Look at many ancient standards for battle, family crests, or flags decorated with symbols of heraldry. You will find among the visual icons, something unusual, the oak tree. It is there to signal quality, strength and utility. Families with deep roots whose stature will be shaken over the throes of time. Many things will come and go but the oak stays.
There is something about oak trees you cannot kill. They are the everyman of forestry. Just like the story of the three bears, oak trees land in that sweet spot right in the middle, the just-right crossover portion of all Venn diagrams.
Oaks are useful. They have intersected with human purposes since the earliest of times. They are ubiquitous to the world, found on every corner of the earth, even in the coldest of climates. And they persist, based on the fact that they are useful.
Think of the many family names which come from this. Barker, Cooper, Tanner, Wheeler, Those names spring from just some of the applications for oak wood. Its properties of tensile strength versus weight, and workability have made the wheels of civilization turn, literally. From ships to barrels, to wagon wheels, to the tannins extracted for leather craft, the oak has been at the heart of human development from day one.
I live in Oakville. It is a nice association to live in a place that is called after a tree. I like oak. I like to see its soaring branches reaching out broadly and unapologetically. They are the ones that most end up getting cut down by Hydro people. I like to see the colour of its leaves in fall when you trod upon them alongside the mysterious presence of acorns, the ones from which mighty oaks of the future will spring.
I like its wood. There are two kinds of oak - white oak, and red oak. The wood has vastly different properties. Red oak is softer and more workable, but if you go the extra mile required for white oak, you will be rewarded. White oak is the stalwart from which ships and cathedrals have sprung. It combines the best properties of light weight versus tensile strength, especially when riven. That is the old fashioned method of yielding lumber from a tree, by splitting it with a mallet and a froe. Splitting wood along its long fibres gives you the strongest possible arrangement. This used to be the go-to method for getting lumber from a tree, but given the work required we most often now find lumber is simply cut by a saw. Cross cutting the fibres is easier than splitting when it comes to work, but the wood is inferior and has an awkward look, of cutting across the grain. Split lumber has a uniformity and tightness of grain direction that can sit anywhere when you make a piece of furniture.
White oak has a unique property that only a few species share. Instead of its fibres being as long drinking straws, they form tiny balloons, enclosed and encapsulated within the wood. For this reason, Oak will not wick water when it gets wet because the fibres are not continuous. More than that, the cell structure acts like a million tiny balloons so that oak sheds water, and floats. It is a go-to wood for ship building.
The very cool thing about trees, is the many shapes found within one tree. Specific cuts are harvested after the saying that function follows form. When building gunwales for a ship for example, you need a natural Y-shaped configuration that has already grown into the form it will take holding the ribbing of a boat together. Following the natural curves of the grain means that the strength of the wood will be to its best advantage. It does not have to be cut into shape.
Ship building is an interesting thing. Vikings made small ships that were strong enough to buck the worst of waves in an Atlantic crossing, shed ice, and flexible enough to follow the swells of a storm without breaking apart. It is the old proverb that tells us, that which does not bend, will break. Oaks bend. It is just one of the many reasons why they survive. Surviving is what oaks are best at.
If you were going to build a ship, an oak would be a good and trusted choice. Same if you were to build a home, or a wagon, or pretty much anything. Oak is workable, it is neither too hard nor too soft. Since ancient times, mankind has been able to harvest it and manipulate it using even stone or iron tools. There are harder and stronger woods, but oak has survived by sitting in the sweet middle, both hard and soft enough to satisfy a multitude of needs.
Some engineering feats also owe themselves to the wonderful properties of oak. Westminster Cathedral’s roof in London, displays some of the most cunning timber craft in the world, its soaring heights owing to the strength and reliability of good solid oak.
In life, there are many things that stand behind the scenes unnoticed and unremarkable. The oak tree is one of these, both beautiful and useful. I am happy to see a tree get its due. The oak deserves it. It has earned its place, a stalwart of civilization.