Friday, December 29, 2023

Passenger Pigeons, Whiskey, and the North American Landscape - What Did They Have In Common?


JOIN ME TODAY, in the Apron Strings series book group, where we are meeting several of the heroines of our series and giving away prizes in a Friday Flurry!

Last month, in my post The Birds That Turned Night Into Day, I wrote about massive flocks of passenger pigeons, once so vast that they used to blot out the sun as they passed overhead. But their extinction with the death of the very last passenger pigeon, named Martha, in 1914, has had lasting side effects that changed our landscape and many of our industries.

When I heard that statement, I was surprised. How could the extinction of these birds make for such dramatic consequences, and the answer to that--beyond the fact that we once ate a LOT more pigeon than chicken in our diets--was white oak tree.

Did you know that the beautiful fall colors for which New England and many upper Midwestern states are famous didn't used to be quite so . . . so red? Their predominant colors a hundred fifty years ago were gold, orange, and russet. In fact, did you know that red maples were almost non-existent in the northeast back then? Quite so. But why?

The answer again is the white oak. (We'll get to what changed that in a bit.)

White oak trees used to be one of the most abundant species of tree in our country. And more importantly still, the white oak was the most popular tree for building on a wide scale. From homes and barns to furniture and especially in ship building, the wood of the white oak reigned supreme.

Part of the reason for this is that there is a plastic-like substance called tyloses that helps make a White Oak Tree’s wood waterproof! Because of this waterproof 
quality – white oak was used not only in ships, but also in barrels and buckets!

However, we don't see plantations of white oak for harvest. The reason for that is that white oak takes a long time to mature. 
They grow at a rate of 1-2 feet a year (considered slow growth), and the process takes about 30 years just to reach early maturity. White oaks need a lot of wide open space to grow as well. Each white oak has a sprawling root systems covering three times as much area belowground as the width of their shady canopies above. They need about four hours of direct sunlight each day to reach their full potential in height and canopy.

But get this: an average white oak tree lives about 300 years and can live as long as 600! 

White oak bark has also been used as a medicinal. Brewed as a tea, it is used to treat arthritis (Hey, I might try that!), colds, fever, cough, bronchitis, and as an appetite stimulant and to improve digestion. 

The same cannot be said of other types of oak trees. White oak is harder than red oak

It's wood is much denser and burns longer, making it a popular firewood through the ages. Because of its hardness, the Native Americans used white oak for fashioning tool handles, corn pounding mortars, and gathering baskets. 

And remember when I said it was used to build barrels? One of the most popular uses for the wood of the white oak was in building whiskey barrels. In fact, how they did it was a closely guarded secret of coopers (barrel makers). You might say, so what? Why do I care? I don't imbibe, and isn't a barrel a barrel anyway?

Image by Bernd from Pixabay

No, it sure isn't. White oak was very specifically chosen, not only because of its imperviousness to moisture, but because the wood itself lent a pleasant-tasting ambience to the alcohol stored within, be it whiskey, wine, or scotch. This was important to brewers through the decades, and no less so during prohibition in the early 20th century. Of course, not everyone had such a barrel, but if someone got hold of liquor stored in one, they new the difference. In fact, it's said that bourbon whiskey must be stored in charred oak casks to give it its unique flavors.


Oh, yeah. 

When the flocks of pigeons, called "kits", would nest, their weight would often break the branches of lesser trees, and the stuff they'd leave behind would just about drown out any remaining undergrowth. However, pigeon poo did wonders for adding nutrients to the soil of the hungry white oaks which could bear the weight of tens of thousands of plump pigeons and their young. In the fall, such nutrients made wonderful bedding for acorns to plant themselves. While pigeons loved to forage for acorns of red oaks in the spring, the acorns of white oaks didn't produce until fall, long after the nesting birds had moved on. 

People continued to harvest the white oak for its coveted wood, even after the pigeons died out. Little by little, other kinds of undergrowth began to claim the ground of the white oak, and pretty soon, trees like red maple and red oak took over much of the land that used to solely host the white oak trees. Before long, the landscape changed. And while it only takes one little acorn to produce a mighty white oak, it also takes open area and less competition with other tree species. 

And with that, I'll leave you with one of my all-time favorite sayings.

"The mightiest oak was once just a little nut that held its ground."

That speaks to me.

Happy New Year from your nutty friend, Naomi

Speaking of the era of prohibition,

THERE ARE ONLY TWO WEEKS LEFT to pre-order Polly, but today I'll be giving away a copy over at the Facebook Apron Strings readers group! And other authors have prizes too.

Apron Strings series, Book One

The Great War has ended, but Polly Holloway’s heart is shattered when her fianc√© finally returns home—with a French war bride. Now her future feels desolate, until she fastens onto the idea of using her skills and a special cookbook to turn her grandfather’s Victorian house into a fashionable ladies’ tea room. Yet, how will she endure the patronage of the woman who stole her sweetheart? Moreover, the suave tavern owner down the block is interfering in her business, personal and otherwise. Heaven only knows what goes on behind his doors. Might he be a bootlegger?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting, and Happy New Year to you and yours. Wow, that was a fun rabbit trail!! It's amazing to me how things in nature are so codependent and we don't even realize just how much. Who but our amazing God could design such intricate relationships?!