I was at the lumberyard a couple of weeks ago, and I was looking at all of the tree trunks piled up in a Brobdingnagian game up pick-up-sticks, stripped of branches and waiting for the saw’s attentions. I had a current of thought that carried me to and fro, and I thought I might share here. As I sat, I wondered just how much timber we would need to rebuild all of the vast constructions of mankind. How many trees are in my house? How many go into a barn, or a barracks, or a church? What vast forests we would need to fell to even make a dent!
And then I considered a need for trees that might not occur to a lot of people here in the Midwest. How many trees have gone into the ocean as ships? How many acres of forest sit at the bottom of the sea, enshrouded in the cold tomb of the deep? Perhaps I think about it more because of where I’ve been.
That ship I took a picture of a decade ago (that long?!?) was not a particularly large vessel. But it would have dwarfed anything that came along before steel. My ship was an old amphibious warfare ship. It was not large, especially after a month at sea! But it was more than twice as large as one of the largest wooden warships ever floated, the 104-gun first rate HMS Victory. And yet the Victory required the use of 6,000 trees. For one ship. And that was in the navy. There are far more vessels that are cargo ships than there are warships. And on top of that, there’s fishing boats and barges and…
It’s a lot of boats, okay?
So let’s say that we needed to build a big ship. Not only does this take up acres and acres of mature oaks, but a ship requires three masts. Anything less is a brig or a snow or such like (Today, ships are big enough to hold boats, but the origin refers to the rigging). In addition to the masts, you’ll also need a variety of spars and booms.
This is where Thoreau came in.
See, by this time (the 1840’s), New England had been the target of timber cruisers for a century and change. The mast of a large ship like the Victory was best constructed from a single white pine, more than two feet in diameter at the base and a couple hundred feet high. A strong mast such as this was not only necessary to the ship, but was seen as a vital strategic military resource. Any tree over 24 inches in diameter at the base belonged to the crown for just such reasons. The change in management that happened at the end of the eighteenth century didn’t change the need for masts, and the centuries-old white pines were fed into the maw of an insatiable shipping industry. The waterfronts of cities like New York or Philadelphia were thick with the cable-stayed carcasses of white pine, swaying over the chandlers and taverns. By the time Thoreau was talking about how pines would really rather not be boards, even the near-trackless wilderness of inner Maine had been stripped of its white pines. I refer you to the excellent book American Canopy for more on that.
But here is something a little humbling that I considered, there at the sawmill. All those thousands and thousands of trees that have been turned into planking, or the ribs of a great ship’s belly, or the spars that held those acres of sail, were worked by craftsmen. How many millions of man-hours and millions of years of accumulated rings of time have been shot to pieces in the name of a king, or lost to a storm, or were just finally wrested to firewood in the breaker’s yard? It’s a thing so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. What a depth of tradition undergirds our craft!