“Trees, Wood, and People”

Check out this article written by UK woodturner Brian Clifford, called “Trees, Wood, and People”: http://www.turningtools.co.uk/trees/trees2.html. He examines the role of trees in the development of human culture—from the very evolution of Homo sapiens—and the close relationship humanity has to trees, perhaps grounded in genetic memory. Stimulating ideas, even germinative.

Thanks to Karen Dombrowski-Sobel for sharing this discovery with me.


As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, last month I prepared (and gave) a talk for the docents of the Tucson Museum of Art, on woodturning as an artform. Besides giving a brief history of artistic turning, I described the basic anatomy of trees and discussed some of the characteristics of wood and the vessel form.

Thinking about the anatomy of a tree unsettled me this time around. Trees are living organisms; that wood was once alive, I feel, makes it unlike other media (except maybe basket materials). But the heartwood that woodworkers so value is dead wood. Heartwood is formed as a tree’s cells die; the life of a tree is all in those layers between the heartwood and the bark.

Heartwood, dead wood; a living organism dead at its center. The image has been stuck in my mind like a sand grain in my shoe.

Today, my perspective shifted. It occurred to me that heartwood is the tree’s past. It lives in the tree as our past—also dead, having literally passed—lives in us. Our history forms our structure, storing molecular bits of ourselves, recording cycles of abundance and privation, unseasonable frosts, long summers, lightning strikes, patterns of growth. Like trees, we become who we are as each old layer dies, as each new layer forms.

We live in the layers between our past and the (also dead) outer bark that protects us.

Wood day

Got wood? As of today, we do.

Gus, who works, I believe, for the Philly Parks Department and who has been an amazing benefactor for the ITE over the years, took us to two wood dumps (a.k.a. recycling centers) today for all the wood we could carry—in his truck, no less. We had our pick from piles and piles of felled trees: cherry, pear, sycamore, burr oak, ash, mulberry, Cryptomeria, box elder, walnut, silver maple, Chinese elm . . . I can’t even remember all the species we saw. For someone from the Arizona desert, it was a bit overwhelming. We didn’t even make it to two other dump sites. If we use up all we took today, though, we’re assured we can go back for more!

Gus cutting a log at the wood dump.Gus cutting another log at the wood dump.

Siegfried, Sean, me, Jean-François, and Jane at the wood dump. J-F wants part of the hollow oak log we are squatting in front of.

Siegfried puts to good use the chainsaw and protective gear that Stihl donated.

Some of our saw-gotten gains.More of our stash.Still more . . .

Later, with Jane, the shop supervisor, riding shotgun as navigator, some of us took a run to the Home Depot and Lowe’s for miscellaneous supplies. We’re pretty well set now, and the real work is beginning.