a reverence for wood

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey

It seems the older I get the more appreciative I get for how things once were.  Now don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate modern conveniences and advances in technology – when properly applied – however there is certainly something to be said for how things used to be done.

I was recently watching a television program in which the group the show was about was deconstructing, no, wait, demolishing an old home.  Of course they were “reclaiming” some of the neat older aspects of the home (which was good) but they were also destroying some neat features in the demolition.  They were salvaging the timbers of which the home was made – all hand hewn logs (hewn meaning that the timbers were all cut and shaped by hand tools – like axes and most definitely not modern power tools), each hand notched to fit perfectly into a corresponding notch in an adjoining board.  That was great, and their intention was to have the logs resawn into boards at some point in order to make other stuff from.  And all that I’m okay with, but we are talking about three hundred year old wood (white oak in particular).  I mean, they don’t make logs like that anymore.  No, really.  You cannot run down to the big orange or blue box stores and grab a 12 in x 12 in x 24 ft long, 300 year old piece of hardwood.  Sorry, just ain’t gonna’ happen.  The wood you get today is mostly so quickly grown that the growth rings are an inch apart (slight exaggeration) and not nearly as hard – in fact, frankly soft by old-growth hardwood standards.  And “domestic exotics” are increasingly difficult to come by and expensive when you do.

I don’t have a lot of woodworking books of great literature (I do own some how-to woodworking, soft-cover books – but that really doesn’t count) however I do own one that I had purchased and read years ago that still means something to me – and it’s title still resonates with me – especially the older I get and the more appreciative I get for the way things were and the reason the are.  That book  is A Reverence for Wood, by Eric Sloane (Dover Publications, 2004).

This thin, inexpensive book is a great read if you are interested in the role wood has played in the development of early American life.  Today we take many things for granted, but our early settlers certainly did not.  Mr. Sloane describes how these early pioneers had a complete understanding and awe of this precious resource; that they understood that from cradle to coffin; they were dependent on it.  They relied upon it for not only building their homes and barns, but they also used it for building fences, furniture, kitchen utensils and the like.  They used it to cook and preserve their food and even for medicinal purposes.  He begins his story – as sort of a novel but with lots of interesting Americana and historical information – as he deconstructs (not demolishes) a 200 year old barn with his friend Harley.

“to remain ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

At the risk of sounding old and nostalgic I’m afraid that the more “advanced” we get as a society the more we take advantage of, dismiss as irrelevant, and/or overlook how we came to be, and who the people were who got us here.  We overlook the “how things were made”, the “who they were made by”, and the “of what were they made”.  It seems the more we become a disposable society, the more disposable relevance becomes… Perhaps here I’m referring to a political, sociological or spirituality position; perhaps I’m questioning our morality, our values and virtues – or perhaps I ‘m just paying homage to the people and the gifts given to them (and us) that we may be taking advantage of – because without history, we only have ignorance.


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