If your family is like mine, you're thinking about trees this holiday season. There's the Christmas tree to decorate, "O Tannenbaum" to sing, and a big tree in the front yard to drape with lights. But this season, I'm also meditating on a tree I saw in southern Africa, one so bizarre that, from a distance, it looked like it was planted upside down and that, viewed up close, had been so gashed by elephants it was shaped like an hourglass.
The tree is called a baobab, and it's a marvel of adaptation. You'll find a similarly ravaged–yet healthy–version at left.
In a land that receives scarcely more rainfall than Los Angeles and where temperatures routinely hit triple digits, the baobab's soft, spongy wood is saturated with water. That explains why elephants strip it; they're getting a drink. It is so drought-tolerant that some specimens are believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Its leaves are eaten like spinach, the pith of the seeds yields a lemonadelike drink that reduces fever, and scores of creatures shelter in its branches. It grows so wide that its hollowed-out trunks have been used as a pub, jail, bus stop, and even as a toilet with its own flushing system.
It can do all this because it doesn't grow like a normal tree. North America's conifers and hardwoods, in essence, live only on the edge. It's their outer rings and the bark that do the growing and the carrying of moisture from the ground to the leaves. Knock off a ring of bark and not much beneath that, and you can kill the tree. In contrast, you can carve out huge chunks of the baobab's trunk, and it will keep growing.
Baobabs, in short, can teach lumberyard executives a thing or two about adapting to harsh climates. It's a common belief among economists now that the housing drought will get even worse next year. The NAHB predicts the number of housing starts will drop another 16% in 2009, to 784,000, before relief arrives in 2010. At the same time, economic, energy, and green construction trends point toward a future in which house sizes will shrink, multifamily home construction will grow, and construction plans will require less wood. Such conditions already have caused scores–perhaps even hundreds–of facilities to be closed or mothballed these past two years, and thousands of workers to be handed pink slips. When dealers across the country tell me stories about fallen compatriots, they often first shake their heads in exasperation, then predict the carnage will continue in 2009.
But it doesn't have to end that way. Last month, we told you about Bolyard Lumber, a more or less typical Ace Hardware outlet and wood dealer just north of the economic disaster zone called Detroit. Bolyard decided several years ago that being ordinary wasn't going to cut it. It evolved into a boutique outlet selling exclusive, high-end products to the wealthier parts of the metropolitan area. While other dealers in Michigan are at death's door, Bolyard is revamping its entrance and building a new staging area.
Next month, we'll have a major feature about dealers that are performing better than the woeful housing numbers would suggest, often because they're reaching out into new areas. At the moment, those initiatives are providing crucial financial ballast, but one gets the feeling that these nontraditional ventures won't be abandoned once single-family home construction rebounds. Rather, they appear to be the first shoots that will become major branches of the corporate tree.
I keep those transformations in mind when I look out the front windows of my family's home and see our crape myrtle in the front yard, laden with lights, setting the streetscape aglow. We're now in the darkest time of the construction year, but with some creativity and willingness to adapt, I believe the possibilities are electric. I can't wait to see what you'll become in 2009.
Craig Webb, editor