Bog Oak

I’m contemplating doing some carving on bog oak.  Have you heard of it?  “Bog Oak” is a bit of a misnomer; it is likely to be oak, but could be another species such as pine or yew.  What is for sure is that it’s old, as in hundreds to several thousands of years old.

How can wood be that old?  Whether it’s a punky log in the woods or a plank that can no longer bear your weight, wood rots.  Fungi break down the structure of the wood cells to utilize the stored nutrients within.  Insects speed the process by boring through dead wood on a macro scale.  But these processes require two things: moisture and oxygen.  Take away one of these and the wood resists decay.  Wooden structures in arid or semi-arid locations can remain for hundreds of years, while those in temperate conditions collapse and crumble in a generation or so.

How can wood survive in very wet conditions?  Through a combination of factors.  The tannins in oak inhibit decay to begin with; the waterlogged wood, covered over time with earth, receives very little exposure to oxygen.  The boggy soil is generally acidic as well.  These factors all work together to inhibit fungal action (Incidentally, these same conditions are responsible for the preservation of “bog bodies”).

With time, the tannins in the wood react with iron salts and other minerals dissolved in the acidic soil and water, darkening and hardening the wood. The high mineral content makes bog oak difficult to carve; it dulls tools like no other wood I’ve worked.  The mineralization also makes the wood more resistant to burning, making bog oak an attractive material for tobacco pipes.  Bog oak is known as morta in the pipe industry.

Excavating the wood is a tricky process; most times, the wood already began to decay before being submerged or buried.  The salvageable bog wood must be stabilized and dried carefully before being milled.  As a result, bog oak is a very expensive lumber, and is most often used for small decorative objects such as pens, knife handles, or pendants (it was in demand during Victorian times for black mourning jewelry). 

Bog oak is most commonly found in Great Britain, Northern and Eastern Europe, and Russia. My source for bog oak is in Ukraine.  I won’t be ordering more wood from them for a while, because I expect they have other things to occupy them at the moment.

Duck Feet

There are many stories that can be told about Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a legend when I took his Vertebrate Natural History1 class.  “He’s forgotten more than most people ever know” was commonly used to describe him.  His own turns of phrase could be more colorful; for example, he would describe  any task or obstacle that promised to require a significant fee in blood, sweat, and/or tears as “a ring-tailed bitch-kitty.”  It was an epithet often used for his exams, and his courses in general. 

“Uncle Ernie” had a blue million2 stories attached to his name: some dealing with combat on volcanic sands, others with tracking down rattlesnakes in coastal scrubland. But if there is one Uncle Ernie story that has achieved contemporary folklore status among wildlife and ecology professionals, it probably involves duck feet.

Provost taught Ornithology at one time. He taught Ornithology students, as he did in Natural History, that while birds were all related, each species was unique.  Much about a given bird can be gleaned by its morphology, from the shape of a bill to the structure of its feet.  A mallard foot is different from a grebe foot, a barred owl flight feather is different from a redtail hawk flight feather, and a finch bill likewise differs from that of a whippoorwill. Therefore, he required that students study, not just the whole individual, but the feathers, feet, wings, and tails to learn how to identify species by a piecemeal approach. 

Fast forward to the Practicum – the exam of concepts and identification using actual specimens.  Among the assortment of bones and wings was a series of study skins, with paper bags covering all except the feet. To pass the test, the students needed to identify the critter based only on what could be seen. 

It was clear that one student hadn’t studied enough.  He might have recognized whole specimens, he might even have differentiated known ducks by their wings.  But the minutia of webbing and talons was beyond him.  The professor, sitting behind a desk at the front of class, couldn’t help but notice the increasing agitation on that side of the room. 

Finally, the frustrated young man stalked up to the desk, threw his paper down, and stomped towards the door.  Provost glanced at the page with its conspicuous blank spots, and called after the fellow.

“At least give me your name so I can mark that you were here!”

The dude turned around and held up one leg towards the professor. Hiking up his pants leg to expose his boot, he replied, “You tell me, you son of a bitch!”

That story was first told to me, with some embellishment, by Dick Payne, a professor at ABAC and acolyte of Provost’s; his version involved the wrapped bird specimens being thrown across the room to make identification that much harder.  Other versions of the story, mostly attributed to a nameless professor, have cropped up since then.  The story has become part of the mythology of college wildlife classrooms.  When I pressed “Uncle Ernie” for the truth of the matter, he gave me the unadorned account which I have related to you.

1 “Life history strategies of vertebrates with emphasis on ecology, behavior, taxonomy, and systematics.” Part lecture, part lab.

2“a blue million” was another term Provost frequently used; means “an awful lot”