Water Closet for February 10, 2017

[pullquote]”Early on before agriculture and sophisticated tools acorns provided a staple food for peoples in the temperate latitudes of the planet.”[/pullquote] Over much of the Ipswich River Watershed and far beyond, the sky is connected to the earth by trees. Yearly the ground is filled with water thanks to fifty or so inches of rain and melted snow. The plants via roots, stems and leaves carry much back to the air. The dominant tree species by far making up our area’s woods are oaks which in summer shade four-fifths of the forest’s floor. We only ever see half or less of their masses above the soil; the roots are hidden except for those of fallen trees tipped skyward. Root systems permeate the soil well out beyond the drip edges of the tree’s crown and from the surface downward several feet. The roots branch repeatedly getting smaller and smaller until ending in many millions of microscopic root tips that grow at temperatures above 40 degrees F. In so doing they twist, turn around soil particles, and absorb water for living tissues throughout the plant. Entwined with these tiny roots is an intimate labyrinth of fungal hyphae that share nutrients and water in relationships called symbiosis.

Red Oak rising 80 feet toward the light and sky. Water is being pulled up by leaves in tubular tissue beneath the bark. – Judy Schneider photo

Last year’s dead oak leaves now cover the forest floor. The fallen leaves pave the soils’ surfaces like flexible tiles, now several shades of lovely brown. 2016 was a mast year (lots of nuts) for many oaks. On the Stream Team’s Winter Hike in late January photographer and animal lover Elaine Gauthier exclaimed, “The acorns in places feel like marbles under foot. My donkey loves them, just vacuums them right up.” Deer, blue jays, turkeys, voles, and squirrels also like them. The jays are famous for carrying acorns away and burying them separately for later meals. One study has them recovering only one of four they hide. The oaks much profit by this seeming inefficiency. As a result oaks spread relatively quickly across the land. This and more was learned from what is now a treasured gift.

Inside each of these tiny fruits called acorns is a seed those cells contain the instructions (DNA) to make a mighty tree that might live 100s of years. The acorn on the lower is one of thousands from a White Oak tree. The larger one in the center is from a Red Oak. – Judy Schneider photo

The old Closeteer, long an admirer of oaks, received a book for Christmas entitled Oak: The Frame of Civilization by arborist William Bryant Logan (W. W. Norton and Co., 2005). After finishing its 300 pages about acorns and the people who ate them, about oak forests and the people who cut and used their wood and bark, and about much more, he can’t wait to share with friends. Logan has added tenfold to the Closeteer’s knowledge of oaks and people. Sprinkled among the author’s invariably fine sentences are gems of botany, history and philosophy along with expressions arising from oak and its users. “In for the long haul”, describing a person who perseveres despite difficulties, came from hauling oak with oxen and horses from sources to coastal shipyards. The mighty timbers carved out where the trees had stood involved whole neighborhoods in stripping bark for tanning, felling trees and shaping the timbers to the ship’s needs with axes, gathering chips for fuel and finally difficult days of transport on poor roads.

Famous Curtis Oak on Peabody Street in Middleton. Some guess this five-foot diameter White Oak is over 400 years. The owners of the land kept it from the shipbuilders for three centuries. – Judy Schneider photo, February 2017

Logan from his imagined perches in the crowns of oaks and from tunnels down among their roots sees forests and people long entwined. He then weaves human history, biology, evolution, continental drift, and carpentry into seamless baskets of information that make sense and has us wanting more. After a super chapter on the coopers’ practical art, their medium oak, he writes: “Industry did to craft what Babylonian agriculture did to hunting and gathering. It caused a tremendous increase in output, but at high human and environmental cost. Industry often starts as a liberator but ends as a slaver because it cannot control itself.” Barrels and buckets are now machine molded or of stamped plastic.   A few sentences later he ties in the value of craftsmanship: “Human beings show restraint when they value, worship, and respect what they encounter. Value comes from understanding, and from understanding intimacy. Humans in the age of oak had to confront the resistance of their materials every day. Memory reason and skill wove a world of oak.” Ships, cathedrals, and millions of essential barrels and buckets were made well by skilled craftsmen. Logan wisely goes on about much more than basic materials and tools. He rings the world with ships of oak.
Oak was the material of beautiful Viking ships that flexed like fish and gave ships more speed. Later the mighty British merchant marine and navy of thousands of oaken ships took over much of the world. Logan tells of the oak’s characteristics and the details of construction that provided the great strength needed in stormy, uneven seas. When he writes of England we must remember that here was once England. Our first ship builders, immigrants happy in a new land of many oak trees, and later generations launched thousands of ships from New England’s shores. It was the builders who knew of both trees and ships as good blacksmiths know of iron and the requirements of what they fashion. Middleton has a craftsman-artist who works intimately with iron and wood to make fine tools and now and then a whimsical sculpture. His materials come from scrap steel and sometimes logs from his firewood pile. The Closeteer while reading this book often thought of Carl Close and his forge and cellar shop out of which have come beautiful tools, wooden buckets, snow shoes, and even steam engines. Logan much admires such people who bring “memory, reason, and skill” into making things.

The Curtis Oak, Middleton, with owners, friend, and pets. Arthur Curtis (left), Joseph Reed, and Ernest Curtis (right) circa 1960. The Curtis brothers were farmers and owners of nearby water powered sawmill. Reed worked with them. – Courtesy of Carl Close

Early on before agriculture and sophisticated tools acorns provided a staple food for peoples in the temperate latitudes of the planet where oaks grow. The Indians of California were husking and grinding acorns for flour up until their demise a century ago. It was also an important food here for the Agawams and Naumkeags before the English wood cutters took their trees for ships, buildings and firewood. If you want to try acorn flour you’ll find it in Korean markets. It is tasteless but more filling over longer periods than grains. The Indians and Logan in his trials added supplements such as insects and berries to get some taste. Acorns were a perfect food for hunter-gatherers; they stored well for long periods in both dry caches and those alongside cold streams.
The author’s history and botany in Oak will strengthen and expand our minds, and last long within them. It is the best book on trees and the cultures that have long depended on them the Closeteer has read. Try it; we’ve only chipped away a bit at its many branches here.


Precipitation Data* for Month of: Nov Dec Jan Feb
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.55 4.12 3.40 3.25
   2016 Central Watershed Actual 2.68 4.41 5.6** 0.1**as of Feb 3

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Feb 3, 2017  Normal . . . 64CFS     Current Rate . . . 50 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Dec.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Jan and Feb..
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or         <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584