One of the most remarkable things about the T.C. Steele Historic Site, in the T.C. Steele state park, are the trees. That is, when one considers that the remarkable thing about Steele’s landscape paintings, made at the same site, is the utter lack of trees in them.
From his home, high atop his ridge, Steele had a clear view of his 2,000 acres, and then some. And from there, a century ago, Steele painted landscape after landscape of Indiana big-sky country where, from knob to holler, topography was king.
For the first wave of white settlers had cut down every tree they saw. Whether to make room for agricultural fields, to supply lumber to build their shelters or to burn for warmth, it made little difference. All fell before the axe and the saw. Within two centuries of our arriving, this country’s landscape had been transformed from an endless canopy of trees and into a rolling sea of dirt.
It got a little dicey for a bit. As I said, wood was used not only for building but for burning, too. Less than a century and a half ago, wood was the primary fuel of mankind.
Railroads, used to simply harvesting what they needed along the tracks, had to go farther and farther to find the wood to fire their boilers. But even that began to falter as the distances became too great to make even the most desperate search for fuel worthwhile.
In the meantime, people huddled in their log cabins, in their one- and two-room pens, and they tried to keep warm.
Oh, the weather outside is frightful …
I’m thinking about those chills today, during this year’s first snow. It’s cold, and it’s wet, outside. I’m inside though, and I’m both dry and warm. Is this an entitlement, or am I living through some kind of a fluke?
My house was built in the period when people were huddling, and trying to keep warm -- a period of increasing energy scarcity. The people who built it started out with enough wood to build its framing from solid walnut -- timbers a foot on either side. But they ended up, as I discovered during a renovation phase, stuffing the walls with old leaves and old newspapers, witness to the trees that made them, in an effort to keep warm.
The railroads found a miracle, just in time. Pennsylvania anthracite -- not the trees themselves but their fossils -- burned better and brighter. And as the railroads went, so went the homes, until the anthracite was nearly gone and another crisis loomed as the houses went cold, once again. Waiting for some way to heat them.
It came, of course, in the great hydrocarbon discoveries of the 20th century. Oil and natural gas came online to fuel everything from the locomotives to the basement furnace.
My house went through the same transition. The pre-Civil War fireplaces stand as monuments to the wood age. They’re followed by the coal-black-stained basement bunker, to anthracite what the chimneys were to wood. And now, today, the high-efficiency propane furnace, next to the old coal bunker, exhausting into the old wood chimneys, attests to the rise of petroleum man.
Propane is an amalgam of both oil and natural gas, a little more of one and a little less of the other as prices dictate. But, for the past decade or so, prices have dictated only one thing: scarcity. This old house now runs $400 or $500 a month to heat, modestly, in deepest winter. Ten years ago it was less than half that amount.
Back to the future
This is, of course, not a micro- but a macro-level event. Oil, gasoline, diesel and natural gas prices have all marched relentlessly upward, following the same tragic trajectory that wood, sperm whale oil and anthracite followed before. As the resource spirals down, the price spirals up.
Which means we’re going to have to face some tough decisions in the future. Does the barrel of oil go to hauling a container’s worth of Bibles made in Nanjing to a Des Moines Wal-Mart? Or does it go to keep the temperature in a Boston tenement above freezing next winter?
All of this got me thinking back to wood. Since our switch away from it a hundred years ago, the forests have rebounded. Southern Indiana is a riot of trees, a world that T. C. Steele would have found utterly foreign.
But what if we went back to burning the trees, just to keep from freezing? Steele’s USA of 70 million people burned them all in a short century. If the oil and gas spigots gurgle on empty, how long will the trees carry us?
The wonderful web site, www.theoildrum.com, provides the necessary analysis. If we burned enough wood to keep us as warm as oil and gas now keep us, the 300 million of us would burn through all the trees in the country in just four years.
In Indiana, it’s even worse; we’d be out of trees, we’d be out of firewood, in two.
Two years to go back 200. Back to stuffing the walls with leaves and newspapers.
Gregory Travis can be reached at .