Quite often when people talk about what arborists do, they relate it to the stages in the life of a tree. Arborists plant young trees, prune them as they get older, and cut them down when they become a hazard. The final stage most often overlooked is urban wood utilization.
What isn’t often mentioned in arborists job description is their role in determining a trees life after they have been felled. Rarely do arborists leave the tree where it fell. The client more often than not, wants the tree gone. So the arborist, whether consciously or unconsciously, must make a decision on behalf of the tree. In effect, the arborist becomes the trees power of attorney, from thenceforth the arborist makes all decisions.
The decision that arborists make on behalf of the tree is an unconscious one. In the world of arboriculture, we have a machine readily available that can make the decision for us; it is called the wood chipper. It is indiscriminate as to the work it can do on a tree (unless perhaps the diameter of the wood is greater than the chipper can handle). Poplar, oak, Norway maple, buckthorn, birch; a wood chipper will take them all without questions.
To contrast this, imagine cutting down a forest containing Scots pines, birch, and tamarack trees and taking it to a lumber mill. Upon arrival you tell them, “I want you to turn all these into 2 x 4’s for framing a house?” The mill operator would surely laugh because these are poor materials for building.
To bring it back to the urban context, are wood chips and firewood the best outcome for all trees that we prune and remove? In some cases, the answer certainly is yes, but not in all.
Black Walnut Tree
Below you will see a picture of a black walnut in the back of a customer’s property taken in the Summer of 2016. The center leader of the tree broke off and got caught in the Ash tree adjacent to it. The tree was hazardous and needed to be cut down (along with the stone dead ash tree next to it).
Prior to removal an arrangement was made for the tree to be milled into slabs on site. The tree was too difficult to access with a band saw mill and too heavy to drag out to the front yard so we used a special tool called a chainsaw mill. While not near as efficient as a band saw mill, it does the trick. The homeowner was interested in keeping one of the slabs and turning it into a coffee table. A local woodworker was contacted who picked up the slab and dried it, therefore beginning the process of urban wood utilization.
The picture below utilizes the wood from this very same black walnut plus some ash to create the coffee table that now stands only 40 feet away inside the customer’s home. That table is as local as local gets.
Manitoba Maple Tree
Let me give another example, I got a text from an acquaintance of mine who was inquiring about getting some wood. To paraphrase the text messages it went something like this.
Melissa: My husband and I are growing mushrooms. We are looking for about 20 pieces that are about 4 feet long that we can drill and inoculate mushrooms into.
Aaron: Sounds fun, I would love to help.
Melissa: I can’t believe I am going to ask this but, we are actually looking for Manitoba Maple.
Aaron: Me neither.
Melissa: We can use a few different trees but apparently oyster mushrooms grow well in them.
Aaron: Sure thing, I will let you know when I have them and you can pick them up.
This conversation got me wondering, “If a Manitoba maple can be repurposed after it has been cut down for growing mushrooms, what other opportunities am I missing out on?”
I thought about this question for a number of days and kept thinking of new answers. I did some research and realized that the opportunities are as vast as human creativity.
Did you know that there is a form of construction called cordwood masonry? Instead of turning trees into boards, round cross-sections are cut and mortar is placed in between them.
Willow Tree Cuttings
From a homeowners perspective, some tree remains have wonderful aesthetic properties (that encourage urban wood utilization) whether as garden borders, inside planters (birch branches anyone?), or in some cases even the cuttings can produce new trees. It has always been a dream of mine to weave together willow cuttings to make a beautiful hedge.
Speaking of willows, if you cut a few branches in the Fall, bring them indoors and place them in a glass vase of just water, you will witness a pretty extraordinary sight.
As far as wood chips are concerned, it may be helpful to consider other uses than just mulch. While mulch is beneficial for multiple reasons, those some chips could be used for other purposes as well. I was recently at a workshop that mentioned the use of woodchips for helping remove nitrogen run-off associated with animal waste.
The opportunities are about as endless as creativity will allow.
I am well aware that some of these options are not the easiest route to take. They require more thought and work than throwing branches in a wood chipper. Yet from my experience I have learned that it is a more satisfying creating and implementing these creative solutions.
During much of trees life, they run their own course without human intervention. They determine where they should start a new branch, how tall they would like to be, when they should produce leaves, when they should drop their leaves, etc. As arborists, we really cannot change very many of these characteristics without being detrimental to the tree. Yet, it seems as if when a trees life ends, this is the point when a tree relinquishes its will to the people and environment around it. After all the life that the tree has given us, it now gives us the opportunity to give it a second life via urban wood utilization. Let us ask ourselves what that life could be. Hopefully you will find that question as energizing as I do.