By Kathy Bryant
On July 12, 2022, I was terrified when a howling wind started violently shaking my house. After the storm subsided, I discovered that my giant pecan tree had fallen and destroyed my porch. Warner T.L. Taliaferro, my great uncle and a professor of agriculture at the University of Maryland (UMD), had planted the tree around 1888, when he built the Queen Anne victorian our family has lived in for four generations. About three years ago, an arborist measured the tree and said it was the largest pecan in Maryland.
When I saw it splayed across my yard and two neighboring properties here in Old Town College Park, I felt like I was watching a family funeral. I felt strongly that something special should be done with the wood. But first, I had to fight off the tree-trimming contractors who showed up the next morning, eager to clear it away.
In honor of my great uncle’s background in agriculture, I decided I wanted to donate as much of the wood as possible to the University of Maryland. I connected with Ted Baker, who lives in Calvert Hills, through the neighborhood listserv. Baker manages the Terrapin Works’ woodshop, which is under the auspices of the UMD School of Engineering. Baker was delighted to hear my offer and explained that pecan is one of the hardest North American hardwoods and is challenging to work with if one is building fine furniture. It has beautiful contrasting light sapwood and dark chocolatey heartwood that make it a very striking material. He wrote, in an email, “Some of the wood will be used to build a workbench for use in the Woodshop. As an avid woodworker myself, I’ll use the remaining wood for projects that I build for myself, family, and friends as I find opportunities to show off its remarkable properties and get to building something beautiful that will last for generations to come.”
I thought my uncle would have loved the perfect cosmic circle for the tree to end up at the university as raw material for skilled artisans.
Because there were so many moving parts and people involved, the trunk wasn’t moved until the following July, a full year after the storm. Chesapeake Tree Service removed the main section, and the company’s owner said that at 8,300 lbs, it was the biggest trunk he had ever seen or moved. Baker had to search the entire state to find a sawmill that could process a trunk that large.
Jonathan Weizman, who is with Makers Woodshop, in Windsor Mill, coordinated removal of the trunk. Weizman runs one of the largest bandsaw mills in Maryland and will be cutting the trunk into slabs and other shapes for Baker and others at the woodshop to use.
Smaller pieces of the tree have already taken on a new life. When Mark Goodson, who lives in Berwyn (and is former managing editor of the College Park Here & Now), heard that the tree had fallen, he immediately came and cut some firewood for his outdoor stove. He also took some branches to give to a friend in Takoma Park who makes pipes.
Mark Hill, who lives in Calvert Hills, picked branches to send to his brother-in-law in Boston, who makes wooden spoons. Alan Hew, a city councilmember, directed me to members of Montgomery County Woodturners, who fashion artworks out of wood. When Gary Guenther, past president of the organization, alerted the group to the availability of pecan logs, he got an immediate response.
Jeffrey Struewing, of Takoma Park, made me an exquisite wooden tray and spatula, and named the wood Taliaferro Pecan, after my great uncle (he carved this onto the bottom of the tray). He also made three spatulas that he gave to me to present to panelists at a recent Montgomery County Woodturners meeting. Struewing made the tray from a log Guenther initially rejected and left behind “because it was too wormy,” Struewing said. He explained that it was turned thin and finished with Tried & True Original Wood Finish, which is linseed oil and wax, and that the cracks were filled in with colored epoxy. The coloration and spalting are gorgeous, and the worm holes add character.
Guenther, who is making a magic wand for me out of wood from the tree, wrote, “The woodturning community is known for being generous and caring. If woodturners are presented with raw wood, it is customary to gift a turned item back to the provider. Woodturners enjoy working with a variety of different wood species, for diversity and experience, and it is a pleasure to get locally-rare or unusual types of wood to work with. Occasionally, wood with a special provenance may become available, and this is highly prized.”
Eliot Feldman, a former UMD professor, made a special cup for me. And Michael Colella, another woodturner in the club, who exhibited at the Renaissance Festival, is planning to make me another magic wand.
It’s been many months since the tree came down, but it’s finally ending up exactly where I had hoped it would be — in the hands of people who treasure the wood and want to make something beautiful. I don’t know if the magic wands will actually cast spells, but holding one in my hand will certainly conjure enchanted memories.