Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on March 22, 2009 | Science and Nature
What a relief!


In making
a wooden crate for
Looking Up, I noticed the strong
contrast between the two sets of growth
rings in this 2 x 2 milled from a tree. 


A western hemlock
tree took 26 years to grow
halfway across the diagonal of the board
then took only 7 more years to grow across the
other half. 
From one year to the next, which in tree
years is suddenly, it started to grow almost 4 times
as fast!
It chugged through a very long School
Zone for half an hour at 30 km/h then
punching it up to 120 for a few
minutes and going as far.

What happened?
Most likely, for all the years
of its early life something inhibited the
tree’s growth then, from one year to the next,
it didn’t. 
The tree sprang to vigorous growth and
continued growing that fast at least until the other
corner of the board. 
Probably, larger, older, nearby
trees shaded its early life, relegating it to slow growth
and waiting. 
Suddenly, a tree that had been shading
it either died naturally and lost its leaves or died in
a logging accident
and suddenly there was light.
What a relief!  Thinking about this stark case
example of release of potential reminded
me of the tremendous potential we
all have if we only release
If we release it.


about that board recalled
my bedroom when I was young and
of the power of imagination to generate
My walls and ceiling were entirely
knotty pine boards.  My parents painted each knot
with shellac, dozens of them, and let it dry, then painted
the boards with a thin green stain. Before it dried,
they wiped the knots clean with a rag
moist with turpentine, leaving
them shiny.

effect of
it mesmerized
me.  Knot-coloured
knots, stark against green
stained  boards.  G
rowth rings,
within knots, along boards, captured

It was magical. I spent hundreds of
hours dreaming about those patterns, awake,
imagining the lives of trees. I knew
knots had been branches and rings were
annual growth patterns.  T
hat’s what
I took to bed with me at night
and woke up with in


over a long period
I can’t come close to estimating,
wondering about knotty pine,
my grasp
of tree growth and forest growth
Early questions
were about trees.

Why does
knotty pine have
so many branches? 
Is it a
kind of tree or just a kind of board?
Why do some trees have more branches?
Why are each board’s branches’ growth rings
similar?  Why are they so different from those on
other boards? 
Why do some branches grow faster
than others on the same tree?
Why do some parts
of some branches, especially on some boards,
grow faster than others, changing
the shapes of the knots?


I didn’t realize
it until many years later,
but other questions weren’t about trees
but about studying trees.   They were about
science, about answering my own questions.
The whole knotty pine “thing” was significant
in my development as a scientist.
That sort of question led to
questions like these.

Which way is
up on a board, toward
the sun, and which way is down
toward the ground?  
How could I tell
whether any board’s branches grew ‘into
my room’ from the board or ‘out’ away from
If knots were pipes and I was looking
through them would I be looking out of or
into the tree?
After years of wondering
it finally dawned on me how to tell
which way is ‘up’ on a board.
It relates to the shapes
of the knots. 


I still wonder about
some of the same things today.
Here’s an example. 
My brother and
I took down a lot of limbs last spring a 20
foot extension ladder and a pole saw beyond
Every branch and the knot left behind
after we removed it showed the same
response to stress due to gravity as
I had wondered about in
my bedroom. 

As branches
grow longer they get
thicker and heavier and need
more support, especially on the lower
side, which grows faster in response and gets
thicker and stronger than the top.
And the
patterns? The shapes?
I spend all day
every day wondering about
them and creating

That is what it is to sculpt.

In the background
of the image is a stool I made
in 7th grade wood shop in 1955, still
with its original paint. My mother used it for over
40 years and I’ve used it daily in my studio for the last 23.

Ken Lertzman,
who studied hummingbird
mediated pollen flow in subalpine
plants for his MSc with me, then studied
“gap regeneration” in forests for his PhD.  When
a tree falls in a forest, there may be no one around
to hear it, but the death of that one tree sets off a chain
of responses in the surrounding forest that takes decades
to play out.  Suddenly, literally from one moment to the next,
there is light.  Where there is light comes warmth in the day
and cold at night, and in the wintertime comes snow.
All kinds
of things are different, but the bottom line is that everybody
scrambles for the light.  In the long-long-long term, the
light gap in the canopy can contain only one mature
tree, and whoever gets there first gets to stay alive,
keep growing vigorously, and produce many
offspring.  Except for a few stunted young
trees that manage live for a few years,
waiting for a death nearby,
most of the others die. 

It was the dynamics
of that scramble that interested
In that study, which was in a mature
forest near Cypress Bowl, above West Vancouver,
Ken learned that though it has already been 10,000 years
since the ice receded from the big glaciers, the forest as a
community is still responding.  (At least it was still
responding 30 years ago when Ken studied it.)
Maybe instead of saying it has already been
10,000 years, I should say it has
only been that long.

Ken is a
professor in the School of
Resource Management at Simon
Fraser University. 
In this video, Ken’s
feel for the dynamism of forests is clear and strong.

First published in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited January 2019

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