The Giving Tree

By , April 23, 2012

As I’ve mentioned before, the local variety of birch tree is our most precious wood resource on the homestead. While its harvest can be highly problematic, it’s well worth the effort. A birch, in many ways, is similar to Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.


I was surprised to find that the most recent birch I felled is hollow through much of the tree. While this means we’ll miss out on some of the volume of the tree in terms of solid firewood, there are other advantages. The rotten wood that fills the hollow spaces is rich, natural compost. I excavated the stump with an army surplus trenching tool, and scooped the insides of the hollow branches clean. Roughly speaking, I filled 3 5 gallon buckets with it. All of it can go right on the garden beds, a real boon for us, gardening on thin soil as we do.

processing a birch tree

The processing yard. Stump at top left (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

The firewood produced from the tree is still considerable. I got several solid rounds from the main trunk. The sound upper branches yielded rounds of good stove wood; the highest branches, already bone dry, will serve nicely as kindling. The twigs, chips from chopping during felling, miscellaneous small fragments and the outer wood of the stump yield buckets of fuel for our hot water heater. The bark is excellent for fires; the thin, papery parts are better than newspaper for tinder, the thick slabs from the base of the tree burn well and long. What stays on the logs will help them ignite in a fire, what falls off can be gathered for tinder.

The bucking, gathering, hauling, chopping, and stacking all provide vital exercise outside in the fresh air.

The tree’s fragrance is heavenly. It clings to my hands, arms, and clothing at the end of the day, and perfumes the forest around me. The sweet smoke that will rise when we burn it this coming winter will be like incense.

Through all of this processing, I’ve been careful to avoid damaging the lone sucker that has sprouted from the underground section of the old tree’s roots, green, slender, and reaching for the sunlight. With luck, it’ll grow until, some 15 to 20 years from now, it will become a giving tree for Aly and her children.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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