Our Wondrous World
By Avrohom Katz
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
One of the interesting features of human nature is the ease with which the unusual can quickly become part of the accepted. Take the case of the plastic bag. Plastic is a relatively modern invention, but it has become an accepted part of society. One of its chief uses is in the manufacture of plastic bags. Once upon a time shoppers owned a fabric shopping bag, which accompanied them on every shopping trip -- now, it is a rarity, since every store supplies a plastic bag to carry every single purchase, from a box of matches to a tub of ice cream. Most homes have plastic bags by the dozen, and usually possess large plastic bags to hold their smaller plastic bags. The ubiquitous plastic bag has numerous applications -- including being worn over mens hats when it rains. Try and remember the very first time that you saw a man running through the rain wearing a plastic bag over his hat -- what was your reaction? There is definitely something unusual at the sight of a grown man with a garbage bag perched on top of his head! Occasionally, the plastic bag actually fits the hat, but more commonly any old bag that comes to hand is used. At first, it must have caused a riot, but gradually, as more people adopted the custom, it became an accepted practice. Now, at the first drop of rain, you can wear any color, shape or size of plastic bag over your hat and no one will bat an eyelash. Such is human nature.
This helps to explain why it is that one of the most fascinating features of the created world passes most of us by without us paying it too much attention. If you left grass uncut, and allowed it to grow without interference, what height would it reach? If you have a wild, uncultivated garden, go out and look! It is rarely more than three feet. If the same question were asked about trees, what would your answer be? The sky is the limit. Before looking at the statistics, the question that needs answering is why grass does not grow as high as trees, or conversely, why are trees not as short as grass? Trees are so much part of our landscape (every kindergartener or first-graders first picture is of a house with a tree standing -- sometimes the correct way up -- next to it) that we rarely notice them. They are there, because they are there. Who needs trees, what use have we from them, what would the world look like without them?
Try and imagine a world without wood, especially in the preplastic era. Since the first boat with an iron hull was built in Yorkshire, England, in the year 1777 (one year after the American Declaration of Independence), any sea travel before that time would have been impossible. Since all pre-1777 boats were constructed entirely from wood, all the distant continents, including North America and South America and Australia, would have waited centuries to be discovered In a world without wood, house construction would have been limited to brick, hides, or mud. Since bricks were once (and still are) an expensive commodity, out of the reach of most peoples sparse income, people would effectively have been consigned to live their lives forever in mud huts. Without wood, there could have been no inland transport. People traveled by horse and cart. Horses come from horses -- but where do carts come from? Without wood, man would have been isolated and homeless, unable to till the land or cross a river, or travel beyond the sea. Life would have remained harsh and isolated, poor and primitive.
Even now, living in a world of unimagined technical advancement, where the first word the little toddler utters has changed from Da-da-da to Computa-ta-ta, where habitations of concrete, glass and plastic are the norm, take a look around your house and see just how many things are made of wood. The list is endless: the ceiling joists above your head; the floorboards beneath your feet; doors and window frames; the table in your dining room, with the chairs that surround it; the closet that stores your clothes; together with the breakfront that holds your candlesticks; the bookshelves; the banister and the stairs themselves. How could any cook worth her (or his) salt make a cholent, or anything for that matter, without a wooden spoon with
which to stir it? Are you enjoying this article? Then thank the tree. Newsprint is chemically treated low-grade wood pulp. Once upon a time people used fabric handkerchiefs for their noses. No longer -- it has to be a tissue. Kind-hearted people even buy boxes of them and donate them to shuls so that handkerchiefless mispallelim can find an immediate solution to any nasal crisis. It is flat, loosely woven fibers that give tissues their soft texture. The paper is made from wood pulp treated with plant resins to make it absorbent. From the atzei chaim to picture frames, from mezuzah cases to door handles, there is not an aspect of life that is not affected by wood.
A tree is a magnificent creation. The redwoods of California, which reach heights of 320 feet, are the tallest trees in the world. Some are so big, so nobly impressive, that they have been given their own individual names. One is the General Sherman. It stands 290 feet tall. Its girth, measured at six feet above the ground, is nearly 80 feet. Its trunk, branches, foliage and roots are estimated to weigh over 6000 tons. And this stupendous unparalleled accumulation of organic tissue has all been produced from a single seed weighing a fraction of an ounce. But before you get too carried away, just imagine what would happen if every blade of grass grew to such a gargantuan size -- not only would you never be able to play golf, but you would actually be prevented from any mode of land travel due to the impenetrably thick forests that would grow everywhere. If every piece of vegetation grew to the size of even a modest pine tree (197 feet), no one would be able to build a house, for the spreading roots of enormous vegetation would undermine every single structure in the world. Man would walk like a Lilliputian, dwarfed by the gigantic structures that would enclose him in an endless, darkened forest.
What we in fact witness is a balance of inspiring proportions. Throughout the world there are scattered vast areas of grassland, which cover about one quarter of the land surface of the world. These are large, open areas of land covered in grass, where low bushes and a few trees may also grow. There cattle graze and crops are grown. Then there are forests. The world is blessed with coniferous forests (so called because their seeds are produced in cones). Vast coniferous forests of spruce, cedar, larch, pine and fir are found where conditions are cold and harsh. Deciduous forests of oak, beech, maple and ash, which require more temperate climates, are composed of trees that shed their leaves once a year. Then there are the much-discussed rainforests, which are found in a belt around the equator, where both the temperature and the amount of rainfall are high all year round. Inside a rain forest
it is always hot, dark and damp. Enormous trees tower above the forest floor, forming a sort of roof which blocks out most of the sunshine. The canopy is so thick that rain can take 10 minutes to reach the ground! Rainforest trees never lose all their leaves at once. They are always green. Amazingly, the leaves of different trees never touch! This perfect balance, which is not accidental, means that there is space for everyone, and that precious wood-giving trees do not impose on human beings ability to live in peace.
Do you ever buy flowers for Shabbos? Do you buy flowers each week? Would it not be more economical to buy them once a year? As everyone knows, even the most beautiful bouquet of blooms enjoys a very limited period of glory. Even after one week, they begin to wilt and the pristine beauty of the colorful flowers begins to fade. This was not arranged by the florists in order to increase business, but the result of the cellular makeup of the plant. Trees are different. If you happen to find yourself in the White Mountains of eastern California, especially at the height of 10,000 feet, you might come across some bristlecone pines. They will look stunted and ravaged, and the tallest of them will only be some 30 feet high. But do treat them with respect. They were already ancient when Columbus landed in the New World -- in fact some of them are about 4,000 years old, the oldest trees in the world. How do they remain vibrant for so long? Why is it that if you fell wood, and cut it into timber, barring any invasion from outside infestation, the wood will remain firm and solid, seemingly forever? Think what would happen if wood had the same life expectancy as daffodils!
Wood does not rot or rust. It is available in all parts of the world, and in great abundance. It comes in different colors and varied textures. You can have softwood (for use in buildings) or hardwood (perfect for furniture). Wood is strong, yet easily carved or cut to any shape you wish. Compared to metal, it is light in weight, and floats on water. Compared to any other material, it is inexpensive. And most important of all -- it is self-reproducing. When trees were created, an abundance of blessings came to the world. Those blessings of Creation are with us still, waiting to be appreciated, if we but open our eyes to see.