Leopold believes that not owning a farm poses a “spiritual danger” to a person or a family. He believes that having a farm alerts a person to where their food comes from. Additionally, he argues that cutting one’s own wood alerts a person to where their heat comes from. Both of these supply chains can easily be forgotten from the comfort of a city, with a gas or electric radiator and a nearby grocery store.
Leopold values the kind of knowledge that comes from living directly with and off the land. Although people in cities live an easier life (and although he lives that life five days of the week), he feels that he is a better citizen of the land knowing and understanding the ways in which it gives him heat and food and life.
Leopold cut down the oak tree that is currently heating his home. He thinks back to when he harvested it, and how he was able to learn so much about its history, and the history of the land, from its age and its rings. The tree had 80 rings, meaning it was 80 years old, and must have started growing in 1865. He sees the tree as part of the circle of life; it spent eighty years taking in the sunlight, and now it releases sunlight as heat. Leopold jokes that his dog doesn’t know or care where heat comes from.
Leopold reads the old oak tree in the same way he would read a history book. He finds the tree valuable not only as an object that will warm his house in the winter, but as a key to the past of the place where it grew. The oak tree is one of the most explicit examples of alternative sources of knowledge and history in the book, and is the first time wood specifically is shown to contain keys to the past.
The oak tree contains its own history in its rings. Leopold describes the sawdust as the tree is cut as “fragrant little chips of history,” and senses that as he cuts across the tree his saw is “biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime.”
As he cuts into the rings of the tree, Leopold is cutting through history. The tree is at once a portal into the past and a physical object that will provide Leopold with heat. However, it also carries physical markers of the past in its rings.
Cutting through the tree, Leopold journeys back in time. He cuts through the years he has owned the farm where the tree stood, and then the years the previous owner lived there. He cuts though the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. He notes that during the oak’s lifetime various laws were passed that either helped or hurt the environment, but can see that the tree is indifferent to these human developments.
Leopold can see the results of changes in the land in the rings of the tree. Although some of these were likely caused by human intervention (like fires caused by humans clearing out plants that had formerly prevented them), he can also see that the tree does not care about bureaucratic changes that will, in theory, protect it and the natural world.
Continuing back in time, Leopold notes the year Governor Philip of Wisconsin argued, “state forestry is not a good business proposition,” which ignores the ways in which land has existence beyond the scope of business.
This is an early example of the dangers of people searching for economic excuses to value the land. Throughout the book Leopold will argue that the land can and should be considered in terms beyond its economic worth.
Back in time he goes again, through drought years and historic blizzards, the death of the last wild turkey in Wisconsin, and all the way back to the Civil War. Leopold thinks the central question of the war is: “is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered?” He observes that no one has applied the same question to the “man-land community.”
Although it will be hundreds of pages before Leopold introduces his concept of the “land ethic,” he is already hinting at it. He believes that humans are part of a larger community that includes the land, and should consider it as a living thing that deserves respect.
Finally, Leopold has cut to the center of the tree, 1865. He cuts back out the other side, and the tree falls to the ground. He describes the process of cutting wood as similar to the work a historian does in the archives. A saw cuts across history, creating woodchips or “little chips of fact,” sawdust or “archives.” Meanwhile, the wedge takes a slice perpendicular to the bark, revealing a triangle of history. Depending on who places the wedge, this can provide much or little information. Finally, the axe can cut only the recent past, or tree limbs. Leopold says, “the three tools are requisite to good oak, and to good history.”
This is the first instance of Leopold treating tools as greater philosophical implements. Here, the saw, wedge, and axe are the tools of the historian and not just the tools of the woodworker. In both situations the person wielding the tools must be careful. Although the tree (or the historical archives) contains history, if it is not carefully approached, the scholar or the woodworker will find no useful facts. However, the careful and considerate investigator can easily find knowledge in any tree.
Leopold reflects that he will return the ashes from the oak burning in his stove to the orchard. These ashes, in turn, will help fertilize apples, or feed squirrels. No matter what, he knows the tree will live on in another form.
Although it’s not until later that he introduces the concept of the land pyramid and the Round River—both ways of describing the circle of life—this is an early example of Leopold’s sense of the interconnectedness of life.