Like every other furniture maker, I have a fondness for wood. It’s an amazing living substance, without which we’d be a lot colder, wetter; poorer physically and spiritually. I try to plant at least as many trees as I figure I’ve used over the years. Each fall my family puts up with – helps, actually – my scrounging through parking lots and gutters for acorns to be sorted and planted.
The land on which our home sits served as pasture land for years. Before that, I suspect it was part of an orchard, because there are three very old pear trees and one very old sweet cherry down in front. For years, they were the lonely representatives of their family, though. They had no friends, no supporting cast. Complicating matters, none of these trees are long for this world. The cherry lost two large limbs the week before Christmas during Salem’s Arctic Blast Winter Storm Of The Century. Willamette Valley residents will recall that we were hammered with two inches of snow and one inch of ice that stopped the earth’s rotation and canceled school for an entire week. Also knocked out the electricity for four days, but I digress. Residents of the Midwest, where heartier stock is bred and raised, may well question the fortitude of the Left Coast. To this, Native Oregonians reply: “Fortitude? We don’t need no stinking fortitude. We got Starbucks AND Dutch Brothers!”
Our tree replacement program started the first year of our residence. Back about five years or so ago, Marion County’s Soil and Water Preservation District sponsored a native plant sale. Co-located with that sale was a fellow who sold native trees that he purchased from a local nursery. The tree sale was a fund raiser for McMinnville’s Little League, I think. The trees were dirt cheap: $3-$5 each, if memory serves. Thin as your thumb, just little whips, but they held the promise of future shade. We looked forward to shade. We had none, and shade in Salem in summer is a precious commodity. The whips started out in pots, and then moved to the back row of the garden that became the tree nursery. Each year for the last three, we told ourselves, “We need to get those trees moved and find a permanent place for them. Then last fall, we actually did something about it.
With the assistance of the back hoe and the loader on the Kubota, fifteen of these now-ten foot tall trees gave up their comfy spots in the garden and moved to new homes. This last weekend the final six made the journey. Now the garden’s only shade comes from the raspberry canes, but there are 21 trees out in the yard. The newcomers have a ways to go before they can be expected to change the sunshine-shade ratio in the yard, but each year we can expect a few additional leaves. Since these guys are all native to the Oregon climate, they will only need watering the first year. After that they’re on their own.
Two new baby trees didn’t get planted, and won’t until next year. These are the two that spring from trees that really are the focus of this post. For a woodworker who appreciates the plants that provide one’s raw materials, Majesty isn’t a word to be tossed around lightly. After all, there are some grand old oak trees living along my cousin’s driveway in East Troy, not to mention the big old hickorys in the pasture at my grandfather’s farm. There are some mighty impressive Douglas fir trees living in stands of old growth forest spread here and there throughout Oregon and Washington. But when you think trees, and you think majestic, nothing compares to the Coastal redwoods in northern California.
The scale of these things is in a class of its own. They’re huge. They’re tall as you can imagine. Think of a football field with the end zones and a bit more, standing on end. Their circumference is mind-boggling. The amount of wood contained in just one tree provided the raw materials to construct and side a church that comfortably seats 362 parishioners. When some of the average sized trees were felled – by men with axes, since chain saws didn’t exist – entire squads of mounted cavalry were photographed, seated on their horses, on top of a section of log. You can’t exaggerate their size, their mass – their presence.
We went to pay a visit to these stately, quiet giants during spring break. During one of our hikes we came across a tree that had fallen some years ago. You can’t see from one end to the other. The root ball that pulled from the earth excavated a pit a dozen feet deep as it let loose, and what’s left of the root structure is easily twenty feet from top to bottom. As you walk the length of this tree, the image of a dinosaur laying on the ground comes to mind. At one time, I questioned why all of this wood should be permitted to waste away on the forest floor, instead of providing useful lumber. After visiting these groves, it began to make sense. The fallen logs provide a place for new trees to take root; they provide shelter and nutrients for new seedlings. They’re all part of the cycle.
The visit didn’t convert me into a tree-hugger. I’m still a tree user. But I’m sold on the idea that these areas, and others like them around the country need to be preserved for future generations to appreciate. We’re awfully lucky in the United States; we have millions and millions of acres of forest that can be logged and replanted. And while I don’t do much in the way of making my own lumber, each spring when the acorns go in the ground and the saplings get their annual fertilizer, I feel like I’m putting back a little of what I use. It’s a small thing to do.
So on the way back from this trip, we stopped at one of the last visitor’s centers, and I purchsed two baby Sierra redwood saplings, no more than 1 foot tall. These trees are also known as Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum). After a year or so of nursery care they will find their way into the yard. I purchased these rather than the Coastal redwood because the climate here is somewhat more suitable. The Coastal redwoods absorb a great deal of their moisture through their leaves, and consequently depend on the foggy climate found in coastal northern California. The Sierra redwoods are somewhat more hardy, although they tend to prefer areas with colder winters than Salem generally provides. Still, they are worthy additions to the landscape, and with luck and the passage of time, might one day stand as a reminder of the Spring Break trip of 2009.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.