What Forests Give


Not everything that the forest gives us is wood. As a forest has inside it a variety of valuable living things, so a tree has inside it a variety of useful substances.

So far as we know the skins of animals were man's first clothing. When the last great ice age was coming on, when year after year the glaciers were nearer and the wind that blew over them was colder, when the sequoias and magnolias were being frozen and scraped off by the thick sheets of ice that plowed deep furrows into the rocks in New York and Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, then the men who were living in what is now our country probably picked up the hides of the animals they had killed and put them between their own shivering skins and the weather. When they had run barefoot over frozen ground till their feet were bruised, they tied a piece of animal hide over the soles of their feet. It was a matter of deep regret when a specially warm and comfortable wolverine skin dropped to pieces, or a well-fitting sandal rotted away.

Pulling off the Bark for Tanning Leather

Just when or where men learned to tan skins so that they would last and stay soft and pliable, no one knows. It might have happened when some shallow-rooted hemlock had blown over and the trunk lay soaking in a forest pool. A brown hairy hunter who had killed a squirrel for his dinner, skinned it, tossed the worthless little hide into the water beside the rotting hemlock trunk, and went home to his cave above a stream. Following along the same forest trail months after, he saw something floating in the dark pool and pulled it out. It was the shape of the old squirrel skin he had thrown away, but soft and light. Moreover, it was all there—none of it had rotted away as skins had when he threw them on the forest floor. He carried it away with him. What had made the difference? Was it the dark pool below the hemlock trunk that the little skin had fallen into? Would the same thing happen to a larger skin if he dropped it in the same place? He was not much used to thinking, but he tried hard to understand, and when he had killed a young deer he carried the skin to the same pool and dropped it in in order to find out—and that aromatic substance called tannin in the bark of such trees as hemlock and oak, which had soaked out of the fallen tree, soaked into the deer skin, and the prehistoric hunter had discovered a crude way of changing raw hides into leather.

We still use tree bark in tanning leather. Probably the bark of the same sort of trees that early men used—the oak and the hemlock—since these trees have been on earth longer than man has. The modern methods of tanning skins are much like the one prehistoric man worked out, only instead of tanning one skin at a time after we had killed the animal that grew it, and doing the kneading and stretching by hand, and taking perhaps months for the job we bring together skins from all over the world, and tan them by the thousands with machines to do the heavy work. And if there is a sudden demand for leather—as there was during the World War when our soldiers had to have shoes—we not only bring in bullock hides from South Africa, but also so speed up the process of tanning that what had once taken months to do can be finished in days.

By the help of trees our remote great-grandfathers preserved their coats and shoes of skins. By the help of our forests our soldiers were well shod. By the help of trees we wear leather shoes today.

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Last Updated: 19-Apr-2010
Forest History Society Electronic edition courtesy of the
Forest History Society.