American Black Walnut

I left school when I was 16 years old. I had few qualifications behind me; and no idea of what I would have liked to do for a living; or what kind of work I would be eligible to obtain. I had made an off-the-cuff preference to my teacher – my school attempted to place all students in work as they left, when they left at 16 years. My preference was to work in the open air.

Thus I ended up at East London in a vast 25 acre timber yard; a piece of real estate worth madness figures even then, let alone today. The timber yard was run by a family; at at the time I was unaware that the family were Christians and that they were a family whose Christian values they applied in as far as they were able to in running their timber business.

I remember there was a smaller offshoot company in Nigeria; which when I learned of gave me a mad idea to write to a company in Sierra Leone and enquire after a job with them in timber. Thankfully they never replied.

The work in East London proceeded and indeed was open air. My work was to measure boards of timber after they had been craned from a lighter at a dockside on a river and onto the quayside and there stacked into ‘sets’ by labouring employees. I was considered, like all the host of other lads doing similar work, to be office staff; possibly because I held a pen and a paper and a clipboard and some crayon which we referred to as ‘chalk’. The crayon was used to write on each board I measured the square footage of it in what was termed ‘foot run’. From this ‘foot run’ was calculated; by one knowing the standard thickness of boards in any given ‘set’, the cubic footage of any lighterful of timber as landed on the quayside.

Ships would come in from Africa, USA, Japan, and Eastern Europe, South America; the Far East; Borneo; Indonesia; Philippines; Russia; Scandinavia; and bring in hardwoods and softwoods to the London Docks down river in the east of the City of London. In those days there were still Tilbury; Gravesend; Leman Street; and at other places on The Thames massive oceangoing ship docks where huge quantities of goods were yet being loaded onto ships and off ships almost higgledy piggledy fashion. Containerisation was an incoming feature which occurred over the first few years of my employment.

The ships unloaded timber onto lighters, smaller non-motored vessels, pulled in trains of up to about five or six maximum, up river by tugs. A tug would caused a wide and powerful wake as it pulled cargoes up river; and these constant wakes eroded the river banks where banks were not reinforced by iron girders piled into their shorelines vertically. Over time, like the timber trade itself; tugs became a cause of great loss to and destruction of their environments.

My first day at the timber yard and I met a young guy named Mike, who knew the ropes and was going to show me some of them so as to get me begun as a useful employee. Mike took me to 32 shed. Every shed which sheltered ‘sets’ of timber, to keep them dry from rainshowers and protect them from hot sunshine, had a name or a number of its own in the 25 acre yard. There were perhaps thirty or forty huge sheds in all, some with roads running through them and sideloaders and forklifts using these roads as thoroughfares, and to shift timber by and load onto articulated lorries which carried timber deliveries all over the UK. No railways were ever used, funnily enough – although this has only just struck me as a fact and as an anomaly.

32 shed was the home of some exotic imported, and home-grown wood species in the shape of sawn boards. I remember there were Japanese Oak boards; none greater than 12 feet long since the Japanese variety was relatively small compared to an English or an American oak tree. 12 feet was a very long board for Japanese Oak. There was English Ash; a lovely white and beautifully grained hardwood; scarce and used sparingly by those who could afford to buy it. Little British timber other than softwoods was ever seen at the timber yard; native hardwoods were just too depleted historically in the UK and so used rarely consequently for logging purposes. There were some few other exotic woods there in 32 shed; and the first wood species whose board I ever measured; learned to measure upon; and had labouring men stack into an ‘order’ for a customer on the roadside to be picked up for a lorry by a sideloader: the first species was American Black Walnut.

American Black Walnut is an amazing wood. It is very dark, and very heavy, and when sawn but not yet planed it shows itself as a rough and dusty unattractive heavy board. It is however quite aromatic; and in fact many woods were so, and one could be identify them close up by their odours alone. No one who has smelt it ever forgets the smell of wet Afrormosia.

The boards of American Black Walnut I measured and moved that first day at that first job were few; the customer order required only ten or twenty square foot of timber; and boards say 2 inches thick soon mounted to twenty square foot. I did notice a few boards which had stayed unexposed to the sun and wind and lying beneath the top layers of the ‘set’ we were working from; that they had retained their freshness far better and showed almost as they had been when they had first been sawn at the sawmill in the United States before shipping. These few boards held in their grain along the length of them a beautiful purply-blue sheen, a feathered and figured grain I believe is the proper terminology. The boards were shimmering as one turned one this way and then that way, shifting it from its stack to the customer order pile. Later I was to see just how this American Black Walnut looked when planed and polished and put to use as a decorative feature in quite expensive furniture. There is nothing quite like it; excepting of course for a number of other beautiful and stunning woods I came across in my time at the yard.

Coming from a developed nation, The United States, American Black Walnut was of a course a scarce wood and was in those days highly prized and highly expensive to buy. American Black Walnut had been logged heavily for over a century before I got to see it for the first time in the yard.

Now I move on in time a little. Having acquired in my time at the timber yard a strangely abiding affection for woods, I have during my lifetime taken perhaps more notice of woods in use in homelife and in business than the average joe has? As I have got older and into retirement I have occupied myself among other things with collecting together a small, but for myself, a valued library of books about woods. One such book which I came across just a week or so ago and which was offered at an astonishingly good deal of less than £5, I bought; and when it arrived in the post soon after I saw there was an entry init for American Black Walnut. The book in question was: A Field book of American Trees and Shrubs : A Concise Description of the Character and Color of Species Common throughout the United States, together with Maps showing their General Distribution by Mathews, F. Schuyler (Ferdinand Schuyler), 1854-1938 

Here next is the entry I saw for American Black Walnut:

Black Walnut: A tall, handsome tree 50—75 and some times 150 feet high, with a trunk diameter of 3-4 feet , and not infrequently 8 feet in the Ohio Valley ; the trunk straight with stout branches nearly horizontal below, and at a Sharp angle with the stem above , forming a symmetrical round-headed tree. Bark warm medium brown, or dark (sepia) brown, very rough, with deep , short perpendicular furrows, and rounded confluent ridges. The inner bark yellow after exposure; the twigs stout , very gray-downy or ruddy tan and smooth. Leaves compound, with 11-17, sometimes 23 ovate lance-shaped leaflets , often a trifle heart-shaped at the base, and taper-pointed ; they are thin, bright yellow green above, somewhat downy and paler beneath, and turn yellow in autumn; the long stem 1-2 feet long, without the horse-hoof-shaped base . Flowers similar to those of J. cineria , the catkins thinner. Blooming in May. Fruit almost spherical, large, 1.1/3-3 inches or more in diameter ; the husk rough-dotted dull green, the shell thick, rough-ridged, dark sepia brown ; the meat sweet, rich flavored, oily ,two-lobed above, four-lobed below the middle. The Black Walnut is distributed through rich woodlands in the eastern United States from Mass. south to Fla., and west to southern Mich. Wis. Minn. Neb. Kan. and the San Antonio River, Tex. It is not native in Me. N. H. and Vt .; in Mass. it is very rare east of the Connecticut River and only occasional west of it; it is rare in R. I. and also in Conn., though more frequent and probably native at North Canaan. The tree is practically destroyed for further lumbering purposes. It has been almost exterminated in the Mississippi Valley and in the forests directly west of the Alleghany Mts. Certainly not less than 80 years are required for it to attain sufficient size for valuable timber, and during the lapse of nearly 40 years since it began to grow scarce little if anything has been done to increase the supply; on the contrary, the cutting has proceeded without regard for existing conditions. In the year 1899, over 38 million board feet were cut, and seven years later about 48 million, an increase of 24. 5 per cent . The wood is deep brown, aromatic , hard , heavy, rather brittle and coarse-grained; it is used in cabinet work, gun stocks, boat building, etc. Weight 38 lbs. to the cubic foot . 

I just love the way these guys and girls take such loving and precious care to detail precisely and clearly the foremost traits and qualities of items to which they have devoted a lifetime of study. Not just in woods as here; but the booklists on Amazon and eBay are crowded with books by these great yet unsung, unknown, obscure dedicated souls.

I do not mean the academic persons in the main, although a few of these academic persons I would include in my general praise and admiration. I mean the ordinary joe or jill here and there, who is not out for reputation; not up for a prize; not seeking for herself; but is wholly immersed in and self-denying in their pursuit of their chosen field for mining out truth.

The fact and witness that so many persons have been satisfied to live and die in such humble but dedicated lives is available for allcomers to take note of; one need not even purchase many of their books; but if you are low on funds or else unwilling to buy; many of these masterworks of care and dedication are available online gratis via Gutenberg Project; Hathi Trust; Google Play; and; and onlinebooks.library – these seem to me to hold the largest collections but there are yet several other more specialised online libraries which offer items free of charge

You might want to donate a small thankyou voluntarily now and then though?

Such persons who have laboured obscurely in the vineyards of scholarship are a band of persons who inspire me with hope and gratitude; hope for the future of a love generating a truly disinterested interest in humanity; and gratitude that these persons stand as models of lives well-spent for my money.

The entry above of American Black Walnut was published first in 1899; some 120 years ago. Yet the story of the Black Walnut tree and its forests has all to sadly a very contemporary ring to it. Regarding the tree’s severe depletion to a point of scarcity; a tree which was able to sustain in its former days millions of foot run of its timbers being harvested annually; at least for a decade or two; has not by human rapacity and disregard been brought extremely low in the world from its former glories across the USA. That such a turn of events souls have been observable and prevalent at the turn of the century 100 years ago is for me; and I hope for you; a shocking and a fearful thing to be learned of today; that we as a species have been on an industrial scale systematically ravaging the planet for over a century now. Is it a wonder that our sins are presently being found out and visited upon our heads? Is this visitation anything more or less than to have been expected in the longer view? Even in 1899? Does it look to be the case, as it seems to me to have been, that the generation of 1890 and thereabouts was content to grab what it was able to in the present and leave the future to be mopped up in some way by following generations?

And is this not the case with every generation, perhaps even before but certainly since; and is it not the case in our own generation still for many who do business by raping the earth and go hang the consequences? And is it not going to be the case for future generations for many who exploit without a thought of giving something back to nature in return for its bounty?

The conclusion seems to be that concerning the persons who take and do not give anything back that the animal urge to aggregate and to accumulate and to empire build and be a somebody during their lifetimes; all this is like a sickness in men (and sometimes in women), which pouts far too much emphasis on the present, on the life they themselves are living, on the material and the suppose ‘good things’ to be had of secular material life. Are these persons no other than the land grabbers of the past; the empire builders of the past; the petty Alexanders who aimed to accumulate so far that they would weep for having no more worlds to conquer.

And are not these sorts of persons very often the very antithesis of that group of persons who are and have been happy to write detailed loves stories to their interests and life-passions as a gift to posterity of their diligence and dedication? Is not one sort, the accumulator, the person who is all about now and nothing about any other time in their lives or in the past or future? Whereas the chronicler and the cataloguer and the person who aims to bring understanding and order and good sense to bear on earth’s properties and treasures; is this type not all about the legacy which s/he aims to leave posterity as a resource?

Perhaps it is that very fact of the gifter to posterity being contented and satisfied with an obscure and often a lowly place in the secular scheme of things which allows those who would land grab and deplete ores and mines a free-hand to spread their wills out across continents and dragoon into service thousands tens of thousands of people at their biddings? Certainly those amongst the logger barons of American Black Walnut during the 19th century didn’t seem to have bothered reading the entry copied in above and written about their disastrous activities.

On the American plains the buffalo and all over the Native American, the State of Nevada, and in Russian (when USSR) The Caspian Sea; The Northern Tundras; the seaports on the Jutland strip; in Australia the Native Peoples; and the iron mountains; in South America the rain forests; the precious metal mines; the timbers here and all over the world are all disaster areas in the present day; and all as a result of the hand of man; and almost ubiquitously at the hand of economic man.

In the timber yard I would measure up and shepherd into the 25 acre yard up to two or three shiploads – that’s around fifty lighters filled with timber unloaded and measured and set and stored away to season before going out to customers, or to the sawmill ot the kilns or to the moulding specialists. This was in the late 1960s. The yard itself at any one time probably had hundreds of thousands of tons of wood stored in it. Maybe millions.

This was one yard out of in London about five or six main timber dealers along the river from East inner London out as far as Enfield and Cheshunt; say a distance of ten or twenty miles. Most timbers, other than softwoods, which are conifers and which are much more easily made to be sustainable woods to produce; came from Africa; sub Saharan and east and west but not deep south. Nigeria. Ghana; Sierra Leone; Ivory Coast. During my time there these African woods were becoming less popular with customers, who used them mainly for making furniture, household and industrial. Their resource was becoming damaged and their price hence was steadily increasing. In their place arose a trade with the Far East where great forests of Meranti and Keruing grew; and of course the lovely Teak of India and Burma; the fragrant and beautiful Rosewoods of India and of the ‘Malayan’ peninsula; there was also Ramin from Indonesia and several other up and coming woods; nowhere near as desirable as African Walnut or Sapele or Utile or Agba; but far less expensive and more plentiful.

I was in the timber yard working for six years; and in that short space of time the drift of change due to depletions of timber resources had been palpable. Such was the scale of depredation.

My employers were good people and looking back I now see how generous and kind they were towards me and many persons. They went out of their way to employ a good amount of West Indian immigrants newly settled in Britain; and in a place like East London where at that time prejudice was not uncommon towards this class of immigrant; this action of theirs was highly commendable. A few persons with mental disabilities and persons with little hope of holding a job elsewhere found a niche there. I do not believe the Company was full aware of the calamity which was happening in some part at its hands.

A few more interesting bits and pieces before I close this one. Most softwoods came from Scandinavia; and were being farmed there,as they are yet today, responsibly and sustainably. We would occasionally get Cedar wood come in, and Cedar wood is another aromatic wood and one which is again superb and lovely. Not just to smell but when planed its grain was perpendicular to the length of the boards and decoratively mellow tan and figured as stripes of thinner dark tan lines and wider lighter coloured tan areas between the lines.

Cedar cam from Canada mostly; often not by lighter but by road. From the USA as a softwood came Douglas Fir. Now this was a sterling wood but not so decorative for furniture rather it is used as a building construction rafter etc. Some pieces of Douglas Fir came in which were 12 inches by 12 inches by 24 foot long – enormous items; and I knew even back then that one does not get many of those out of a single tree. It was impressive to see them but also a bit sad to think a complete tree of some staggering size and height had been the provider of such wares.

There was a hardwood known as Opepe; which was bright sunshine yellow when cut from its log. Now and them there would be seen in the inner heartwood running the length of the bole bright red blood coloured streaks in the yellow. And again sometimes Opepe would suffer what were termed thundershakes; a condition which harmed the commercial value of the timber and which at that time I believe the cause of the condition was not certainly known.

Thundershakes when the length of a log cut open showed the timber as having been almost perforated by some shock or by some catastrophe. These perforations ran at rightangles to the length of the tree; thus causing severely weak areas in the length of any timbers cut from such a tree. Along these perforations boards cut from a log of Opepe would give way quite easily. Opepe was in use for water jobs, like docksides and outdoor woodworks. It was very heavy very hard and very durable. But one bad thundershake could ruin a whole bole commercially. Opepe’s uses demanded great strength and resilience from it, and a shake of this kind could not be allowed to pass unnoted.

Thundershakes had various theories about their cause. One was that the tree had been struck by lightening. Another was that the shake occurred when the felled tree hit the ground. There were several other projections as to cause but I never have discovered a definitive answer to the question.

When Opepe was wet it stank quite pungently. Ah, memories!


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