Giants of the Northwest
LIKE pygmies in a land of giants is the way the loggers working among the towering trees of the forests appear, as the early light of dawn breaks over the Pacific Northwest. The sun’s rays slowly dissipate the mist that hangs over the massive crags and giant trees of the Cascade Mountains. In this timber country that stretches from southeast Alaska to northern California thousands of men are employed in logging.
The sound of motors similar to those of motorbikes breaks the silence of the great forest as motorized chain saws rip into the giant trees, sending them crashing to the forest floor, ending perhaps as much as a thousand years of tree life. The workmen look like ants beside these gigantic trees as they cut them into logs. Girdled by strands of wire rope, these logs sometimes measure nine to twelve feet in diameter as they are pulled to the loading site in a scene reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels.
Trees are the biggest plants there are. But unlike most plants, they never stop growing as long as they live. There are over one thousand kinds of trees in the United States alone. Lumbermen usually classify trees as hardwoods or softwoods.
Hardwoods and Softwoods
Softwoods are generally conifers, which are evergreen and have the needlelike leaf of the pine. Their wood is light in weight when dry and is easily cut. Firs, pines and cedars are examples of the conifer or softwood group.
Hardwood trees, often with broad leaves, are recognized by the compact texture of their wood, which is usually tough and heavy in weight. Many of these trees are deciduous; they drop their leaves in the fall, and new leaves bud out in the spring. They include many varieties, such as maple, walnut, birch, apple and peach.
Giant Growth from a Tiny Seed
What is it that makes a tree grow and gives the wood its unique properties? Just under the bark of a tree is a layer called cambium; this fits the tree like a tight skin. It is made up of new, living cells. It is here that the tree grows, as a new ring of wood is added to the trunk each year.
The new growth becomes a part of the sapwood, which carries the sap from the roots up to the leaves. In time the sapwood comes to make up the central heartwood, which gives the tree its strength.
In the heartwood the chemical composition of the cell changes and becomes, for the most part, cellulose. Trees are made up mainly of cellulose and lignin, a natural plastic. The lignin holds the cells of cellulose together with such strength that it can support a Douglas fir or redwood that may reach 200 to 300 feet into the air, even in the face of fierce windstorms.
And to think that these giants started out as tiny seeds! In the case of the giant sequoia, the seed is about one quarter of an inch long. And in each tiny seed are the vital parts needed for a new tree. For instance, there is a tiny white thread that will someday turn into a tree trunk. In addition to two tiny leaves a seed also has a root tip at one end and a bud at the other. Amazingly, points out the World Book Encyclopedia, “even if you turn over an opening seed so that its root end points up, it will turn down in a few hours, as though pulled by gravity. At the same time, the tip with the bud and the leaves turns up, as though pulled by the light of the sun.”
And what an amazing variety of seeds there are! The conifers bear seeds in cones, the cones ranging in size from the pebble-sized hemlock to almost a foot long for some species of pine. When the seeds are ripe, the cones open and the seeds spill out, scattering in the wind.
Some seeds have wings attached so that they fly long distances before landing. Others bounce or roll like acorns, and some having bits of fluff are carried by the wind. And, of course, the seeds of many trees are encased in their fruit.
The large Douglas fir tree, which grows more than 200 feet tall, is the tree that gives a saw-toothed pattern to mountain slopes. Douglas fir may well be king of the giants for value, for this softwood tree produces more high-quality lumber than any other tree in North America. Its peculiar interwoven fiber composition makes it an unusually strong wood in relation to its weight. It has excellent nail-holding ability. It is readily painted, works easily and resists wet and dry rot well.
The captains of sailing ships prized the Douglas fir tree for masts due to its great height and strength. Today Douglas fir is in demand for home building and is used both for lumber and plywood. Smaller Douglas fir logs and waste are turned into pulp for paper, alcohol for industry, industrial chemicals, artificial vanilla and fuel.
Red Cedar and Spruce
The red cedar or canoe cedar is another giant of the Northwest, one that may grow from 150 to 200 feet high with a stump fifteen feet through. Being straight-grained and easy to split, this tree yielded even to primitive tools. The Indians used the giant red cedar to carve history poles called totems. They were also able to hollow out the huge logs of this tree for their canoes, carving artistic details with chisels and hatchets of stone, beaver teeth and mussel shells, smoothing the wood with sand and sharkskin.
Today red cedar is particularly favored as a lumber for closets and storage areas, as it discourages insects due to its pungent smell. Architects are also experimenting now with red cedar for use as a naturally finished siding on modern homes.
Spruce trees are a pulp manufacturer’s delight. A firm may own thousands of acres of them. The whole communications industry of the world would be in difficult circumstances without the inexpensive paper that the spruce provides for books, newspapers and everyday use. One edition of a newspaper may use up to six acres of spruce trees. The pulp is also used to make rayon for clothing.
The giant Sitka spruce, from 100 to 200 feet high, is one of the most beautiful of Western conifers. Some giant Sitkas are over 300 feet high. Since the wood of this tree has a very strong internal fiber composition in relation to its weight, the wood was used for airplanes during World War I. Now this lumber is used in making musical instruments of high quality with fine sound reproduction, such as the guitar and piano.
Redwoods and the Giant Sequoias
Traveling south along the ocean in southern Oregon, one begins to see redwoods. King among the giants for height, the redwoods are the tallest living trees, growing as high as a thirty-story building. In fact, the tallest known tree in the United States is a redwood that is 368.6 feet high. Many trunks of the redwoods are over ten feet in diameter. The wood of this tree is light clear red. Though soft and weak, it is exceptionally resistant to decay and insects. Thus it is often used for interior finish in buildings and for other purposes when durability is a main consideration.
The redwoods grow between sea level and an elevation of 2,500 feet, while giant sequoias are found in the more extreme areas of the range of the forest giants, being able to stand more cold and drought and survive at higher elevations. While not as tall as the redwoods, the giant sequoias grow larger in bulk. Since no other tree combines such massiveness of trunk with such height, many persons view the giant sequoia as the most majestic tree in the world. Some are believed to be over 3,000 years old, and none of them are known to have died of old age.
The General Sherman, a sequoia in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, is a fine example of the gigantic size of these trees. Here is a tree that is 272.4 feet tall. Its base circumference is 101.6 feet. One hundred feet above the ground this giant of the tree family is still 18.7 feat in diameter. The total weight of the tree is estimated at over 6,000 tons. Yet this tremendous tree originated with a seed so tiny it would take about 50,000 of them to weigh one pound.
As these trees are straight-grained and brittle, loggers often find that when they are cut their sheer bulk may cause them to shatter into many unusable fragments of wood. This causes the complete loss of a tree that may have taken a thousand or more years to grow.
Many Benefits for Man
Food, shelter, clothing, fuel—all can be provided from trees. We can be thankful, too, that trees clean the air, picking up carbon dioxide through tiny holes in the leaves. With the aid of sunlight, water, minerals, by processes not yet fully known, the tree manufactures food in the leaves in a way called photosynthesis. Thus the cells of the tree are nourished.
If trees were suddenly to become extinct because of the polluted atmosphere, it is conceivable that man and other living creatures would eventually smother and die for lack of breathable air.
So trees play a big part in the lives, not only of the West Coast loggers, but of most people. We all have reason to appreciate the desks, cabinets, chairs, tables and many other beautiful objects of furniture made from wood. We are glad to have paper, so we can read the printed page bearing words of enlightenment, hope or comfort. Should we not be appreciative too of the other things a tree can do, purifying the air, providing shade and beauty for the landscape? We can be thankful that our loving Creator bedecked the earth with such a grand variety of the largest plants, including those amazing giants of the Northwest.