Monday, May 9, 2011

Tree-Hugging Woodworker: Oxymoron?

The wind wasn't blowing and my
hand wasn't shaking. This tree's
leaves were THAT wispy.
Ever since I read A Splintered History of Wood by Spike Carlson, I've never looked at trees the same way.

As soon as I became aware of the herculean effort trees undertake in simply growing, I've thought of them as large creatures deserving of our respect and care.

Certainly, as woodworkers, we revel in the color and grain patterns of boards, and marvel at the way finishes bring out the depth and luminosity of wood.
The Enchanted Woods.

But, let's face it: we kill trees.

Who among us, when watching the movie Avatar, didn't instinctively try to calculate the board feet when that gargantuan tree-dwelling fell to the ground?

This past weekend, while perusing the magnificent landscape at the Winterthur estate, I was awestuck with the beauty of Henry Francis Dupont's gardening mastery.

He designed his 2500 acres to appear to be natural when, in fact, he carefully organized the space so that the visual tapestry evolved throughout every season.  For eight months out of the year, something is blooming at Winterthur.

Besides the colorful azaleas, there were sky-high beech and walnut, and fields of feathery ferns.

There were also some impressive trees of note.

The oldest known cherry trees in the U.S., for example, were planted here in 1918. And they're beefy guys. One is affectionately named The Arnold Schwarzenegger Tree by the caretakers because of its massive flexing "arm."

Another tree appeared to be a grove of a dozen different trees, but all the "trunks" were actually attached to the same arborvitae.

It was hard not to anthropomorphize these characters especially when one was the spitting image of Witchiepoo.

Among the trees was The Enchanted Woods, created for children.  Kid-size medieval chairs with leaf carvings, an upside-down tree, and a human-size birds' nest brought out the kid in a certain blogger's middle-aged partner.

Henry Francis Dupont designed the landscape in three tiers: ground cover, bushes, and trees. Many of the trees are not native to the area, but were brought from other countries. Hence, the variety.

As woodworkers, we love variety—in grain pattern, color, texture, density. We notice things that non-woodworkers do not.  How many times, when milling boards for projects, do we stop to admire these features?

I suspect we have more reverence for wood than others. We're careful not to waste it, as evidenced by all the piles of tiny offcuts we keep stashed away. And we develop a personal connection as we work with it. We're also concerned with future woodworkers and would like for them to have the same resources that we enjoy.

So I ask you, can a woodworker also be a tree hugger? Are those terms at odds with one another?

My answer is thus:


Anonymous said...

There were too many errors in Spike's book for me to enjoy it.

Try "Oak: The Frame of Civilization" - the writing is better, and it is about oaks - the best trees ever. ;^)

TJIC said...

I don't think that there's the least contradiction between liking trees and harvesting them.

In general I hate the word "sustainable", but I'll use it here: trees are a crop. We have no corn shortage, because we both harvest and plant corn.

We have no softwood-for-framing shortage, because we both harvest and plant pine.

Ideally hardwoods for woodworking would be treated the same way - a process that's getting underway now.

Joe Cottonwood said...

Most of us are incurable salvagers, too. Most woodworkers can't bear to throw out old wood.

Douglas said...

very thoughtful post...luv the photgraphs...

Anonymous said...

I have been working wood for many decades. I never have to cut down a tree - where I live there are more trees being hauled to the landfill than I can use. It's a blessing and a shame. Every week people tell me about a wonderful new log somewhere, already down, free for the hauling.

So, between salvaging, scavenging and extreme thrift, I never need to cut down a tree.

Marilyn in Seattle said...

That guy kinda looks like Treebeard. Maybe he hugs back, but not too hard? :) Awhile back, I went to northern California to Redwood National Park . We camped in an area with gigantic old growth stumps. It felt a lot like being in a cemetery with stump head stones. I do hope we can find ways to hang on to our precious trees. Being respectful of what we're given to use is certainly a big part of that.

Tom Fidgen said...

nice one kari-;)
i hug trees too.

Old Navy said...

Nice post, Kari. Trees, IMO, though, are not "creatures", much as I admire some of them. Isn't Winterthur a wonderful place?

Ethan said...

I'm assuming you've determined how many times you need to hug around the tree to calculate the circumference?

So how many board feet did you come up with? :D

Darnell said...

That's why we should build in the best way we can, the longer our work lasts, the more we honour the tree.

As to your comment on stopping to admire grain, I admit guilt. There have been times I'm sure I've been close to self-hypnosis, falling into the depths of some paticularly splendid curl.

I'm an unabashed tree lover, I've planted, cut, chopped, and milled hundereds. Responsible use is not abuse, and of course a woodworker can be a tree hugger.

You left your name and number for when Schwartznegger blows down, right?

Mike said...

I've long admired George Nakashima's ethos that a tree is such a beautiful living thing that we should strive to make as many equally beautiful things from it when it has died.

Bill said...

Generally, I agree but there's still contention about imported woods, including exotics. Sustained usage and renewable forests are not necessarily goals of some foreign lumber companies.

Regarding the Redwood forests of Northern California - for many years the reforestation process meant cutting down the redwoods and replanting with Doug Firs.

Dyami said...

Looks like you guys had a great time in the garden. I too would love to hug a tree like that.

Also looks like A Splintered History of Wood by Spike Carlson is worth a read. My Dad got me a signed copy for my birthday and I haven't cracked it open yet. Guess I will now.

The Village Carpenter said...

Thank you for the thoughtful comments, everyone.

I've often considered following tree trimming trucks as they take their haul to a ravine. It's frustrating to think about all that hardwood going to waste.

There is a guy with a woodmizer in a neighboring town who cuts up the logs his Dad brings him from his tree-cutting service. He sells cherry for $1.50 bf. Wish there were more guys like him.

And as probably all of know, if we just put the word out to friends and family that we're on the hunt for wood, they're all too happy to call you when their tree blows down in a storm.

Danny said...

Ha. We had a monster storm roll through Charleston last night. Having staked out all the cherry, walnut, pecan, and hollies in the area I went for a drive before work to see if any of my peeps were knocked down. Alas, none were. I keep two things in the back of my suv at all times: flyrod, chainsaw.
BTW, I laughed out loud at the Avatar reference.

Michael Ferrin said...

Beautiful post. I just finished reading "The Wild Trees" by Richard Preston. It's a great story about canopy scientists working in the redwoods and the amazing amount of biodiversity hidden in the tops of trees. Reading about logging companies clear cutting thousand year old trees can be depressing, but it really does make you a more conscientious woodworker.