Sunlight and rain, the mysteries of wind and soil, the spinning of the earth and its yearly path around our star: all is laid down in the rings of a tree. History is recorded. Imagine an entire forest, standing columns of the past, quietly storing up everything that has happened in the last thirty years, ninety years, two hundred years, two thousand years. Each tree has breathed it, felt it, heard it all. Soaked up whatever was in the earth and the air.
When we cut down a tree, the timeline stops. Like a core sample drawn from the sediment of an ancient lakebed or a glacier’s icy heart, time is stored there for us to see. Take that tree, keep the moisture level just right and protect it from bugs, save it for a thousand years. Then take a look inside. The past is revealed.
As an artist or craftsperson, I have been in love with wood for a long time. My first memory of actually building something out of wood is from Miss O’Neil’s art class, probably around second grade. She gave us a stack of wooden blocks and some Elmer’s glue. I built a boxy little houseboat. It was the first and only boat I’ve built. Miss O’Neil told us about wood grain, and explained how the glue would hold the pieces together better if we joined one piece to another with the grain at right angles. It was the first time I was consciously aware of the grain in wood, and that you could work with it, or against it. Paper, paint, clay – none of these had a willfulness, a direction, an attitude. Wood was something special.
When I was about twelve I got into using my dad’s jigsaw to cut out animal shapes. The compact, rounded form of a crouching rabbit was easy; the long thin legs and erect ears of a trotting horse proved much more challenging. Pieces broke off along the lines of the grain, snapping under the pressure and shock of the sawblade. I’d like to say I learned exactly how to work with the strengths of the wood to prevent that from happening, but I think my successes were more about luck – holding my breath and hoping it would be okay. At least one horse turned out fine, with all its legs intact. It still stands on the sill in my mom’s kitchen.
Everything we learn as children comes back around again. Yesterday I was in my friend Joe’s wood shop, holding my breath and trusting the strength of the wood grain as I subjected it to various power tools. (I will not describe the project, since we still have 12 days to go until Christmas.) “Life is about risk,” said Joe, encouraging me to go for it. “Yeah, if it breaks I guess I’ll just have to make another one,” I replied. Forced to spend more time in the wood shop. I can imagine worse fates.
Joe found useful scraps of all kinds of wood for me to play with: black walnut, mahogany, bird’s eye maple. Oak, Sitka spruce, birch, yellow cedar, purpleheart. Each one has unique qualities of color, hardness, density, texture, and weight. Each one behaves differently against the saw, chisel, or sandpaper. The purpleheart is so dense it made the drill press bit smoke. Sitka spruce is at the other end of the scale, soft and malleable. Black walnut is a rich coffee brown, yellow cedar is clear and buttery.
As I worked the wood, I thought about each tree and its journey from the forest to my hands. Purpleheart and mahogany, come so far from their tropical homes, where I pray they were legally and sustainably harvested. Black walnut and oak, growing in the eastern U.S., frog-song and wildflowers embracing the trees each spring. Sitka spruce and yellow cedar – Alaskan trees – perhaps escaped from a log boom and floating to a beach for Joe to find after a high tide. His care in transporting the logs home, the sawmill revealing that first image of the hidden story inside the tree. Boards stacked in the shop to mellow for years. The many projects he’s made and given to friends and family. Leaving these pieces of wood he so kindly chose and set aside for me.
I am not a cabinet-maker or finish carpenter. I can’t force myself to pay that much heed to a measuring tape. But I do love to witness the process from the rough cut to a sanded and smoothed finish. Each step of the way, the grain shows more of itself. Each step of the way, the wood teaches the worker. Finally, I rub oil into the surface, and all the perfections and imperfections are made clear. All the sunbeams, all those stories, captured so many years ago, are released. True colors shine.