Not the Oaks I Grew Up With

Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships - Virginia Steele Wood

The author's name is not a pun. 


The Live Oak, as distinguished from the oak trees most of us northerners recognize,  grows from Virginia too the Texas border and has a different leaf and because its new leaves appear by pushing off the old ones, is known as a semi-evergreen. It's incredibly strong and large.  The branch span on an old tree can shade a half-an-acre. Green live oak weighs 75 pounds per cubic foot and "the weight of a single branch stretching a full 70 feet is calculated in tons."  This means the trunk must be incredibly strong and dense making the wood so hard as to be of little use for wood-workers. 


The live oak is tolerant of salt spray so it grows well along the ocean even growing in sand dunes. Decimated by construction of ships and coastal buildings, the tree is now celebrated by the Live Oak Society and in gardens and parks.  John Muir considered it "the most magnificent planted tree I have ever seen."  A picture of a mature specimen is below.  Believe it or not, there is a person in this picture to provide scale.  



A great deal of live oak, which by the early 19th century had developed a world-wide reputation for being the best wood for warships, its durability was estimated to be five times that of white oak, was needed to build a ship: 23,000 cubic feet, or 460 live oak trees, in the case of a frigate.  Europe had been denuded to build navies. It was a sellers' market and attempts to purchase large quantities of live oak for the Navy resulted in locals demanding exorbitant prices, "for patriotism is a plant which does not grow in this climate."  John Quincy Adams had the foresight to try and buy up live oak lands and to try to build a live oak plantation, if you will, under the aegis of a Florida judge who had written the first treatise on the growing and care of live oak. Unfortunately, Adams's efforts were for naught as they fell before the onslaught of Jacksonian politics.  


Ironically, after the need for any kind of wood for ship-building disappeared with the advent of steel ships, the navy had tons of live oak stored under water from before the Civil War.  It became so hard that it resisted efforts to work with it during the attempted restoration of the USS Constitution in the late twenties.  In 1945, two samples  ruined a power saw. 


Wood follows the work of a live oaker as they left New England and sailed south to the live oak forests where the hard work began. They first had to build base camps with their own housing, usually shelters strong enough to keep out the rain and heat. Oxen to haul the logs had to be transported along and often they were forced to put the animals in a kind of sling so they wouldn't fall and break their legs during rougher weather.  Live oak is heavier than water so it could not be floated downstream.  All of it had to be hauled, so the first task was to build roads to the suitable trees. Once the tree was felled, an arduous job, hewers would take over  and begin squaring off the tree and then according to plans, hew the appropriate knee or some other part of the prospective ship's frame. These were then hauled to the landing where they were inspected and marked and only then shipped back to the New England shipyard. 


Obviously, I could go on boring everyone but myself. Lots of excellent line illustrations and detailed notes and bibliography. Marvelous.