THE ALDER – HARDY AND HISTORIC (August 12/08)

In his book on building the Wellington Dyke (published in 1990) The Advertiser’s Associate Editor Brent Fox writes that as well as colossal amounts of soil, stone and wood, some 4,260 loads of brush was part of the construction material that was required.

While this is speculation, the odds are that while some of this brush was spruce boughs, much of it was the speckled alder. It’s a well known fact that in their early years in Kings and Hants County, the Planters, having problems with the dykes and aboiteaux, eventually turned to the Acadians for guidance. And surely the Acadians would have passed on what they had discovered in generations of dyke building: That one of the most suitable and hardiest of materials for dyke building was abundant and was close at hand – the alder tree.

For most people the alder is an insignificant bush that grows in damp areas, old fields and on the edges of dykelands. Yet few trees have played as varied a role, albeit a minor one, in colonial and farm life as the alder. From the day the Acadians arrived in Kings County, and possibly even before that with the Mi’kmaq, many uses were found for the alder, an amazing variety of uses, in fact, and it seems the alder may have been indispensable.

I’ve been collecting information on alders for years and my “alder file” is bulging with facts and folklore on the tree. Here’s some of the more interesting stuff (with sources given were possible):

Because alder roots bear nitrogen-rich nodules, drained alder flats can be quite fertile and suitable for raising leafy vegetables. It is said that the best way to clear an alder-bed is to fence it, let one or two pigs root about it for a summer, and then remove the dead stems. Department of Lands and Forests bulletin #37. Trees of Nova Scotia, by Gary Saunders.

The Acadians, our first good farmers, made sabots for their feet out of alder wood. Alder wood does not warp. French people, back home, have been wearing them for years … Acadians in Nova Scotia were uniquely adept at constructing dykes, strong enough to withstand the Fundy tides, the highest and mightiest in the world. Acadian dykes are banks of clay and mud, reinforced with stones and alder trees. Elsie Churchill Tolson, Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly.

The preferred wood for producing the charcoal used in making gunpowder in the old days was alder. The History of Guns and Gunpowder by George J. Cleveland, 1960.

Alder is popular as a material for electric guitar bodies. It is used by many guitar makers, notably the Fender Guitar Company, who use it on top quality instruments. Wikipedia.

Historical writers Marguerite Woodworth (History of the D.A.R) and Hattie Chittick (Hantsport history) both tell the story about the problems the railway had in 1869 when attempting to build a causeway between Hantsport and Mount Denson. When the causeway was destroyed again and again by the Minas Basin tides, the railway finally turned to “descendants of Acadians” who built a causeway that stood. The causeway was constructed of Avon River clay, stones and alder bushes.

The smoking of gaspereaux, or alewives if you wish, has been a tradition in the Gaspereau Valley for generations. One of the most popular woods used in the smoking process are green alder boughs. Article in The Advertiser, 1968, by Ed Coleman.

A valuable quality of alder wood is that it is excellent for making such things as are kept constantly in water …. An example cited is piles for piers. Hard to imagine, since alders are spindly, but since the wood is capable of withstanding long immersion in water, wharves have been built on alder woodpiles. Elsie Churchill Tolson.

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