Talking Trees and Dendrochronology

by Ericka Michal

When I was a kid in rural Washington State, I grew up on the property my father was raised on.  I heard the stories from my grandparents about how when my father, the seventh of eight children, was a toddler he used to like running off and trying to hide, so they put a red hat on him to be able to spot him on the hundred acres of old-growth timber.  

My grandparents came from Slovakia, and were a team in every aspect of the word.  When they cut the firewood or lumber, my grandmother and grandfather worked the crosscut saw together—split, stacked, and hauled the finished product to its designated spot.  

My dad bought twenty of the hundred acres and the house from his parents, and we had a routine every year as I was growing up: to venture to the swamp and cull the widow-makers and snags for firewood that coming winter.  Dad would warm up his Stihl chainsaw after carefully filing the chain to sharpen its teeth, and tell us all to stand back with our safety goggles in place.

Sawdust would fly; the buzz of the chainsaw would fill your ears, and then cut out just before the telling crack of the tree falling.  We had the joy of calling “Timber!” as the tree was going down, and resting on the stump as dad came back from checking on the fallen tree.  It was one of those times that my dad informed me I was sitting on a map of the tree’s life.

I quickly hopped up and looked around me.  He pointed at the tree stump, and at the tree’s freshly cut log end.  “Those rings tell you how old a tree is, and what kind of life or environment has happened while it grew.”  We counted the rings of the trees after that every year and dendrochronology was a word I became familiar with at seven years of age.  

Now, as an anthropology major in college, I have learned more about dendrochronology, and that even the Viking ships that are unearthed, are able to be dated by the tree rings within the slabs or logs on their ships, along with the knowledge of where the tree was likely harvested from and the weather or climate conditions the tree had endured up to the time of its harvest.  

People often say, “if trees could talk...” Well, they do.  Every tree is unique and has a story to tell, which is why I enjoy looking at the furniture Robin Wade makes, and deciphering what the tree went through before I was able to enjoy its wood in my table, chair, bench, or counter-top.  I wonder who sat under its branches many years ago, had their first kiss, shot a bear or deer to feed the family.

Because trees do talk; trees do talk, try listening for yourself.

See Tree-ring.

Talking Trees and Dendrochronology

Robin Wade