Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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

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

A western
hemlock 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 grew
almost 4 times

If western
hemlock growth
were like a car, then
imagine this.

Way back
in the olden days
when the tree was young,
it chugged its way through
a very long School Zone for
26 years at 30 clicks,
then punched it to
120 for a bit and
went just
as far.

What happened?

inhibited its growth
when it was young,
which is a way of life for
young trees in deep
dark forests, and
lots of them fail
to make it.

Then  it grew like crazy,
which is
also a
way of life. 

If trees
get enough light
and live long enough
to get a chance,
they’re on it.

The tree
sprang to
vigorous growth
kept growing like
that at least as long as
the other corner of the board.

What happened is that
somebody died.

If a tree falls in a forest
its shadow falls with it,
and when shadows fall,
sunlight follows behind them.

It’s good news for the
little ones when the
big ones die.

The lights come on
and the race is on
to take all the light
and plug the gap.

What a relief!

– – –

Reflecting on the life
of a board
reminded me of

– – –

My Knotty Pine

From 1947 when
I was 5 until I left
home at 18, my
and ceiling were 100%
knotty pine boards.

My parents
painted each knot
with shellac, dozens of them
all over the room, carefully,
just getting it on the knots.

When the shellac was dry
the knots were shiny
like eyes, dozens of them
all around the room.

Then they painted
the whole room with a
weak green stain that
soaked into the wood

instead of covering it.

I could still see the
growth rings on the boards.
the stain covered up the knots
enough that I couldn’t see their
rings.  They
didn’t look
like eyes

What happend next
was magical.
With a cloth
over one
they slowly
and carefully wiped
the stain off each of
the knots.  Stain doesn’t
soak in to shellac
and it wipes
right off.

visual effect
of it mesmerized me,
captivated me, and
kept me interested
all those years.
It may have made a
biologist out of me.

Knots, stark like eyes
in a field
of stained green boards.

Growth rings in knots and
growth rings along boards
my attention,
drew me in, and
gave me a lot
to wonder

I dreamed
those patterns for
hours and days and years.
Awake and asleep, I
the lives of trees.

I knew knots were branches
and knew rings show
how much trees grow
every year. 

Gradually from there,
wondering about knotty pine,

my grasp of tree growth and forest
growth developed.

My earliest questions
were about the trees.

Why does
knotty pine have
so many branches?
What makes it so knotty?
Is knotty pine a kind of
tree or a kind of board?

Why do some trees have
more branches than others?
Why are the growth rings in each
board’s knots so similar?
Why are the knots on different
boards so different?

Why do some branches grow
faster than others on the same tree?
Why do some parts of some branches
grow faster than others?

What makes it happen that way?

– – –

Though I didn’t realize
it until many years later,
some of my questions
not about trees but about

learning about trees, and
hose questions led to
questions like these.

Which way is up
toward the sun on a board?
Which way is down toward
the ground? Is there a
way to tell?

Can you tell whether
any board’s branches
grew into my room from
the knot or out and
away from me?

It was fun to imagine
 those branches,
that growth,
and that

 After years
of wondering about
this, it finally dawned on
me how to tell which way is ‘up’
on boards.
You can see it in
the shapes of the knots.

As branches
get longer
they get heavier.
More little branches.  More needles.
More to wave in the wind. 
They need
support on the bottom
to keep from breaking
The bottom sides of the branches
grow faster than the top and get

thicker and stronger.

can see it in the

shapes of the

– – –

It was a long time
ago when that happened.
Just last spring, brother Gerald
and I used
a 20 foot extension ladder
a long pole saw to cut lower
limbs off
big conifer trees
around our house,
balsam fir and

Some branches were
long and strong and thick
and heavy and some were thinner
and already dead.   All of those branches
from all of those trees, and all of the
knots they left behind, showed the
same patterns I saw on my
knotty pine walls
and ceiling. 


In the
background of the
image is a stool I made
in 7th grade wood shop in 1955,
still with its original paint.

Mom used
it her kitchen for 40 years.
I’ve been using it in my
studio for 25.

Ken Lertzman
studied how hummingbirds
pollinate flowers in subalpine
meadow for his MSc with me,
then studied “gap regeneration”
in forests for his PhD.

When a tree falls
in a forest, no one may
hear it (we hear a lot
of them from here).

But that one tree’s death
creates a gap in the canopy
and takes decades for the
consequences to play out:
gap regeneration.

literally from one
moment to the next,
there is light and
scramble to catch it.

Light gaps can hold
only one mature tree, and
the tree that gets there first
gets to plug the gap, stay alive,
grow, and produce many seedlings.

Almost of those seedlings
will die when they are young,
leaving only those few with
the luck to catch the light.

In that study
of a mature forest
above West Vancouver,
Ken learned that though it has
already been 10,000 years
since the big glaciers receded,
the forest community is
still responding to
that change!

Instead of saying
it has already been
10,000 years, I should probably
say it has only been that long.

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

First published in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited February 2021.
This latest edition was inspired
by admiring Marty Kurylowicz’
knotty pine attic in a
Zoom call.

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