The Giving Tree

Across The Savannah

The Giving Tree

Growing up, two sounds greeted me upon awakening each morning. Close by, the snarl of chainsaws being tested at Dad’s shop rose and fell like some prehistoric cicada. More distant was the drone of Mr. Henry Partridge’s sawmill. Neither the saws nor the mill could exist without the other. They had one thing in common: an appetite for trees.

What brings this memory into focus is an innocent remark a friend made the other day. I was talking about my land back home and how it has beautiful oaks and hickories, but few pines. “Why doesn’t it have pines,” she asked, going on to say pines are the South’s dominant tree.

“Not so,” I said, explaining how the faster-growing Southern Yellow pine makes a better cash crop than the dense-grained, slow-growing hardwoods. Left alone, a forest is forever changing, and a cycle of plant succession ultimately results in hardwoods. We just don’t give the hardwoods a chance now. And so, pines rule much of the South in a sort of suspension of the natural cycle, by default you could say.

“Pines, the Green Monoculture,” he said. His words dripped with contempt. Americus native John Culler, founder of South Carolina Wildlife magazine and a sportsman, disliked pine forests because they offer deer and turkeys little nourishment compared to hardwoods’ acorns, nuts, and fruits. Others liken a huge forest of pines to a green desert. And when it comes to fall color, pines are a no show though they shower us with gold dust in the spring. Yeah, what joy pine pollen is.

You see more pines than oaks for sure, except in pockets where hardwoods’ canopies deny pine seedlings the light they need to grow. What, then, helped pines ascend to their faux dominance?

Let’s turn back the clock to 1830 in Germany. An orthopedic surgeon, Bernard Heine, needed a better way to cut bone. He developed a guide around which a chain could move, cranked by hand. Just like that, bone cutting became far easier. Time moved along and a German mechanical engineer, Andreas Stihl, patented the first hand-held gas-powered chainsaw in 1929. Just like that, cutting trees got a whole lot easier. Folks in the know say Stihl is the father of the modern chainsaw.

The chainsaw gave hand-held crosscut saws and the axe the axe, so to speak. Funny thing, too, about the chainsaw and those woodsmen of long ago. It elevated the lumberjack, a disdained laborer at one time, from the bottom of the social ladder to that of respected specialist. Logging is now among our biggest and most important industries.

Are you a tree hugger? Hate to see trees cut? You can divide people over issues involving forestry, wetlands, global warming, and the destruction of habitat, but that aside where would we be without trees? As I write this, I’m sitting at an oak desk in a house sided with cypress. From wooden cabinets and desks to books, magazines, and papers, the remnants of trees surround me. I’m sitting in a glade surrounded by trees that made the ultimate sacrifice. I owe them much. We all do. We can repay our debt, however.

Plant a tree. Even better, help a child plant a tree. Create a legacy, a living lesson that teaches much about nature, the seasons, and man’s relationship with forests, a major chapter in the human saga. Trees and woods have played major roles in literature. Look no further than William Faulkner’s short story, “The Bear” for a classic story. Among its themes, Faulkner’s masterpiece explores the gradual loss of wilderness to frontier settlement—the loss of millions of trees.

There’s a beautiful children’s book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, a short tale with a moral about the loss of one tree. A boy and an apple tree become fast friends. The tree always gives the boy what he wants: a branch to swing from, a shady place to sit, apples to snack on, and branches to build things with.

As the boy grows older, he wants more and more from the tree. The tree loves the boy so it gives him anything he wants. Lying in the tree’s shade with a girl, the boy carves her initials in a heart in its trunk. Then one fateful day, the boy decides he needs a boat. In the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the tree lets the boy cut it down so he can build his boat. Nothing remains but a stump, and then the years roll by.

One day, the boy, an old man now, returns, and the stump says, “I have nothing left to give you.” The old man says he just needs a quiet place to sit and rest. The stump obliges.

Giving everything and getting nothing in return. That’s the life of a tree.

Many giving trees have sustained us our entire lives in many, many ways and they will continue to do so. Meanwhile, we go about our busy lives giving trees no thought. Gripping the ground with their roots, their crowns swaying with the wind, trees go about their business quietly converting sunlight, minerals, carbon dioxide, and water into new generations of trees destined to give their all in the ongoing cycle of death and renewal, satisfying the appetite of other saws and mills.

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns.

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