While he was touring England, a friend of mine visited a famous university with a dining hall that was built in the late Middle Ages. Peeking into the building, he observed workmen hoisting an enormous wooden beam toward the high, vaulted ceiling.
He asked if the roof was being repaired, but was told that it was not. The workmen were simply replacing the old oak support beams as a matter of preventive maintenance, in case undetected wood worms had attacked them and dangerously weakened the structure. “We replace them every 400 years or so, just to play safe,” a workman said.
The workman went on to explain that while the cost in today’s currency of the huge replacement beams could make such work prohibitively expensive, that was not a problem for the university because it had “its own woods” — a small oak forest that it maintained for the provision of high-quality timber for structural repair and the replacement of paneling, bookcases and so on.
Each oak in the forest was planted and shaped by pruning to meet a specific need, and measurements of the trees’ growth were recorded and passed down from generation to generation. Today’s replacement beams were planted about 500 years ago, and their replacements, to be installed about A.D. 2,400, were planted a century ago.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of sustainable forest management and building maintenance: careful, multi-generational planning; an ongoing commitment to use renewable resources; respect for the institution’s history — it’s all there.
But it’s also true that such exemplary management is practiced in a very limited setting, where the resources are carefully controlled, the intent is applauded and the financial incentives are built-in. What lessons can ordinary builders and homeowners take from this cultivation of ancient oaks?
The university groundskeepers who planted the dining hall’s replacement beams five centuries ago knew that wood had been used in construction from time immemorial, and believed that it always would be. Their investment in the future felt secure because they had faith that succeeding generations would continue their practice of developing this renewable resource.
As it turned out, they were investing in a self-fulfilling prophecy. As each succeeding generation saw the benefits of sustainable forestry when the university’s trees were harvested and put to use, it also saw the need to plant new trees.
The fact that the world’s future supply of affordable, high-quality wood is seriously threatened can cause us to feel hopeless and give up on the future. Alternatively, we can follow the example of the university’s forest managers and invest in our own future and that of generations to come: we can support and promote sustainable forestry practices and, where appropriate, grow our own trees.
Fortunately, it’s relatively simple to support sustainable forestry practices. The Forest Stewardship Council sets standards for and licenses and monitors participating forest industries worldwide. FSC works with small and large companies, and its standards ensure high conservation values and promote biodiversity, integrated pest and disease management and socially beneficial forestry.
FSC-certified products are available in most parts of the U.S., and although they cost a little more than ordinary forest products, there is no “greener” way to spend your project dollars.
If you think you’ll own your property for a few decades, planting hardwood trees could be one of the best investments you can make for you and your heirs.
Today, one large slab (slice) from a mature walnut tree can sell for $500 to $1,000. The trunk alone can yield a dozen such slabs, and the rest of the tree can be sold for paneling, veneer and furniture making.
As your tree grows, it will act as a carbon sink, provide shade, shelter and walnuts, and make a home for birds. (The walnut is just one of many valuable hardwood trees. Check with your local Extension Service to determine the right trees for your property.)
There is no guarantee that growing trees and promoting sustainable forestry will ensure that future generations have adequate supplies of wood — that’s up to them. But at least you can feel good about showing a little faith in the future at your ecological house.
Philip S. (Skip) Wenz is a freelance writer specializing in ecological design issues.