Say the word “frontier” and most people envision wagons rolling across the plains, but an American frontier existed long before that one. It’s hard to imagine it now, but Pennsylvania was once contested ground, a place where ever-encroaching European cultures met and clashed with native ones. The Scots-Irish pushed ever westward, often beyond the official boundaries of the Penn Purchase, and in the expanse of woodland stretching to eternity, they either died or learned to use the resources around them.
The characters in my second novel, SCATTERED SEEDS, were among those risking the odds in the Pennsylvania backcountry. Researching their story was fun, but it led to a new level of respect for my ancestors, who allowed a brig to swallow them up and transport them to a foreign wilderness. I mean, they not only got here and survived—they thrived!
Tricorn hats off to you, Edward and Henry, McConnell!
One of the challenges of frontier life had to be lighting. Of course, most of our ancestors simply went to bed with the sun, and if they chose to stay up and read The Good Book, the hearth provided some light, but there were no flashlights, so if a bear was in the smokehouse at night gorging himself on your entire winter supply—which happens in SCATTERED SEEDS—you had better have a torch.
Oils for lanterns were available in the 18th century, but they were expensive and tough to acquire. The hardy nor’easters up yonder had their bayberry, and folks close to civilization could rely on tallow candles, but the poor blokes braving the frontier had to make do with what they had. And what they had were trees, most importantly, pine trees.
Pine trees have the very human response of sending fluids to protect a wound. The resin they secrete seals off their injured parts. This resin is extremely flammable, and distilled, it produces turpentine.
Our forefathers knew how to use this resin for lighting. They combined it with cattail fluff and stuffed it into the split ends of green sticks to make everything from candles to torches.
Pine trees also have the handy habit of drawing back a dying limb’s resin. This resin collects at the base of the dead branch and is concentrated in the “knot” or “fatwood” found there long after a tree has died and fallen.
Look at this tree, for example:
It’s been down a long time. You’d assume there is nothing useful about this dead tree, but you’d be wrong. I collected several fragrant (and useful!) pine knots here.
Here’s a quick video I made after a day of gathering pine knots around my cabin. It’s really easy and a good thing to know. You just never know when the lights might go out.