For millions of years North America, England and Europe were heavily forested. England’s deep forests were dominated by oak trees. From these lordly oaks at the dawn of English history druids gathered airborne mistletoe of magic significance.
Stamps from England and the United States acknowledge these magnificent trees. England’s oak stamp appeared in 1973, their Tree Planting Year (Sc.# 588). The United States Honored the Charter Oak, still lordly after three hundred years since Connecticut’s settlement (Sc.# 772). Again in 1978, a white oak was an obvious choice as one of four American trees honored. The other three were the giant sequoia, the white pine and for less obvious reasons the gray birch.
More than a dozen European countries have issued stamps with oaks in their design. Probably the most memorable is Germany’s post World War I of an oak stump sprouting anew (Sc.# 106).
Over the last 2500 years England’s forests dwindled, yielding to the axe. So they gave way to green pastures, farmland, towns and cities. There were still isolated forest fastnesses whenever Robin Hood lived in Sherwood Forest. Some centuries later, Shakespeare was born near the Forest of Arden, at a time when men continued to “Hew down and fell the hardest-timbered oak”.
Oak was used for furniture and, in England, house building. It was vital to ship building, for as a poet wrote, “the hollow oak our kingdom is, our heritage the sea”.
In New England, houses were made of white pine, which could be hewn and sawed more readily. It was pleasing to the eye and in many cases very durable.
Yet North America’s stands of oak had many uses over the years. The US Frigate Constitution (Sc.# 951) was largely made of oak. The vessel still exists, but all its oak that came in contact with water has had to be replaced or reconstituted.
Oak bark was used for leatherworking (U.S. Sc.# 720). By soaking for long periods in its tannic acid bath, raw hides could be turned into supple yet durable leather. Out of this process came an early problem in conservation in Colonial America. Both oak bark and oak wood had different needs and neither could be discarded. Tanners were authorized or licensed exclusively, so their costly and lengthy process would occur without waste, and all hides accounted for.
Then in time oak timbers became railroad ties, where their resiliency withstood the pounding. Here they lasted a respectable number of years.
Many other trees have their uses. The white pine masts supported the vast sails of oaken hulled ships, their long spars going to England from Colonial New England in specially devised oaken mast ships.
Canada is rightfully fond of its maples which greet springtime effusively. Cedar is best for wood shingles. White birch and maple are lighter and pleasing in texture for furniture. Ash can be split thin and woven. For archery, as Conan Doyle noted, “The bow was made in England, of true wood, of yew wood”.
That these and many other woods have their most important uses is fine and right. Otherwise for the oak tree to be king would be no great matter.
This article has been reprinted from Global Stamp News April 1991 – Issue #6