Joyce Kilmer personified and immortalized trees with his famous poem. We love trees for their beauty and their useful place in our lives.
I was with a person not long ago who while admiring a tree acknowledged that she did not know one kind from another. I was silently flabbergasted. Didn’t know whether to call the one she was looking at an oak or a poplar or a hackberry? How could that be?
Through no fault of her own, she had had no need to identify trees, and she was getting along just fine it seemed. Come to think of it, Kilmer didn’t call any names himself.
We had to know trees: which were best to cut for fenceposts because they would not rot when buried deep in the dirt of a posthole; those that were tough and long lasting for building drags and wagon frames; varieties with the potential of growing unblemished handsome trunks for turning into lumber for fine furniture. We cut young sassafras for sticking the pole beans because they were not as valuable when mature trees as other growing saplings would be.
Firewood was selected carefully. Some varieties burned too rapidly, keeping us busy adding logs to the fire. We didn’t want wood whose nature was to pop and send sparks flying into the room from the open fireplace. Preferred was wood that was solid, slow burning, and turned into a log of glowing coals that put out lots of heat.
My mother would hunt for the hickory among the lengths of stove wood and lay them aside to burn in the firebox of the Home Comfort range when she was baking a cake and needed a steady temperature. We knew the maple trees that yielded the most bountiful flow for making maple syrup and the various trees that furnished nuts for us and for the animals. We knew the kind of wood best for whittling, and for making a whistle; the kind best for splitting into kindling that would catch fire quickly and ignite the bigger pile of wood.
The self-sufficient landowner sought out trees to saw and split for roofing boards and others to cut for tobacco sticks. Bug-repellent cedar was ideal for making blanket chests, lining closet walls, and for carving butter paddles. Before my day, cedar was more frequently turned into staves that made buckets and barrels.
Trees were individual elements of our livelihood, not just beautiful growing things that blended into the landscape.