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Good Timber

by Douglas Malloch

The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees,
The further sky, the greater length,
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.

Where thickest lies the forest growth
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.

Folk Ways

Once upon a time, a common ethos that there was a right way and a wrong way to do a thing pervaded America. The right way usually required extra time and attention to detail but it paid dividends in the form of a superior result that often lasted a lifetime. After all, if something was worth doing, than it was worth doing right, wasn't it? An example of this attention to detail can be seen in the old manner of harvesting timber.

Expert craftsman paid special attention to details such as the time of year timber was cut, the moon phase during which timber was cut, the methods used for seasoning the wood (wood dried slowly by air is easier to work with a plane than wood dried quickly in a kiln), and even sometimes going so far as setting aside lumber from different sides of the tree to use for different purposes. The north side of a log was saved for flooring, as it was believed it was less likely to warp, while the south side of the log could be used for other purposes less sensitive to warping.

The long-standing traditional time of year preferred for cutting timber used for building material was during the waning moon of February, just before the start of the new moon. This tradition is based on the belief that the moon has an effect on the flow of sap similar to the way it affects the tide, and that the most rot and warp resistant wood is wood that is felled when the leaves are off and when there is the least amount of sap flowing (Note that beginning in the 1850s, many farm journals began publishing testimony that challenged this tradition and claimed that wood cut during August's second run of sap was actually far more superior in rot resistance). Once the new moon arrived and the sap began flowing again, the ideal window of time for cutting wood for lumber was over, but another ideal window of time was close at hand: the season for tapping trees for syrup.

This year (2023), a new moon occurs on February 20th, so get your axes sharpened and begin laying in a supply of fence posts soon, before it is too late.

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Did You Know?

The giant sequoia tree is the world's largest tree by trunk volume, while the redwood is the world's tallest tree. Hyperion is a redwood that stands 380.3 ft tall and is considered to be the world's tallest known living tree.


The painting accompanying Good Timber is Sequoia by Albert Bierstadt.

What is the difference between a sequoia tree and a redwood tree?

Sequoia trees (also known as giant sequoia) and redwood trees (also known as coastal redwood and California redwood) are closely related, massive trees from the same family that grow along the California coast. However, they each belong to a separate genus and exhibit key differences in bark color, wood structure, foliage shape, and trunk shape. The tallest trees in the world are redwoods, but they have more slender trunks than their cousins the sequoia, and thus a smaller volume on average.

Both the sequoia and the redwood belong to the Cupressaceae family, a family which also includes the bald cypress tree native to the southeastern United States.


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