truly ancient forest and see the difference. I have been in the Black Forest of Germany, where the old-growth canopy overhead was so dense it seemed like night. You could not see the sky up above. The spreading branches created a layered ecosystem that separated whatever life was going on up in the branches from what was happening down below.
Old-growth lumber is also a “thing”. You pay a premium on it because it came from trees that stood for centuries before anybody cut them down. Once harvested, it will take centuries for those kind of trees to grow back. The pine trees early settlers found here, had dense, tight growth rings and few knots. The wood was wonderful for whatever you might build from it, and very stable. It yielded much higher quality lumber than can be had from new-growth trees. Now, if you go to Ikea and see the glued up sections of pine that make up their furniture, you are looking at “deal pine”. Deal pine is crappy lumber from small trees. It is made up of spongy early wood and it is very unstable. The only way you can work with it, is to glue it together from many strips and use it in aggregate. Hence the wood grain is often mismatched and nothing to write home about. Ikea generally covers this up with a spray of coloured lacquer, to hide the sins of poor wood.
Old-growth lumber can be studied, looking at a cross section of the grain. You can count the age of the tree from the rings. The “early” wood is the soft part, that grows quickly in the spring. The “late” wood is the more dense and dark part of the ring, when not much is growing in the fall. You can tell the story of nature by looking at the rings. Some years were uninterrupted growth, in an environment of plenty. An interruption tells the story of a drought, or an infestation that hampered growth. A tree also has interesting scars. Wormy maple for example, is sweet, and bugs like to eat it. They burrow a channel through the tree, and the tree fills in the space again, with a scar that appears as a coloured streak on the surface once cut.
No matter what, wood grain is beautiful. When you become familiar with lumber… the types and uses of various kinds of trees, you cannot but help to be impressed. Trees fill a wonder gap in the history of mankind, whereby most things that could be made, were made from wood, and that preponderance of things were made by quite regular people for their own domestic needs. The wood was workable, hence its great utility. Though iron and plastics has replaced much of that, building anything with wood is a partnership that insists you understand and respect the nature of the species you are building with.
Wood has become uncommonly expensive during this pandemic so I am glad to have a stash in my garage enough to last me a while. There are memes bouncing around like a red MAGA-style hat, with the inscription “MAKE PLYWOOD AFFORDABLE AGAIN”. I suspect less things will be built from wood going forward, on account of price, and that is a pity. Wood suffuses a room with its natural feel. It is the kind of thing you cannot put your finger on exactly, but you will know when you are there.
At any rate, I was happy to find the old tree. It was good company as I surveyed the world, and prayed and thanked my Maker for the many wonderful things I am privileged to see and experience. The thing I like most about an old-growth tree, is that is contains a kind of invisible wisdom. Maybe that is why a great and ancient tree will draw thinkers, like a magnet. An aged tree is one of the few things you will find in the world where old equals better and few would argue. At any rate, that was us this morning operating by the buddy system. Just a pair of gnarly old-growth fellows, sitting together comparing scars and sharing a moment.