Tree Time

By Eloise Beil on April 26, 2016

White Oak seedlings 2
White oak seedlings. Photo by Jennifer Pauk

Earth Day (April 22), for many people the best known part of National Environmental Education Week (April 17-23), is a wonderful time to be thinking about trees. For weeks as we make the transition from winter to spring, the first buds on the trees transform the monochrome landscape with a flush of yellow, green, or red – more subtle than foliage season, but such a boost to the spirits!

This year, spring also brought Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) some wonderful photographs of White Oak seedlings from George Pauk. The seedlings are growing in Washington DC at the home of his daughter and granddaughter – and some of them are destined for the Champlain Valley. These particular seedlings represent a new beginning: a partnership between LCMM and Vermont Family Forests that will involve students in the Champlain Valley and beyond, visiting some of the places where mature White Oak trees can be found, and seeking places where White Oaks used to grow, and might again.

White Oaks have a special place in many of the stories that we tell at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, because they were long prized for ship building. The gunboats in Benedict Arnold’s 1776 fleet were constructed of white oak framing and planks, with masts of lighter-weight pine and ash sweeps (oars). After the Revolutionary War, Levi Allen, who had moved to Canada, contracted to deliver Champlain Valley timber to Quebec firms. A December 1785 order included 20,000 cubic feet of squared white oak, and 10,000 cubic feet of white oak pipe staves – the raw material used for rot-resistant wooden water pipes. Between logging for market, clearing for farmland and fuel, the vast old growth forests of the region vanished. In 2000, when we began work on our replica 1862 canal schooner Lois McClure, there was not enough local White Oak for the project, bringing the connection between preserving our heritage and preserving our environment into sharp focus.

One of my favorite landmarks on the daily drive along Basin Harbor Road to the Maritime Museum has always been a pair of open fields, each with a single oak tree. The scene inspired my 2003 painting White Oaks, Winter – one of a series called “Vanishing Points,” in which I captured the changing light and weather in landscapes that feel timeless but will only endure if people help to care for them. Last year, time caught up with that particular landscape – one of the oak trees was felled in a storm. While I could accept the loss of this tree to natural causes, I still feel a sense of loss driving by.

White Oaks, Winter - oil painting by Eloise Beil
White Oaks, Winter – oil painting by Eloise Beil

Working with trees involves planning ahead – thinking in years, not just media moments. The storyline about White Oak trees will weave through our stream of blogs in the coming years. “Anyone who has ever floated on a boat, or used liquids aged in barrels, or reclined on a fine piece of oak furniture ought to be interested,” George Pauk wrote recently. “These trees are beautiful, magnificent and meaningful. We are growing in our knowledge, if not much in our acts of preservation and restoration, of natural balance. Perhaps the beginning of wider knowledge and restoration of white oak and white pine to forest strength will be a part of a larger movement toward better water and life for mother earth.”