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.