The Things We Learn From Trees

Because the hubs and I are a hip, well-connected couple accustomed to burning up the trendiest activities on the social scene…we spend a lot of time on the couch perusing Netflix shows.

Sometimes, we have a tough time deciding what to watch.  We don’t always agree on what constitutes good entertainment.

My list:  What Not to Wear.  Friends.  Anything qualifying as “food porn” (i.e. Man Vs. Food, Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins.)  Say Yes to the Dress.  <hangs head in shame>

(Actually, wait.  There was something worse on Netflix for a while.  It was one season of this show called Bridalplasty.  If you’re wondering if the name alone should have you cringing, the answer is, obviously, yes.  It was a mix of Bridezilla, The Bachelor, and Mean Girls.  Each week, twelve hopeful brides would compete (for the life of me, I cannot remember the challenges.  Stuff like naming the designer of crystal?  Pin the boutineer on the groom?) and the winner got a full plastic-surgery makeover AND a dream wedding.  If you won that week’s challenge, you got one plastic-surgery procedure and/or a dream wedding item (dress, flowers.)  It was a dramatic, hot mess.  And the reason I know so much about it is because I watched the entire season.  I should be banned from society.  I’m clearly not fit to be around children.)

His list:  Earth and space science.  Military history.  Things that blow up.  Transformers.  Tosh.0.

So you can see there might be a slight disconnect here….Our “Suggested for Kate” list is slightly disturbing; I think the logarithm just threw its hands in the air, stuck a bunch of random 80s cartoons and reality shows into our feed, and curled up in the fetal position under the futon.

However, Netflix being a rich, untapped oil well of time-suck with a huge variety of subjects, we have been able to find a few things we agree on.  We like stories about the supernatural and the afterlife.  Documentaries about how things are made will keep our attention (especially if they’re about food, of course!)  We enjoyed Weird or What? with William Shatner (who I find awkwardly hilarious) – and right now we’re blasting through a season of Modern Marvels.  It’s one of those shows that sounds really, really boring, but once you start watching, you kind of get into it, and you accidentally learn stuff.  Plus, they had an episode ABOUT SHOES.  SHOES!  SHOES AND SCIENCE!

So one of the episodes we watched recently was about wood.  Yeah, wood.  Like from trees.  Which is odd, because wood isn’t exactly modern, is it?  But it is sort of a marvel.  For example, I marvel at how many leaves one tree can produce.  If I were that efficient, I’d be running marathons while programming robots in space to stop tsunamis and redirect the tidal energy into washing my windows.  But since I’m not, I’ll just sit here in my cozy recliner and share with you what I learned about wood.  (Don’t worry, it’s not totally lame.)

Accidental Thing I Learned (ATIL) #1:  Trees are deceptively strong and can hold many times their weight – but only from a certain angle.  We already know how trees tend to grow – barring any obstacles, pretty much straight up.  And we all learned in elementary school about the rings of a tree – if you count the rings, theoretically you’ll know the tree’s age, since they add a ring of outer growth every year.  In other words, trees essentially GROW into columns – it’s what they’re genetically engineered to be.

In certain parts of the country, where the water table is high – (think New Orleans, and…well, that’s the only one I can think of.  But there are probably more) – you can’t build houses directly on the ground; they’d sink.  The soil is a silty, clay-muckity mess.  The solution?  Build somewhere else.  But if you can’t, or won’t (humans are invariably stubborn) – use trees.  Lots of trees.  To set up a new building, you first get a ton of wood columns.  You then use a big digger/drill machine thingy (sorry for getting so technical here) to shove the mud out of the way in a hole, and then a pile driver to shove the tree-columns into the goo.  Once you line up a few dozen trees, you have a series of columns that can each support many times their own weight.  From there you level ’em off and go ahead and build your hospital or hotel or whatever.

What makes this especially impressive is that these columns are made of the same stuff that is seemingly effortless to chop in half with your bare hands.  Seriously, little five-year-olds in karate class give a shout and <thwack> they’ve totally split a board.

The secret, of course, is in the grain.  It’s pretty tough to smash through a tree by slamming down on it directly from the top.  Take a plank, however, and you’ll see the wood’s weakness – the grain.  if you want to break a board, you just line up the grain to be parallel with your hand, and while I wouldn’t recommend punching into a hunk of tree without some guidance, it’s significantly easier to break through this way.

In other words – depending on how you strike it – a tree can be overwhelmingly strong, or deceptively weak.  From the right angle, it can support great structures under significant stress and impact.  From others, it’s child’s play.

I guess we’re all like that, aren’t we?  Don’t we all have some seemingly little things that just fling us over the edge?  Give me a mass layoff at work, or a personal tragedy, and I’m a pillar of strength, being admiringly Zen-chill and waxing philosophical all day.  But a curt word from a loved one, or a flight delay, or someone leaving a dish in the bathroom (the bathroom!  Really?!) for THE ELEVENTY BILLIONTH TIME, and I lose my shiz all over the walls, floors, and countertops; I’ll be scrubbing my outbursts off the ceiling for weeks.  Those seemingly minor annoyances cut me across the grain.  While I can be strong under significant adversity, what appears to be a disproportionately small stressor breaks me in two.

ATIL #2:  Charcoal briquettes were created as a way to use up waste in the automotive industry.   Yes, the backyard barbeque gold standard wasn’t invented on purpose – this wasn’t a product to fill a consumer need; it was a manufacturing one.  Back when cars were first invented, they were modeled after carriages – so they were made largely of wood. As demand grew, so did the pile of scrap.  Eventually, someone got the bright idea to burn it down and resell it to cook meat.  A little bit of marketing, and voila!  Garbage turned into money, and Ford Charcoal morphed into Kingsford, and they still make the picnic staple today.  (Although nowadays they’re owned by Clorox.  You can read a more eloquent version of this history here.)

It goes without saying that it’s better to deal with the garbage in our lives – the emotional clutter, the mental baggage – than to let it pile up and rot.  You can only store it for so long before it starts to smell badly enough to distract passers-by.  But to find a way to turn an unfortunate event, a mishap, a broken heart into something not only salvageable, but something clean, shiny, and new that brings something positive to others who might need it?  That’s brilliant.  And probably better for all of us.  Yeah, I know – that’s one of those things that SOUNDS easy, and we all know it’s not.  But I wonder how much farther I’d get if, instead of mulling over the well-known choruses of “woe is me” and “this sucks”, I focused instead on “what positive change can I make from this?” or “what can I learn from this?” or at least “how can I share this experience in a way that’s helpful and not totally preachy?”

ATIL #3:  Wood can stay strong for CENTURIES underwater.  You’re probably thinking what I was thinking – “but wood HATES water!”  I remember from my marching band days how much damage a good rainstorm was theorized to do to my clarinet.  And we all know what a good flood does to your hardwood.  But what I learned is that surprisingly, water isn’t the enemy.  Wood can last for years out of the water, and it has a very similar resilience when submerged.  You can see some evidence of this with shipwrecks that are hundreds of years old – they’re surprisingly well-preserved and haven’t deteriorated much differently that they would have on land, save a few starfish and some globs of seaweed.

What wood DOESN’T like?  Change.  If wood gets wet and stays wet, it’s fine.  If it’s dry, and never gets wet, it’s also fine.  But take a dry piece of wood, and saturate it, then let it dry…and it’s weaker.  Repeat this cycle and wood deteriorates rather quickly.  This is best demonstrated with old wooden pirate ships.  The top half of the boat that sticks up out of the water and doesn’t really get that wet stays pretty sturdy.  The bottom of the boat, that’s always underwater? Also pretty solid.  Where the boat starts to fall apart is at that line where the boat meets the water – the constant transition of going back and forth from wet to dry to wet again causes the boat to lose its integrity.

Now, you and I both know we can’t entirely control change.  Things change when we least expect them to – you can be ambling along at an unobtrusive pace when life suddenly chucks us curveballs and trap doors and the occasional fire-breathing dragon.  But there’s a lot we can control to be better prepared.  Just like you wouldn’t put a wooden boat in the ocean without some sort of wax or fiberglass coating to protect it, neither should we barrel through life without some sort of shield.  I’m not saying you should put up walls and lock people out – that would be shielding ourselves from being human, and let’s face it, if you hide from the pain life springs on us, you’ll also miss out on all the joy, too.

But we can certainly prepare ourselves, mentally and physically, for the inevitable stumbles and storms.  We can meditate.  We can pray for peace and strength.  We can put down the pizza and the Pop-Tarts and eat more green things.  We can exercise; we can stretch, we can sweat, we can think, we can learn.  We can shut off our iPhones at a reasonable hour and rest. We can give a lot of hugs.  We can express gratitude.  We can allow ourselves to be loved, and we can return that love.  We can stop being so hard on ourselves when we miss perfection, and instead work on having a generous and kind spirit.

Sometimes the boat has to meet the water.  There’s no avoiding that.  So I’ll pack my life jacket and do my best to continue to sail.

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2 thoughts on “The Things We Learn From Trees

  1. Pingback: Dragon’s Loyalty Award and Random Katie Factoids | Carrots in My Carryon

  2. Pingback: If Ya Can’t Be Normal, Be Paranormal | Carrots in My Carryon

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