Red in tooth and claw

Nature is all around us.  Whether we live out of a rucksack, or in a climate controlled modern home, there is no stopping the force of nature.  Oh, we may resist it, but in the end, we’re all worm food.

As an example, look at the Mayan civilisation.  While it was known there were Mayans, no one knew there was this gargantuan empire built up in southern Mexico until a few explorers happened across the ruins that had been nearly consumed by jungle.  It didn’t take long for the forest to reclaim what had been the very seat of empire.

The ancient Mesopotamian empires faced a similar problem.  Their irrigation networks were choked with the mud that had washed off the mountainsides in Anatolia (modern Turkey) once the trees had all been cut down.

Witness the problems of China and the Great Plains in North America.  Both possess thick silty soils (known as loess).  These soils are deep and rich.  But once the native vegetation has been cleared, the soil is so fine that it is scoured away by the wind, leaving humans with the spectre of the Dust Bowl and the current air quality problems in China.

How many times must the people of Louisiana be washed away in floods or hurricanes?  The same might be said for those on the Atlantic coast, whose houses get periodically blown away by those same malign winds.  Or those in California who know that they are living in a region that not only has frequent earthquakes, but is poised for “The Big One”.  Dwayne Johnson can’t save you all!

This same attitude goes for the multitudinous subdivisions across suburban and now exurban America.  A quick frame of white pine goes up, and is then sheathed in plastic, and more plastic. We ignore the fact that, given the absence of vigilance (and truthfully that would describe most of us), Nature will rot down that McMansion almost faster than we can build them.

Nature always wins in the end.  As woodworkers, we should be aware of that fact.  For the commercial world, this presents as using pressure-treated pine in external applications.  But for woodworkers, this should entail using woods that are naturally resistant to rot, such as black locust or catalpa in America.  Historically, cabinetmakers faced with virulent pests and malign conditions chose wood such as teak or camphor wood for the campaign furniture of English officers to guard against such negative influences.

The other way that we, as woodworkers, might consider that nature bats last is in allowing for certain conditions to occur, because they will show up no matter what we do, such as seasonal expansion and contraction due to humidity.  One of my sisters-in-law has trouble with a sliding door on her barn because it did not account for wood movement due to atmospheric conditions.  Frame and panel construction is the way it is to account for nature acting on our works.

When it comes to structural applications, we might do well to  consider that nature is an overbearing force against our buildings.  Even a simple requirement (not always easy) like a roof that doesn’t leak requires forethought.  Given a chance, and absent any preventative maintenance on our part, our buildings will revert to compost in short order.  Just look at the neglected inner cities, of which Detroit is the prime example.  The people (and their paint and caulk, and etc.) leave, and the buildings fall down in short order.  The forest comes back and reclaims what it has lost to the plow and asphalt.

And what we build must, at some point, be regarded as waste.  Though we may think that what we build may exist in the eternal now, the truth is that our works must also turn to dust.  But what do we leave behind?  Is it toxic chemicals?  Glues and finishes that are poisonous to the natural world?  Or do we build pieces that cannot even be burned against the chill, lest the chemicals in the piece off-gas and kill those seeking warmth?

So no matter wat you build, remember that nature will have a hand in your creation.  You can either account for it and design around it, or you can be crushed under the weight of the natural world.  Design against natural phenomena, design to protect against natural forces, and design for end-0f-life.  With these in mind, we can avoid the folly, and hubris, of man.