The Holy Oak
My friend Lester recently loaned me an interesting book, “The Artisan of Ipswich” by Robert Tarule. It’s a small book, only one hundred and forty-nine pages of text, but full of information about the daily lives of artisans in the Pilgrim community of Ipswich in Massachusetts Colony.
One fact leaps out at the reader immediately; the early colonists understood the importance of the planned use and ongoing stewardship of their lumber supplies. When an artisan or property owner needed to harvest trees from the common forest for building or fuel needs, he was required to seek and receive the permission of the town committee of selectmen. Failure to do this would result in the levying of a fine and the town marshal seizing property that would be held until the fine was paid.
The English colonists were amazed at the numbers of species available to them in the New World, remembering the near de-forestation of most of Great Britain. But of all the species, one stands above all others as most desired by every tradesman in New England, the White Oak, Quercus Alba.
Today, woodworkers and furniture aficionados will, more often than not, associate white oak with the Craftsman movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The grain pattern and color of fumed, quarter-sawn white oak is very easy to identify. But most folks would find it hard to believe that early colonists depended so heavily on the species not only for its beauty but for its engineering properties. Considering some of the uses of white oak will help us understand why it was so sought after.
White oak offers very high heat potential, so it was valuable as a fuel and was well-regulated by community authorities. Smallwood (offcuts, small limbs, etc.) were collected for firewood. When the selectmen allowed an artisan to take a tree for working material, the “smallwood” was considered a separate item and not necessarily included in the allowance.
Resistance to rot and weather, made white oak one of the carpenter’s favorite materials for sills, sleepers and other structural members that would come in contact with soil or be exposed to moisture. These same properties allowed the white (wet) cooper to create casks that were water tight and used for the storage and shipment of water, wine, beer, salted meat and fish, and other processed food stuffs that required packaging that would not leak.
The shipwright, the boatwright, the millwright, and the wheelwright held the white oak in high esteem for its strength and durability. White oak’s straight grain and the relative ease with which it can be split, riven and cleaved when green made it the material of choice for all of the village tradesmen, including the blacksmith, who found that white oak made the best charcoal for his forge. Tanners would use the trees bark, twigs and leaves for the production of tannic acid that was required in the processing of hides into leather, hence the word tanning.
Craftsmen in the community realized that by the judicious use of varying parts of the tree, they could optimize the yield from a single felling. Blacksmiths were not concerned with grain irregularities or color, shipwrights might find crooks the most beneficial for knees and short ribs. Joiners and millwrights could “work around the occasional knot. Coopers and wheelwrights generally required the most select, straight-grained material due to the precise nature of their work. A thriving material trading system grew up between the town’s tradesmen, a system that many woodworkers employ still maintain.
So, on your next walk around the woods, stop and give praise to the Holy Oak, remembering not only its many contributions to the community of man, but it’s religious significance to many primitive groups. The Druids held the Oak and Mistletoe as holy. Maybe they were absolutely right. What a tree!