American Woodworker

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I'm working on a very unique table right now. It's different because the wood actually came from a tree that was beloved by the family I'm making it for. It was a sprawling ancient maple, rooted for decades in the lush front lawn of their Wisconsin farm house. The tree had to be removed, and -- unwilling to say goodbye to this friend -- they had it carefully milled into lumber for the very purpose I’m now putting it to. I don’t feel much like an artist/craftsman this time. I feel more like a shaman, like I’m escorting a beautiful soul from one noble life to the next.

A tree is a life, it has a spirit (a breath) within it, it breathes when it’s alive and it goes on breathing, in a different way, even after it’s dead. Every craftsman knows that wood always moves, it swells and shrinks and swells again, it shifts and twists and bends and sometimes even breaks. We who make wood into structures can never really pin it down, the best we can do is to fence it in, give it borders in which to move freely. And to do this we first have to know the wood, we have to learn from it and listen to it, we have to know what it will and won’t do over time. Like a good animal trainer we respect the life that has been put in our hands, we let it teach us how to handle it. We do not dominate the wood, we never attempt to break its spirit. Instead we work with it.

I always feel this way as I make something, but never more than right now. I can’t even bring myself to burn the scraps of this tree in my woodstove, although the temperature in my shop is hovering around 25 degrees every morning I go out there. Instead I put them aside, in a box, to be presented to the family as a folded flag would be to a grieving widow, and I bundle up for the short walk to the old log pile.

It is good for me to think about this tree while I’m working. I must admit that normally when I work wood I’m not conscious of the actual tree that yielded it to me. I saw a pig slaughtered once. I saw it taken from its pen and shot twice in the head, strung from a tree and lowered into a boiling barrel of water to remove its hair. It was then gutted, sliced in half lengthways, then into quarters and smaller fractions, and finally tossed into several different ice chests as chops, bacon, ham, loin, and whatever else was deemed edible by the indifferent man holding the bloody knife. I didn’t know how to feel about it as I watched, and I still don’t. I remember standing at the coolers, looking at the steaming flesh and wondering, At what moment did that pig stop being a pig and start being meat? When it was shot? At the moment it was cut in half? There used to be a pig here, and now there’s not a pig here. There are just pig parts. Where did the pig go? Anyone arriving on the scene right now wouldn’t see a pig, just parts. But because I had seen a pig, I still saw a pig. And that’s why I didn’t take the cooler that was offered. I didn’t want to eat it because I didn’t want to see a pig in every bite.

It is a great burden when you are forced to regard the creature who gave its life to make yours better, or just more pleasurable. It can ruin a meal. In the same way, it’s easier to work wood when it comes to you as ready lumber, when you don’t have to imagine the tree that yielded it, when you don’t have to think about how tall and strong and beautiful it must have once been, how persistently and patiently it stood all those years in a single place (years which are now storied in those rings, should you choose to listen), how quietly resistant it was to harsh winters and scorching summers, yet how gracious it remained to all the creatures who depended upon it for life and happiness.

Or to put it another way, how much a tree is what we want to be.


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