Doug Sanders on the Utility of Trees
Updated: Jun 25
My interest in serving as a board member for Canopy Bloomington is purely a selfish one. When you, or the City, or an organization plants a tree: I benefit. I benefit in innumerable ways, and you do too- our website in fact, does a wonderful job explaining this.
But for me, it’s often about a tree’s utility. Utility in a material sense. I’m an avid cook and woodcarver; I relish the idea that trees can feed us, and we can make things from their wood, bark, leaves, seeds, roots and flowers. Now I’m not saying that your specific tree will someday furnish me with the raw material from which to carve a sculpture, but I think it’s valuable for us to learn and know that trees have helped us for millennia in very essential, down-to-earth ways. They can still help us if we show them respect, and use their gifts wisely and with care.
I think back to what it must have been like in other times; when we humans -perhaps there are still some with this knowledge? - walked through forests, not seeing endless columns of anonymous wood and unremarkable leaves that turned other colors in the autumn to our delight, but rather approached the environment as a supermarket, home improvement store and opportunity for multi-organism symbiosis all in one!
Woods of individual species have evolved different, complex solutions to a myriad of site-specific stimuli and stressors. We’ve utilized these differences as long as humans have been here: some woods flex, store and return energy (think maple for baseball bats), others can be lathe-turned and polished (boxwood chess pieces), some split well into thin strips (black ash baskets) and some resist rot and insect predation (aromatic cedar chests).
We have an opportunity every day to reclaim some of this knowledge and connection. Look upon trees not just as landscaping accents but real, living participants in your existence on this planet. Knowing this and knowing what trees offer us engenders greater respect, which in turn leads to more concern, more planting, and more advocacy!
When you, as an individual, plant a tree, stop and ask yourself for a moment why you’re planting it. There are no right or wrong answers. It’s the reflection and awareness that counts.
Consider the Spruce (genus Picea):
Though nowadays used chiefly as a source of lumber, paper pulp and musical instrument sounding boards, all members of the spruce genus have been used in the past for purposes such as lacing, lashing and basket weaving (using the roots). The fresh spring growth, spruce tips, can be steeped in hot water to make a delicious tea, high in vitamin C. The inner bark (cambium) has been used as a food source in times of scarcity. Strips can be boiled and eaten, or dried and ground into powder as an extender for grain flour.
Additionally, the sap can be chewed like gum, but also used as an adhesive and in the production of pitch which is used as a wood sealant and preservative. In fact, Picea means pitch in Latin!