The black locust, insists its harvester Blue Sky, “is a much maligned tree.” A native of the central Appalachians and Ozark Mountains, it has extended its range into New England, where it is considered to be invasive. In particular, it has become abundant in north-central Massachusetts where Blue Sky lives and logs. He, however, has turned this ecological malefactor into a resource. As proprietor of “A Black Locust Connection”, he supplies black locust fence posts, trellises, and lumber to a varied and numerous clientele throughout New England and New York.
It was my friend Brian who first took me to Blue Sky’s lumber yard in Colrain, Massachusetts. The Douglas fir frames that enclosed the beds in Brian’s vegetable garden have rotted away, and although he wants to replace them with something more durable, he wants to avoid the use of toxic pressure-treated lumber. Black locust boards are the perfect solution to this dilemma: this extremely rot resistant wood will survive in contact with the ground for decades. Indeed, Blue Sky has a black locust fence post he collected that is still sound, even though, the owner said, the fence had been erected by her grandfather a century ago. With his custom-built rail-splitter, Blue Sky is currently turning out the materials for new enclosures of this sort.
While Brian selected the boards for his raised beds, I prowled the lumber yard, inspecting the piles of logs, the Wood-Mizer band saw mill, and the stacks of fresh cut and air-drying boards. I also listened to Blue Sky’s stories about his products.
His lumber business began as a byproduct of his work as an arborist: he began to bring home logs from the trees he felled, logs that were too valuable as a source of lumber to be consigned to use as firewood. Although, he points out, the dense black locust logs will burn even when green and yield more heat per cord than any othe common firewood besides shagbark hickory. But even now, when processing black locust is his main business, it remains a relatively low volume affair, for Blue Sky says that he has to mill each of these idiosyncratic logs differently, so as to get the most lumber out of it.
“This stuff,” he explains, “is far too valuable a resource to waste.”
The crafts-people who turn his lumber into outdoor furniture, decks, deer fencing, even wooden boats and musical instruments, clearly agree.