Watoga Park Foundation
The Black Walnut
Imagine how resourceful you would have to be if you intended to go out and bag a deer with the technology of pre-Columbian Native Americans. And, you had to actually construct that technology.
That is, you would have to design and make a bow, an arrow shaft, obtain and trim the fletching, knap a flint arrowhead, and make a bowstring. And finally, you would have to securely attach the fletching and flint point to the arrow shaft with deer sinew.
And that does not even take into account the skill involved in getting close enough to a deer with a longbow to make a clean shot.
Faced with such a challenge most of us would end up on a steady diet of grasshoppers and dandelions. There is, however, such a person among us here in Pocahontas County, who is demonstrably up to the task.
For Mike Smith, the scenario I described above is not a hypothetical one. Mike has the skills to do all of those things and, in addition, has the ability to make a fire with stone and wood, with which to cook the venison.
Not only does he possess these skills, but he has demonstrated his proficiency by bagging a deer with a bow and arrow that he made as described above.
Most folks will remember Mike as the superintendent of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, where he resided for more than three decades before retiring a few years ago. Following retirement, his considerable skills were put to work building the house that he and his wife, Christine, now call home.
One of the things that is so striking about their home is the different types of wood used in its expansive interior. That is because Mike loves wood, native wood in particular.
As I gazed around the interior of Mike and Christine’s home, he pointed out black oak, scarlet oak, chestnut oak, white and yellow pine, yellow poplar, white ash, black locust, wild black and fire cherry, hemlock, red and Norway spruce, red elm, sugar maple, American chestnut and hickory.
These woods create a panoply of hues representing nearly every tree found on their mountain estate, aptly named Vineyland. The array of colors grace everything you see in all directions; floors, stairways, ceiling, furniture, wainscoting, trim – everything!
However, there is one type of wood that is conspicuously missing – black walnut – the very theme of this dispatch. There is a good reason for this and I will let Mike tell you in his own words why there is no black walnut in the construction of his house. Just hold on for a few more paragraphs.
I visited Mike at his portable sawmill recently while abiding by the requisite social distance that COVID-19 has visited upon us. What I saw in the hours that followed was something that I will never forget.
Mike selected a log that looked all the worse for wear. I couldn’t imagine obtaining anything of value from the “punky” log that sported several different species of fungi on the exterior, and presumably, permeating the interior, as well.
The log did not look suitable for firewood, let alone usable lumber.
But Mike said otherwise.
“You’re just seeing the vascular part of the log,” he said. “There’s likely good heartwood in there.”
And he was correct. There was enough heartwood of red oak to make the handles he needed for his wheelbarrow and some one-by-sixes and one-by-fours to boot.
It was as much enjoyment for me to watch the process of turning a log into useful and attractive boards, as it was seeing the joy Mike gets from constantly eyeing the log as it was reduced to boards, and making the near-constant adjustments to the saw.
He didn’t hide the pleasure he gets from knowing that the output of his skills on that sawmill resulted in surrounding his family with a beauty few would ever know.
The topic of this dispatch is as stated in the title – the black walnut tree.
So I asked Mike about his thoughts on this tree that is held in such high regard by so many people – for reasons ranging from objects of art, the fine stock on a vintage Weatherby rifle, to some treasured walnut church pews in Buckeye, West Virginia.
The following is what Mike had to share on the topic of the black walnut tree.
“Black walnut is commonly used for fine furniture, veneer and high-end paneling. Gun stocks are almost always made of black walnut, and for the same reasons, it is dimensionally stable, takes a fine finish, and is a vibrantly grainy dark color.
“Custom gunstock makers will pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for lumber cut from the stumps and rootstocks of black walnut because of the wild grain and luminous highlights.
“The nuts, of course, are a distinctive food for both animals and humans. However, some folks are allergic to them. The nuts are also a source of dye; think of the “butternut” colored uniforms of Confederate soldiers: both white and black walnut are used for dyes.
“Walnut wood is not very good for firewood as it burns with a weak, smoldering flame and mediocre coals. It always surprises me that it does not burn better, being fairly hard, heavy, and strong. Still, considering its other sterling qualities, one can hardly complain that it does not make good firewood.
“Black walnut is conspicuously absent in our house because I had traded my stash of it for a walnut table as a wedding gift for my daughter, Hanna.”
Well, Hanna, any dad who would trade away his special stash of walnut lumber for a wedding gift is a dad worth keeping!
Authors Note: I had the distinct pleasure of going on several of Mike’s nature hikes over the years. He is a captivating speaker; not in the sense of a loud motivational speaker, but a sincere and honest tone that everybody can relate to – young and old alike.
People hang on to his every word as evidenced on his final nature hike at Beartown State Park a few years ago.
As is my custom, I arrived an hour early for the scheduled hike, thinking that I would explore around a bit before the crowd arrived. I had to scuttle that idea immediately because the crowd was already there.
I asked two women, who turned out to be sisters, why they got there so early. One of the two piped up, “We just wanted to be sure to be up in front so we can hear everything Mike says, he is so knowledgeable and approachable. We are really going to miss his nature hikes.”
Mike Smith is an exceedingly modest man, and as such, may take some umbrage at my public disclosure of his many skills. But fortunately, he is getting up there in age, and, if he is anything like me, he’ll forget his displeasure by the next edition of The Pocahontas Times.
Stay tuned for next week’s edition of the Watoga Trail Report when we will meet the maestros of the lathe, who turn out beautiful objects of art from walnut.