Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Forester's Perspective

Dr. Terry Tatter, renowned professor of Arboriculture and wood science at U-Mass, and author of the books I used to study for my Connecticut Arborist license was called as an expert witness in the law suit over a tree from Calvary Baptist (my church) falling on a woman’s car and bruising her in the incident during a freakish summer storm. He said, “This Arborist, Brian Maher is responsible because his pruning cuts are what led to the decay that caused the tree to crack and fall on the car and injure this woman!

Tatter brought in all sorts of blocks of wood cut up from the tree in radial and tangential sections to display to the court (most of the stem of the tree was removed before he arrived on the scene). “This simple Arborist does not have the experience to know how defects and decay affect the interior integrity and structure of the tree. “ Little did he know that when I was a forester, part of my on the job training was to spend hours watching how logs opened up on the saw mill. I was to study how exterior defects manifested themselves on the interior of the tree in terms of rot, decay, shake, twisted grain, knots, etc. There weren’t too many trees native to New England that I didn’t see sawn out or peeled on a veneer knife. I remember watching with fascination as the veneer knife peeled off wood like pulling toilet paper off the roll. You could follow the history of the tree from clear wood all the way down to the knots. Tatter lost the case and the later appeal as well.

As a forester I sometimes bid on standing timber so I had to learn what exterior defects looked like on the inside of a standing tree and what they did to the quality of the potential lumber. My company did not want me to waste their money on rot, crook, stain, sweep, decay and ring shake. While looking at a stand of timber I was going to bid on, I would check the stumps from logging operations in the years gone by to see what they looked so I could get an idea what was going on with certain species. In stands where there appeared to be no past harvesting of timber, I used a forester’s tool called an increment borer. It was like a hand drill bit that you drilled into the center of the tree and before you backed out the bit, you extracted the core. This could tell you how old the tree was, whether or not the tree was hollow, healthy, fast or slow growing, and whether it had ring shake, tension wood, or compression wood, etc. All this affected the quality of veneer or lumber. It wasn’t as if I could cut a tree down on someone else’s property and look at the rings to see how fire, drought, insect damage or too much rain affected the growth of the tree but it was still a good indicator of health and quality. But, it is much more interesting to track the history of tree or the stand by examining the annual rings on the stump vs. and increment borer.

I know we humans don’t have annual rings but I assume we have something akin to spiritual annual rings. I once did an assignment in seminary where I was to chart what affected me positively or negatively in the psychological, social, emotional, spiritual and physical realm for every year of my life. It really was like examining the annual rings of a fresh stump. I could track my personal history and see how I came to struggle with the issues that plagued me when I grew older. The point was to see that no matter how many bad life experiences we had, God’s grace, whether meted out directly or through persons, was an active constant in our lives. I saw on my annual rings those years when I had some grade school teachers in public school that shamed me publically a number of times in front of the class. By the time I hit fourth grade I had no self-esteem or sense of self-worth. My annual rings were compressed signaling a lack of personal growth and trauma. Rings in the following years showed growth as God sent mentors into my life in the form of teachers, coaches and scoutmasters who found something worthwhile about me. My spiritual annual rings will show floods, drought, fire, insect infestation, etc, or in human terms, trauma, crises, and undesirable events as well as periods of significant growth and health. As one unravels themselves in this light, it is like examining annual rings on a stump. When you try to unravel the life history of someone else, that is when you need an increment borer, especially if they are unable to examine their own annual rings (and that should be done by a counselor).

I remember the guys who operated the veneer knives bringing me blocks of wood containing horse shoes, axe heads, spikes, saw chain, etc, that the tree had grown around and compartmentalized when the tree was just a sapling. Those items shattered the knife. I hope they weren’t blaming me because there was no way I could’ve found any exterior defects signifying their existence. It’s like when some people seem perfect and have it all together with no outside indicators that their lives are anything but in perfect control and stability until knife hits that chunk of steel embedded deep in the interior of a person’s character. That has happened on occasion to me I must confess and it was the only Great Physician who could set things right again.

Back in the fifties a man in New York State had a coon dog who took off one night chasing a raccoon. He never came back and the man always wondered what became of the dog. In the late seventies he had his property logged and the logger bucking up logs on the log landing was bucking up a hollow tree and cut into part of a petrified dog that was way into the top part of the tree. It was the man’s coon dog.

The point is we all have defects. Some of us have defects so large a dog could climb into them, and others of us have a few burly knots or an axe head buried down deep under some clear wood. Some defects are obvious from the outside and some are not and they are ones that might require a little probing with an increment borer, but they are there and they can affect our lives. It is not our job to be defect detectors in others but Grace detectors. Counting anyone’s spiritual rings will reveal a history of God’s grace diffused through the annual rings, such as Oak wood which is ring porous. God’s grace is there in our lives so it might be good to stop striving, especially during this Christmas season and examine the myriad of ways that he has been present in our lives from the beginning.

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