On Wood.  (with head tilted.)

“Seems like you do a lot of navel-gazing.” That was one reader’s remark after he finished my book Kinds of Winter, an account of four solo trips by dogteam. That stung a little, but I just nodded and chuckled. I have a slightly thicker skin to criticism as I get older, and it is serving me well. As for navel-gazing, I guess I do mull things over in quirky ways, and my musings do run along some odd pathways, (don’t yours?) especially when I am working quietly and alone. 

On a recent hot July day I was making my way around the narrow upstairs balcony of our octagonal log house, installing an array of small solar panels at offsets of 45 degrees, one at each of five railing corners: east, southeast, south, southwest, and west. Something clicked in my cranium as I looked out at the green leaves of summer birches and the green needles of the stately white spruce we call Lucy. Suddenly I was trying to call up a passage from a woodworking text I had read years ago. I paraphrase from memory: “Wood is the fundamental material of all trees, evolved for two purposes: first, to raise the foliage of the tree up from the ground toward sunlight for improved photosynthesis; and second, to transport water and nutrients between the various parts of the tree.”

When I first read that definition I was enrolled in a seven-month course in boatbuilding on Gabriola Island, just off the Pacific coast near Vancouver. A memorable winter, 2000-2001, when Kristen and I and our two young daughters boarded up our place here, leased out our huskies for the winter, and stepped completely aside from our life and work in the Northwest Territories. The course was a long session in learning about wood, boats, and tools. Wood, most of all. Its grain and its quirks and the myriad ways to fasten and bend and shape it; what it liked to do and what it did not like to do; why it floated and why it rotted, and how a boat fashioned from it can become something magical.

Immersed though my classmates and I were in all things wood and wooden, coming across that matter-of-fact definition of “wood” still brought me up short, and I have thought about it now and then ever since. The essence of wood, it says, the reason for its existence, has nothing to do with usefulness to humankind. Wood’s usefulness to people is only a happy coincidence. Wood is about lifting green leaves up toward sunshine, with enough strength and support to brace them there in wind and storms, and about getting water up to those leaves, and sugars down from them. Period.

Another thing I took away from that course on Gabriola Island was the trick of looking upside down or sideways at something, to change and improve perspective. Our instructor told us that when we were lofting the curves of a boat onto the shop floor, it was helpful to back up, turn around, bend over, and view the arc of the pencil line upside-down, between our legs. This makes for some comical moments in a workshop, but it does help. Any unfairness in the desired “fair curve” becomes instantly more obvious when the line is looked at upside-down. Mountaineers do a version of this, too, tilting their head to one side to ease the eye’s natural foreshortening of a steep pitch viewed from a distance. Look at anything sideways, or upside down, and the change can be refreshing and instructive.

Wood, for instance. Even in this age of smooth black plastic, shiny aluminum, weird epoxies, rusted steel and gray concrete, we are still surrounded by wood and immersed in the demands of its properties. Because wood is for most of us a material, it is easy to look at a stack of lumber and slip into the habit of thinking of wood as we think of all the other materials – concrete, steel, glass, plastic, et cetera – that humanity has learned to fabricate for specific purposes.  But wood is different, because it is not for us or by us. It is for trees. We cut down the trees and use the wood. And in doing so we are obliged to acknowledge its unique rules and properties, some of which are inconvenient at timesUse quarter-sawn boards when strength and stability are crucial. Lay a deck with the heart side of the planking downward. Steam a sled runner or a boat rib fifteen minutes for every quarter inch of thickness before bending it in a jig, and leave it in there for two weeks to cure and set. Lay a sheet of plywood across joists or rafters, with the grain in the outer veneers perpendicular to the supports.

Historian Yuval Harari, in his excellent book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, writes: Artifacts made of more perishable materials – such as wood, bamboo, or leather – survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.”

Ancient hunter-gatherers, yes, but modern brain surgeons, taxi drivers, air-traffic controllers and bureaucrats all use and enjoy and depend on wood every day too. Just lift your head up from the almighty screen, tilt it to one side, and look all around, and notice how much wood is in your life at this moment. Or how little. The woodiness of this moment might even be a gauge of the quality of your life right now. The woodiness index as a gauge of human happiness? Just throwing it out there.

I was happy the other day, walking the wooden balcony of our log house, setting screws through the narrow fir frames of the blue-and-silver siliconandaluminum solar panels (man-made leaves?), bracing them with short lengths of spruce back to the birch stanchions of the railing, crimping the number-ten copper wire and running it along the underside of thick spruce girders, drilling a hole with the ships-auger bit, through the 200-year-old fire-killed wall log, pushing the wire through, routing it to the regulator and from there to the groovy blue Lithium-Iron-Phosphorus storage battery, mounted high on the timber wall in Kristen’s studio, there surrounded by dozens of books, pads of notepaper, smooth pencils lying in a wooden cup on a slab supported by two matched tamarack kneesas out in front all along the lake the birch and spruce reached for the sky and the sun, lifting their own solar energizers up to quiver in the warm July breeze. Making sugar and growing more wood, day after day, year after year.

Oh there I go, navel-gazing again.

Two by fours, plywood sheet, pencil shaft, glue-lam beam, bridge timber, main wing spar of a nimble aerobatic biplane, split and stacked cordwood, stair-treads, pages of a novel, fancy varnished tabletop. Grain, knot, texture, heat, and strength, and all made out of thin air, sunlight, water, and the stuff of soil.

We just use wood, we do not make it.

Fact is, clever as we are, we cannot make wood. The forests of the world, apart from us and independent of us, offer it to us. What a gift! Tilt your head and think about that.


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