Tag Archives: forest

A hoo-hoo in the darkness

As if she wasn’t cool enough already, Harriet Tubman, christened Moses by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, used owl calls to alert freedom seekers about whether they could run or stay put. (I think there is some question about whether her acolytes actually used that moniker, as they do in the movie version of Tubman’s life. But like so many history-bytes, it’s too good to deny. Let’s believe everyone did call her that.)

At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, one historian says that an owl call would “blend in with the normal sounds you would hear at night. It wouldn’t create any suspicion.”

Scout, spy, guerilla soldier and nurse for the Union Army, Tubman was also a naturalist. She grew up in an area of wetlands, swamps and upland forest. As an enslaved domestic servant at the age of seven her jobs included wading into the swamps to check on the muskrat traps. She worked the timber fields with her brothers and father.

She famously made 13 trips from the north to Maryland between 1850 and 1860 to lead people to freedom. And her earlier experiences in those forests and timber fields helped her read the map of the outdoors and employ the sounds she knew by heart.

The North Star and the Big Dipper were also crucial when it came to traveling under cover of night. And she knew the rivers she and her followers would have had to travel in order to throw off their scent when the tracking dogs came.

We don’t know for sure what kind of owls she emulated — a barred owl or “hoot owl”, probably, though a great horned owl is a possibility. Certainly not these babies, that only peep. Harriet’s “hoo-hoo” was a sound that a fortunate few got to hear and respond to.

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Oak makes headlines

That is, when the trees are centuries-old and are being harvested to rebuild the spire of Notre Dame.

They come from a former royal forest, and the process is beginning with a 230-year-old Sessile oak tree, Quercus petraea, with 1,000 more trees to be collected by the end of March, before the sap rises and the wood contains too much moisture. They’ll be air dried for 12-18 months before being cut into shape. This lumber will replace other lumber that was centuries old.

Most are perfectly straight and large enough to support the weight of the spire, the result of careful work in a forest that originally supplied timber to the French navy.

Oak trees have been central to French culture forever. There was a custom traditionally in French villages called affouage — residents could cut an allocation of firewood from communal land every year. The trees would be marked accordingly. Even now, though they look natural, the oaks in French forests were planted deliberately. They are regularly culled so that the straightest, fastest-growing and healthiest remain.

If you’ll remember, the cathedral’s original roof contained so many oak beams it was called “la foret.”

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