I remember when I first visited Marathon Park in Wausau, my husband‘s hometown, to attend the Wisconsin Valley Fair, an event I loved for its fried cheese curds (of course) but also the Mason jars of ripe peaches and pickles in the Home Arts pavilion, all canned seemingly by the same blue-ribbon winner, my namesake Jeannie Zimmerman.
It wasn’t until years later when I returned as an arborist that I even registered the “old-growth forest” embedded in the 78-acre park, hundreds of soaring poker-straight white pines smack in the middle of town.
I considered myself a country soul in a city person’s body.
Hadn’t I loved living in a farmhouse in the middle of an orchard with an impossibly fecund vegetable garden?
Didn’t I cherish the memories I had of Auntie, my great-aunt, a home economics instructor in rural Tennessee?
I had always been enthralled with her needlework. The tatting I inherited from her mystified me; it seemed like the best kind of magic.
I nursed a fantastic collection of vintage recipe booklets.
I’d lived in a cabin for 10 years and immersed myself in nature there – the sound of night-time cicadas got me high.
Hadn’t I doted on flowers forever, planting vintage rosebushes and rare daylilies purchased from one Mrs. Jörg, who sold the plants out of her neat little house down the road?
Couldn’t I can peaches and pickles with the best of them?
Yet I knew nothing about trees. I associated Wausau with paper products, because pulp mills in nearby Rothschild made the stench of paper production palpable in the air –“the smell of money,” as they liked to say. I thought it was funny at the time, but never considered where the paper came from. Now I noticed the convoys of log trucks on the highways, a surviving vestige of the region’s lumbering past.
Gil was an expert in some aspects of the outdoors.
His father had been a cardboard-box salesman, an affable guy inclined to woo clients over late afternoon Cutty Sarks in the local tavern.
The packaging Acton Reavill sold to cheese companies and pizza makers was generated here from local tree farms, as are so many American paper products. Long, lean white pines, the bread and butter of the midwest. We take these products for granted.
Especially, as Gil likes to remind me, here on Wisconsin’s Fox River, toilet paper. The math: thirty-six percent of harvested wood is used for paper every year. The average tree weighs over 1,000 pounds and produces about 800 rolls of toilet paper. The average person uses about a roll per week, so this is a fifteen-year supply for one person. You can easily go on Amazon to purchase jumbo rolls of Marathon two-ply toilet paper. We wipe our butts with it every day.
I am not the only person without a clue as to where something so crucial as our toilet tissue comes from. My book-in-progress American Heartwood will chronicle the rich but largely forgotten history of logging in the United States. In this work of narrative nonfiction I will relate the historic tension between exploitation and conservation that has characterized the relationship we in the United States have with our woodlands since well before the Mayflower landed. I plan to tell the story of my journey from writer to arborist, and intertwine that adventure with a larger tale, the story of our long and complicated love affair with our forests. When I became an arborist, I began to find it sweet as maple syrup, the complexity of the woods around me that I had formerly experienced as one green whoosh passing when I drove on the highway.
My book won’t make an expert canner out of you – you’ll have to study under the other Jeannie Zimmerman for that –but I hope it will make you take sit up and notice of those majestic beings around you. In Wausau’s Marathon Park or Manhattan’s Central Park. Much more exists than at first meets the eye.