“What is a tree?” my elementary-school teacher asked so many years ago. I don’t recall my own answer, but I do remember one of my classmates, Billy, describing them as “big plants with a stick up the middle.” I knew then that Billy would go on to college or do something great. Another student, asked to give the color of an apple, answered, “White.” Why not green, red or yellow? “Just look inside,” he said. I knew he would write books.
Too much good education has done away not only with such imaginative answers but also with the underlying childlike, mystical link to nature. These days, we frequently think of trees not as the magical, miracle-working, living entities that do so much for us but rather as metaphors for life and growth, as overused corporate icons—or as things that need to be cut down so we can have a better view.
The early Indians who lived on the periphery of the vast forests here so feared the deep woods that they cast out and shunned those who’d broken their sacred vows, branding them as “bark eaters” and “unknowables.” Yet these first Americans tapped the forests’ bounty for their wood-and-leather civilization, even burying special trees wrapped in animal skins and soaked in bark juices in the earth until they turned a deep green, then carving them for use in special ceremonies.
The earliest Europeans in these mountains, on the other hand, saw trees and forests as a refuge and a resource. Coming mainly from an England that had long ago cut down its Sherwood Forests and hanged those who dared to harvest a “royal” tree, these settlers deemed themselves fortunate to have even one kind of a tree available for use, much less scores of species suitable for every need and decorative fancy. It opened up a world of craftsmanship and knowledge that’s now all but lost.
From cradle to grave, settlers found uses for the trees that surrounded them. Pines, the most common, outfitted whole wagons, carts and homes—from boards to shingles, staves, clapboard and utensils. Early mountaineers often went to meet their Maker in a simple pine box. From oak trees, they made dowels that served in place of nails, yokes for oxen and horses, and wheels for spinning flax and cotton. Ash, a softer wood, was preferred for pitchforks, handles, rollers and pulleys. Mountaineers used elm for chairs since, over time, it conformed to a person’s buttocks. Hardwoods like oak and hickory fronted pulpits and benches in many early churches. Women favored crack-resistant maple for dough bowls.
The old gristmills that dotted nearly every mountain stream featured wheels, cogs and workings made of hornbeam, oak or hickory that outperformed iron gears. For rollers and pulleys, mountaineers carved or spliced together hickory or ash, remarkably self-lubricating when friction was applied. Similarly, early Western North Carolinians made gunstocks out of weather-resistant maple and walnut. Fiddles and guitars sprang miraculously from maple and cherry.
But hickory—one of the hardest and densest of woods—also served more sinister purposes, as this old mountain saying reminds us:
“Beat your dog with a limb
From a hickory tree,
Then thrash your wife
And they’ll let you be.”
Madison County native Alton Cartrett of Little Creek handcrafts creations in wood in the same valley he knew as a young man. But like others here in the mountains, he points to the scarcity or outright disappearance of many once-abundant tree varieties. Wormy chestnut has become increasingly difficult to obtain, as have locust and some varieties of white oak. Native chestnuts all but disappeared in the 1930s and ‘40s, and while they’re occasionally found today, they’re short-lived. Hemlocks now require almost heroic effort to fight off the deadly woolly adelgid, which made its appearance here a decade ago, probably brought in on infested landscaping plants. Spruce pines, which once thrived in moist, woodland habitats, are now increasingly farmed. Many of these species are going the way of passenger pigeons, wolves, elk, beaver and even bison.
Yet so much of what trees do occurs underground, unseen and unappreciated by humans. Extraordinary collaborations take place between roots and nitrogen-fixing bacteria or fungi, creating threadlike hyphae that attach to other shrubs and flowers. Often extending over several acres and weighing several tons, these subterranean networks develop internal plumbing systems that supply food and nurture to us all. Sharing their nutrients, these networks help other individual plants and trees that are under strain survive. They also recycle raw constituents invaluable to life itself, and combining with oxygen and other gases, they produce leafy canopies that shade and cool us. Lastly, for all our cleverness, humans have yet to devise any technology that so efficiently and aesthetically converts greenhouse gases into living, natural statuary.
In so many ways, the whole tree of life depends on these magical, living sculptures. Today, as we clear-cut whole slopes and fell the few remaining trees in urban areas, imagine them as something more than “big plants with a stick up the middle.” They are, in fact, an invaluable resource, each one a microclimate unto itself, and we should think twice before cutting them all down.
Does all this make me a tree-hugger? Not really. But surely there must be some middle ground between clear-cutting and hugging where trees can once again be considered an intimate, natural part of our culture.
Why not take a walk in the greenwood in the coming days? Maybe even touch a tree, take a few deep breaths—and reawaken that childlike imagination.
[Milton Ready, a UNCA professor emeritus of history, lives in Mars Hill. He is the author of The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 2005).]