A few months ago I met an Irishman in Edinburgh while at my daughter's graduation from the university there. The first question that was most pressing on his mind to ask me, as an American, was if we really made our houses out of wood. He was most astonished at my affirmative answer. His astonishment continued to amuse me as we, my husband and I, went on to tell him a lot of things about America, specifically the Midwest. Our blasé attitude toward tornadoes, for instance. The possibility of being within a continent of them was chilling to his sensibilities. But what we told him we paid for healthcare almost made him faint. It was a fun conversation which I will not soon forget.
Recently I was reading some reflections by G.K. Chesterton on his travels to the United States. He also was dumbfounded that we made houses out of trees. What is this about?
First of all, one must realize what British and Irish houses are made out of: stone. Stone that lasts. Stone that will still be there centuries from now. Stone that is solid. It won't be blown down, rot, or wear away at a rate that is concerning to any one home owner. They'll be long dead before they have to worry about the effects of erosion. Their gardens are walled and terraced with stone. Their sidewalks and pavement are sometimes cobblestone. Stone is, in fact, what they think of as building material. Trees, they do not.
I can't speak for Irish trees, but British ones are close to sacred. A tree planted is not cut down. It is revered, protected, and built around. You have to walk down a street called "Beech Lane" to appreciate the fact that, old as the houses may be, the trees are older still. Most I could I not get my arms around, and many would have taken several people to ring it in a hug. While the Irishman was astounded at our wood homes, I was speechless at the British trees. I began to appreciate all the literature I've read that takes a few moments to describe, in reverent tones, the trees that the gentry loved and lived with.
Americans are still settlers--people on the move. Trees were in abundance when Europeans arrived here, and it was expedient to build shelter immediately. A few generations of wood-home dwellers, and a new custom is established. We have yet to appreciate things of permanence, and both trees and homes are often tossed aside for the latest and newest. I once heard a humorous definition of a developer: someone who cuts down all the trees, builds houses, and names the streets after the trees he cut down. If you start paying attention to street names, you realize how ridiculous they often are: Blueberry Ridge in a perfectly flat area, for instance. But "Beech Lane" you will not find in America for a few more centuries.
If you live in Michigan, it should be required for residence that you visit Hartwick Pines State Park to see what Michigan used to be covered with: white pine forests with tree trunks eight feet in diameter. Hartwick Pines is the only virgin pine stand left in the lower peninsula. The forest is a natural cathedral that inspires awe and silence.
All this said, I am not ashamed to live in a wood home. Wood is a renewable resource, it is flexible, affordable, and easy to use. The American Dream is to own a home. Trees make that possible. But I am also glad to be able to say I have white pines in my yard--for me, but also not for me--but for someone I will not meet in my lifetime. I hope the pines are there until it takes a whole family to ring it round in one big hug.