by John Brouwer

Beaver Creek has three varieties of oak. The oaks along the road are red oaks. The oak between block 5 and block 6 is a white oak. And the oak in the field beside block nine is a bur oak. There is also a bur oak near the fire pit and in among the sumac behind block 2.

In his book, Oak The Frame of Civilization, William Logan emphasizes the critical relationship humanity has had with oak since the ending of the last ice ages about 15,000 years ago. This is an excellent book and is available from the library, call number 634.9721. Most of the information in this article is extracted from this book.

Oak first appears in the geological record some 30 million years ago. Over the eons, oak has developed the ability to adapt to a wide variety of environments. As the continents split up, oak moved with them so that it is now found within the temperate climates on most continents. Oak has the genetic ability to adapt to changing environments and is therefore very resilient. Although this is appreciated by ecologists, biologists can't agree on the whether there are 250 or up to 450 species of oak, as most trees have elements of various species within their makeup. Even the red oaks along our road have the pointed scalloped leaves of red oak but mixed within are the rounded scalloped leaves found with white oak.

The ancient Greek myths, Roman origin tales, Viking sagas, Celtic druidic tales, and creation stories all have pre-historic peoples interacting with oak. Archeologists have now discovered that oak acorns were a primary food for pre-bronze age peoples. As the glaciers melted, oak became a dominant tree. The abundance of acorns allowed people to gather the bulk of their annual food needs in about 5 weeks. Acorns were shelled, ground and leached with water to remove the tannins. 5 weeks work per year compares very favorably to a 40 hour workweek – kind of reverses the idea of historical progress.

Oak is unique among wood in that the trunks can be split while green into planks up to three feet wide along their radial lines using a stone (later bronze and iron) wedges. This allowed ancient peoples to construct buildings, bridges, boats, fences, doors, etc. without needing saws, chisels, or draw knives. Archeologists have uncovered these oak structures, as well as petrified oak trees which had been coppiced or pollarded, proving that the ancients knew how to manage forests for maximum wood production.

For about 10,000 years until about 250 years ago, when coal and iron started to replace it, people depended on wood and oak was the wood that provided most needs. Oak provided the houses, food for people and their animals, fences and enclosures, fuel, and planking for roads and bridges. The early Viking boats were made of oak and the empires of England, Spain, France, and Holland were completely dependent on sailing ships made of oak.

Oak provided the charcoal which in a forge could heat iron, temper it, and with the addition of carbon into the iron convert it into much stronger steel.

Cathedrals required oak to span and hold up the roofs.

Oak was shaped into staves which were formed by coopers into casks to hold everything from dry goods to spirits. The household bucket was made of oak staves.

Oak provided the tannin which was needed to cure hides into leather.

Oak galls provided the tannin-rich black ink used in official documents as it was much superior to inks made from soot.

And oak was the preferred domestic fuel as it has among the highest heat value per cord.

The world made with wood ended about 250 years ago and has now been replaced with a world made by oil (really just another form of wood) and steel. But for 12 to 15 thousand years humanity was defined by how it could utilize wood, and oak was the species that yielded the most to human endeavor.

Our oaks were planted at the best time – twenty years ago. These trees should be good for another 300 to 400 years. And one may even become known as the original Beaver Creek oak, a relic from the beginnings of the co-op housing movement in Waterloo thereby fulfilling the oak's role in preserving human social history.

April 2008