A Feature Review of
A Sanctuary of Trees: Beechnuts, Birdsongs, Baseball Bats, and Benedictions
Reviewed by Mary Bowling
As the subtitle suggests, this book views trees from more than one angle. Books about trees tend to be either wholly practical, such as a field guide or text book, or they tend toward the sentimental; think Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Gene Logsdon, who always is practical in his writing, is also writing from a place of reminiscence on a long and complex relationship with the trees in his life. He can write a book about trees which can and does talk about the knowing and naming of them (some of them on a first-name basis), about using trees for fuel and a great many other products, and also about living with them, caring for them and appreciating them for a span of many years. Also typical of Logsdon, he can convey useful information, tell a story, and wax eloquent on any given topic simultaneously, and still be thoroughly readable.
The first few chapters in the book tell some of Logsdon’s personal and family history, including home, family, and trees – trees for firewood, trees for cooking fuel, recreation and food. He recollects his younger days at seminary far from home with trees being his main source of nurture and consolation. He shares his experience of living in the suburbs and working in the city, and of availing himself of the neglected remnants of forest in and around his neighborhood to find recreation as well as utility.
The details are recalled lovingly, but for all of the imagery of forest glades in the summer, birds singing in the morning light, and bucolic scenes of shepherds and woodsmen, Logsdon also does a good job of explaining the ways he thinks trees are underutilized in general and overprotected in certain cases. For people living in cities and suburbs, trees are often seen as luxuries and ways to add to the value of a property, not serviceable parts of a working home and community. People are loath to cut trees, even when they are a hazard, and yet will not consider the best and most useful varieties and places to plant trees. And of course, there is no way to use the wood from the trees that do come down. Huge logs are chipped and sent to a dump. Gene Logsdon, in all his audacity, suggests that maybe trees could be managed to much more advantage, on the homestead and in the city/suburbs/developing country/anywhere else.
He is a proponent of wood for heat, but realizes that for it to be a reality on a large scale involves a lot of ifs – if population doesn’t continue to explode, and if forests can be planted with suitable trees for the purpose, and if ways of burning can be used that maximize heat output, and if people were more willing to work just a little bit more with what they already have at hand to provide for their own needs. He seeks to offer the beginnings of a remedy to the culture of wholesale consumerism where households are incapable of producing anything at all serviceable or worthwhile for themselves. He spends one chapter sifting through a slew of considerations about the size of woodlot one would need in order to provide all of a household’s heat. What’s refreshing about his conclusion is that there is not necessarily one answer to the question. His approach to the question is to ask all of the questions that have been brought up by years of actually trying it rather than searching charts for the one and only exactly right figure. A few of his questions- How big is the house? Is it insulated? What kind of wood is being used (different kinds have different BTU values)? What is it being burned in (fireplaces and stoves have different efficiencies)? He lays out his logic pretty straightforwardly during the course of the chapter. Earlier on in the book, however, he gets to the heart of the matter when he says, “…while it may not be provable by science, a BTU from a wood-burning stove feels warmer than two BTUs from any other kind of heat this side of hellfire.”
Aside from wood for heat, there are many tangible benefits from having a woodlot, or at least access to groves of trees. Many useful products can be gotten without too much difficulty and cheap-as-free from the trees all around us if we care to open our eyes and have a look around, which surprisingly few people do. Mushrooms, nuts, fruits, flowers, berries, and building and crafting materials are all abundant if you know where and how to look. Sometimes the most gnarled and unappealing piece of wood on the outside can produce the most beautiful and expensive wood for crafted items. For centuries untold, forest dwellers had the benefit of abundant food in the form of acorns, which were ground into flour before land was cleared and crops cultivated. Hickory nuts and walnuts are pretty widely recognized as edible, even if people are unwilling to take the time to collect and shell them. Pawpaw, sassafras, and persimmon are common in the area where Gene Logsdon lives (me too, fortunately) and all have their own unique and delicious uses. Serviceberries, raspberries, blueberries, and many other fruits inhabit treed areas where there is still access to sunlight like young woods, forest edges, and even municipal parks and vacant lots.
Wood and woodland products are certainly not the only things to be considered when thinking about all of the rewards of owning a woodlot. Logsdon writes:
Then there were the intangibles, like that sun on the south side of the woods in February, or the song of a wood thrush at twilight in the spring. In summer, the trees provided a shady respite; in winter, a break against the wind. And in all the seasons the woods became a sanctuary for meditation as awe-inspiring as any rose-windowed cathedral.
Show me a coal mine that can do all that.
While many who read this book will not be able to plant and take advantage of their own woodlot, the practical lessons in woodland management are not the only takeaways from Logsdon’s book. As with all of his writing, and very appropriately when the topic is trees, a sense of rootedness pervades. He brings his stories of living on his land full circle, from growing up, to moving away because that’s where life supposedly happens, to moving back again and farming and raising trees on his family’s ancestral lands. Trees are everywhere, and having a notion of what they have historically meant to many people and still do mean to others is something not to be taken lightly by those whose connection to the land has been largely severed by concrete and asphalt. For Gene Logsdon, they’re more than just ornaments and pretty but unproductive ways to beautify land and add property value, although they are both pretty, and value-adding. They are more than fuel and food, though they are both of those things as well. They are homes, and clean air, and productive soil, and comfort, and music, and sanctuary.