Nature Notes

A Tree’s Death is Not the End

My birch spoon was lovelier than any I had ever bought for cooking (surely because I had made it). As much as I began to embrace my new hobby, I had to remember the goal: find an organization who can benefit from Arboretum wood.

By Erin Buchholz (she/they), Integrated Pest Management Specialist

No one at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum likes it when a tree is removed. A little piece of your soul goes with it. Perhaps you have a fond memory of better times spent in its shade. Maybe you attended a wedding nearby and it is featured in most of your photos. Could be that was the first tree you ever tried to climb, awakening your adventurous spirit.

Arboretum Maple tree stand in summer – Photo by Mark MacLennan

Like all living things, trees have life spans that are as varied as ours. Some can last centuries or even millennia, while others are lucky to live a few decades. Our horticulture team tries very hard to keep them thriving, and takes it personally when they decline. The decision to cut a tree down is never without controversy.

Sometimes I am able to spot a tree in distress, and I can alert everyone to what appears to be happening. I try to determine the cause by collecting all the information I can on climate, insects, disease, competition, construction and any other factors which can impact its health. I offer any treatment options I can think of, and we, as a team, decide what to do.

Other times, I’m too late. Or the tree went into winter just fine but did not leaf out the following spring. It’s incredibly difficult to determine the cause of death in trees since many pathogens move in after it’s gone. Sometimes we have to accept that we will never know why a tree failed, or how we failed it. That can be frustrating to those who most loved it.

But a tree’s death is never the end. In our natural areas, we leave as much of it as possible onsite. Felled trunks on slopes help to prevent erosion. The decaying wood provides habitat for mushrooms and wildlife. Soil microbes eventually assist in the decay and turn those raw materials into nutrients to feed the remaining plants.

Arboretum gardeners clearing trees damaged by winter storm – Photo by Christopher Hall

In our formal areas, however, the wood must be removed so we can maintain order, so we can replace it with the next generation, and so we can ensure safety. Those trees stay with us too, albeit in different ways.

Auxiliary Woodworkers

Auxiliary woodworker Bob Mugaas crafted this black cherry platter from Arboretum wood

If you’ve been a longtime member of the Arboretum, you’ve no doubt been to one of our Auxiliary sales and browsed through some of the beautiful wood pieces made from Arboretum trees. Our Auxiliary members are volunteers who support the Arboretum in multiple ways. Many Auxiliary members create unique, handmade items to sell at the Fall Harvest Sale (Sept. 23-25) and Holiday Sale (Dec. 2-4).  

White Oak bench created Auxiliary woodworker Nick Schommer from a tree removed near the Arboretum’s Sensory Garden

In 2018, the Auxiliary Woodworkers group started making furniture, platters, serving utensils, and other goods with wood from Arboretum trees. Some are hand carved, while others are expertly created with bandsaws, lathes, routers, and other power equipment. I’ve been able to converse with several of the woodworkers over the past few years: Kevin Alto, Bart Ellson, George Klacan, Bob Mugaas, to name a few. 

Ginkgo spoon. Blank made by Auxiliary woodworker Bart Ellson, spoon carved by Erin Buchholz

As industrious as the Auxiliary Woodworkers are, the Arboretum, with its 1,200 acres of woody plants, provides more material than the group can use. While meeting to discuss our plan for ash removals due to emerald ash borer, Director of Operations Alan Branhagen asked Arborist Dan Gjertson (he/him) and me to find other organizations who might be interested in working with wood sourced from the Arboretum.

Blanks made by Bart Ellson, spoons carved by Erin Buchholz

Fireweed Community Woodshop

My search for a new group to partner with led to my own journey into woodcraft. I’m not sure how I came upon Fireweed Community Woodshop. I probably fell down the rabbit hole best known as Google. I knew we all wanted to find an organization dedicated to equity and inclusion, as the Arboretum is working hard to reach groups we’ve unintentionally overlooked. Fireweed’s tagline reads: Empowering women & non-binary makers through the art of woodcraft. 

That is not to exclude men in any way. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of this particular craft as predominantly being seen as one for men. This organization tries to create equity within woodworking by creating a space where women and non-binary students can learn from and with women and non-binary teachers, at their own pace and within their own style. There are classes offered for all genders, too. (Be sure to check out the list.)

It sounded good to me! I wanted to learn more and find a way to connect with them. I signed up for a spoon carving class, which was delivered over Zoom. They mailed me everything I needed to get started: knives, sandpaper, a spoon blank, gloves, and walnut oil. Jess Hirsh (she/they) was our instructor. Hirsch shared their journey of learning and teaching. We learned different cutting techniques, we were given time to practice and proceed, and we each held up our spoons to solicit compliments and feedback.

First birch spoon made during Fireweed Zoom Class by author. (Not Arboretum wood)

My birch spoon was lovelier than any I had ever bought for cooking (surely because I had made it). As much as I began to embrace my new hobby, I had to remember the goal: find an organization who can benefit from Arboretum wood.

Staff Arborist Dan Gjertson (he/him) left. Nirupama Singh (she/her) middle. Fireweed Community Woodshop Education Coordinator Brianna Oseland (she/they) right. Loading logs of Japanese tree lilac, sugar maple, and Turkish filbert for use in bowl- and spoon-making classes at Fireweed in Minneapolis.

On Aug. 11, we welcomed Fireweed Education Coordinator Brianna Oselund (she/they) with her sister-in-law Nirupama Singh (she/her). After introducing them to Arboretum staff members and volunteers that they will continually encounter as we build this relationship, we began to load up Oselund’s car with logs to be used at their Minneapolis woodshop.

Sugar maple and Japanese tree lilac logs will be processed into blanks for bowl turning, and Turkish filbert will be made into blanks for spoon carving. The pain from losing these beautiful trees will subside as they are crafted into lasting memories by and for people beginning their journeys into woodworking. Our trees make it possible to experience creativity, productivity and equity. A tree’s death is not the end — it gives space for growth in more ways than we can imagine.

Erin Buchholz is an Integrated Pest Management Specialist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. She serves as the leader of the Arboretum’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

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