Natural Enquirer: Wonderful boards
Have you ever thought about boards? We owe a lot to boards. Most of us live in houses built with boards and work in buildings that have at least a few boards in them. Boards look dead and in truth, aren’t all that active, but they all came from living trees. Boards are good for wildlife too. Ants, termites and other small creatures make their homes in boards. Some even eat the wood fibers, digesting the cellulose, I suppose, much as a cow is able to use the cellulose in grass fibers. No, I don’t think termites are ruminants, but I don’t really know. All I know is that termites would have a tough go of it if all our homes were built from concrete blocks. Larger animals also use boards. Piles of boards left outside can attract rats, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, even small birds.
Boards tell stories. In those knots and rings, woodpecker holes, ant and termite tunnels is the history of a living organism. The smell of some boards is like the smell of the woods, the rough texture of their surface a kind of reflection of life where things rarely come easy. Smooth boards are never as interesting as rough ones. A board that has been stained or varnished isn’t really a board anymore; it’s furniture. Particle board is the grated cheese of the lumber industry and I don’t like it at all. Cardboard is handy for lots of things, but it isn’t a board per se.
All true boards have splinters. That’s how you can tell a board from a tree and from tree products that aren’t boards. Splinters can be a nuisance, but there’s something very honest and basic about a splinter. It helps, if you get a splinter, to shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well, it’s just a piece of cellulose.”
The squareness of boards always bothered me. There’s nothing wrong, with injection molding plastics or casting aluminum in an artificial shape, but I think it’s a shame to do a tree that way. Trees all come in unique shapes. No two trees are exactly the same, or, if they are, you’ll never prove it. They’re a lot like snowflakes, beautiful because nature made each an original form. Boards without bark, planed to certain dimensions and cut squarely to a predetermined length, are no doubt more useful than boards of random shape, but they’re also less interesting. Who would want all snowflakes cubed?
Some boards get the last laugh, of course. No matter that they’re cut perfectly, then planed and edged. They won’t be controlled. They warp. And just so they won’t be like other boards, they warp in a singular fashion. You can’t predict how a board will warp. As hard as we try , we’ll never completely strip a board of its personality . Each has a unique grain structure, color pattern and weight. Some boards float better than others. There’s a lot of difference in strength between boards, too. And all boards react individually to changes in environment and climate. Boards, come to think of it, are a lot like people.
When log cabins came into vogue as vacation homes, I’ll bet a lot of boards got anxious. They probably remembered the advent of the metal boat hull and linoleum floors. Logs, after all, can do anything a board can do in a wall. But after looking at homes and cottages built with both logs and boards, I think a good rustic board comes across just as woodsy as a log, and you can get several boards out of one log.
People are using boards for lots of things they didn’t a few years ago. Picture frames used to be finely finished, but boards are now considered more tasteful, the rougher the better. Board fences are coming back too. And boards are replacing paneling in some rec rooms. The rustic look is in.
Still, one of the best uses for boards is the board pile. It’s not a front yard type of thing, but if you put it in the right place and keep it free of cardboard, particle board and other contaminants, it looks OK. It is sort of basic and honest, like a splinter. A board pile is so useful to so many creatures, everybody should build one. When you do, look at each individual board as you handle it. Give it a name, perhaps the name of a person it reminds you of. If you treat boards gently and with respect, maybe you won’t get so many splinters.
Tastes in woods change like fashions in clothes or hats. Pine boards full of knots and cypress boards full of holes, once worthless, now bring high prices for paneling in dens and family rooms, as do the rough and weathered sides of old barns and sheds. Even stranger, did you know that some folks will pay a fancy price for an old outhouse door and even the old seat?
Remember that the mighty oak was once a nut like you.
Planning to do some repair work in our home, I went to the nearest lumberyard for materials. I was looking for suitable boards when the foreman asked if I needed help. I told him that I had tried to find some boards without knots in them. He looked quietly at me and said, “Without branches, where would you expect the little birds to sit and sing?”
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land O’ Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.