So I absconded with the metaphor. Wanna make sumthin’ of it?
In this day and age, we’re mostly divorced from our natural resources. We buy our food from grocery stores. Water comes out of a tap. Our light springs into being with the flip of a switch. It’s hard to believe that at some point, all of that had to be harvested, or pumped, or mined.
Where this intersects with us as woodworkers is in how we buy timber, usually. Most of us are not cutting down trees, milling the trunks into boards, and then drying those boards for years before we use them. Instead, we go down to the big box hardware store and pick up some surfaced 2 x 4s. If we’re slumming it, we go to the sawmill and buy kiln dried roughsawn boards.
But this leaves us with a warped view of how our timber comes about. An analogy is meat. No one says they’re having dead cow for dinner. Instead: “BEEF! It’s what’s for dinner!” We don’t have oak tree carcasses, we have boards. Or the generic “lumber”. Or if it’s pine we’re talking about, it’s not even lumber but simply a 2 x 12.
With this jaundiced eye, you quit seeing trees. Instead you see boards on the hoof, as it were. Yes, I know that’s stretching it. But when you look at an oak tree and think “Boy, that is a nice straight sawlog, and it’s big enough to get some good-sized quartersawn boards out of.”, you know the feeling is gone.
How about a little appreciation. After all, trees are awesome. I mean that in the original sense of inspiring awe. That completely pedestrian oak tree is only just getting into the prime of life after we’re dead of old age. It withstands hurricane winds, sub-zero winters, drought, and rowdy kids. It stands higher than a ten-story building, and weighs more than your car. It eats sunlight. And it is no machine; it’s a living, breathing, alive organism. All we have to do is leave it alone.
And that’s a backyard oak tree. Ask about the biggest living individuals on the planet, and most of your kindergarten class is either going to say whales, elephants, or maybe the smug one in the back is going to say dinosaurs. But trees outdo all of those. Redwood trees are the single largest being on the planet. It’s longer than three blue whales. They’re big enough you can drive a car through them (seen it!). They are so large that they themselves become an ecosystem. When the loggers came through northern California, they had to cut the middling size redwoods because the big ones were too big to move (in pieces!) with a train. That’s pretty darn big.
Are you experienced? Hendrix aside, we find it amazing when somebody hit the century mark, even in this age of improved health. Those redwood trees are into their second (maybe third!) millennium. And those aren’t the oldest trees. Back when I carried a rifle for a living, an expression for “a long time ago” somehow was constructed as “when Christ was a corporal”. But if you look at the bristlecone pine, some of them came into being when Abraham was a corporal.
The druids worshipped oak trees. Buddhists move seedlings of the Bodhi tree all over the world. Maybe that’s not so strange when you consider our stature next to them. Keep the tree in mind when you use lumber. Design your work to last at least as long as it took the tree to grow the wood you’re using. Work in a way that minimises waste. That tree was alive, once. Use its bounty wisely, and don’t let yourself fall into the mindset of not seeing the tree for the lumber.