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Volume 14, Issue 4: Thema

Just Wood

Douglas Jones

He was baking wood. It wasn't tame after 115 hours of heat, close but still fighting, still gripping water in its veins, mocking. Before I arrived, Jim said that I couldn't miss them—"big silver boxes." As I got out of my truck, I scanned this place where they tame trees. A cedar building like a circus tent caught my eye; it gave a quirk to the boxy mint-green buildings that otherwise dominated. No faces or voices, but plenty of busy. A fork-lift was showing off its strength to some stacks of lumber on my right. In front of the circus building sat neat hills of purgatory lumber, not yet wood, but no longer trees. Now horizontal to the earth, they were stripped of branches, somehow statuesque, but impatient. In the sun of summer, I've driven by and seen lazy sprinklers propped on top of these felled trees, cooling their wrath. The trees cannot stand the wait; they elbow each other in the pile, groaning and laboring for liberty. I think the mint-color of the buildings, a soothing operating-room hue, is supposed to help calm them too. Jim's big silver buildings, almost hangars, were closest to my path. I expected two, but there were at least five I could see. These shining boxes appeared tight and armored in order to intimidate the trees; the kilns sprayed steam out of their roof vents as flags of triumph, moisture squeezed out of stingy lumber. Jim waved to me from the office high atop the kilns, as if from a treehouse.

I once stood with my wife and kids looking up at the needled sky of a California redwood forest. The path we were on was supposedly somewhat secret; our camp director sixty miles away had scratched on a map to show us how to get there; "and look for the Hobbit house," he said. All the superlatives for these trees have already been used, but I was struck as to how easy it was to breathe. These giants crammed close to one another as if waiting for some colossal subway. The air should have been close and mossy and too thick for lungs. But these trees were waterfalling oxygen on us, and it felt like we were out in the open sea; we offered a pittance of breath back to them to complete the chiasm. These Redwoods were cartoonishly large— Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam—and if they appeared in a movie no one would believe it. One Sylvester had been cut down by the Forest Service probably two decades before; the diameter of its stump was over twelve feet. We all stood on it, stood on the names and messages and histories that had been etched into its stony rings. Then we searched for the Hobbit house.
I looked around my shop for the final piece of very flat and square alder; the electric planer had guaranteed its flatness. That's a planer's only job in life. But it's not an easy job, since wood has a zig attitude about staying straight. Planing used to be done by deltoids, not electrons, but the wood just laughed at them. Now the electrons laugh, most of the time. I was connecting this flat piece of alder to twelve others; they were to sit flat, side by side, along with two strips of walnut for accents, all to form a new dining room table top. Before purchasing my batch of rough alder, I had to figure out exactly how much was needed. You always have to buy some extra because wood isn't a subjective social construct of linguistic forces the way that the poststructuralists like to say. If it were, I could buy less and make up the difference in verbs. But Derrida must never have used a router. Wood has its own interests, objectively indifferent to routers, or at least it doesn't want to give in promiscuously. The router has to work for it. As I was cutting in my notches, I stared at the grain and its flattened rings as I moved in and out and thought about those distant redwood rings that had breathed in so much history and then breathed on us. The redwoods had started breathing when Christopher Columbus toured the east coast. This alder had only started breathing in Reagan's time and then breathed in some Clinton before someone tried to tame it in a kiln. It too had sat impatiently in a pile of purgatory trees, gone through some saw blades and baked. It had grown up not too far from those redwoods, and perhaps it had something to prove. But one of its inner rings, perhaps the ring when Mt. St. Helens blew, grabbed my router bit amidst my wandering thoughts and forced that blade right up through the surface of the wood, through the middle of our alleged dining room table. I stared at the smoothly sloping gash; in the center of the table it would look like a tiny child's slide to some dining room underworld—not a feature I had ever pondered. I had already used my extra wood. This alder still wasn't tamed. Maybe it needed more baking.
The control room for the kilns felt like the engine room of an ocean liner, steam pipes and gauges and blastic pressure; I yelled my questions to Jim. The steam came from a boiler that burned tree bark. At that moment, the kilns were filled with Ponderosa Pine, but they regularly dried white fir, Douglas fir, white pine, and cedar. Cedar dried the quickest, about twenty hours compared to days for others, and after a while its initially lurid aroma would hurt the throat more than any other wood. Solomon used cedar as the second most holy wood after olive wood: "The inside of the temple was cedar, carved with ornamental buds and open flowers. All was cedar; there was no stone to be seen." For a while, these Temple rooms would have attracted and repelled at the same time; they would entice, but not for too long before becoming uncomfortable, like being in the presence of wild holiness. Jim took me outside the steam control room to the kilns themselves. The doors were four times our height, infant redwood tall. When he had turned off the fans and pulled back the door, there sat truckshapes of stacked ponderosa pine to the ceiling, sweating and saunadating, each piece separated by spacers. When on, the fans cycled lakes of air through the stacks and heated coils until the lumber let go of 90% of its water; it was allowed to save 10%. The fans intrigued me. Jim walked me over to a running kiln and opened a small side door: a volcanic breath of pined air muscled out and surrounded us, a dripping tropical pine forest, if ever there could be one, ponderosa pine on the banks of the Amazon, exotic monkeys perplexed by pine needles. I could have climbed the aroma, step by step, but Jim would have laughed. All this had been absorbed as instinct to him.
We found the Hobbit house. In fact we found two. The first had a gateway, an organic Norman curve, opening up its base. My four children rushed inside and stood for pictures; one at the back couldn't tell how far the darkness went and got spooked. I kicked them out to take a dad look, very scientific. The darkness didn't stretch far; I could touch it. It was warm inside, perhaps the shifting California continent warmed its roots with lava, turning its soil to red clay and turning these gray trees into baked redwoods. The connection was clear, though false. I switched places with the children again, and the caveway outlined their staggered heights in the shape of a candle-flame, a perfect fit, drawing them upward, beckoning them up into the reach of the tree. The tree was enveloping them, wanting to swallow my daughters for Dryads. Zeus lived in a baked tree, the oak at Dodona which was baked from above not below: it was the tree most often struck by lightning. Zeus's mechanical lusts begat Apollo, among many, and Apollo begat a hounding after Daphne until she cried to the trees to swallow her up rather than mother another rabbit rationalist. The trees obliged. She held up her hands in prayer and began to grow the bark and leaves of a laurel tree. I hastily ordered my daughters out of the tree. Farther north, the Scandinavian god Odin breathed life into two trees for a soul; the ash became a man, and the elm became a woman. At least one tribe in West Africa honors an oak as a ladder from which the first man and woman climbed down out of the sky. But another African tradition points to a special grove where the first life-partners grew up out of the ground. Perhaps higher criticism will some day resolve the conflict. The Ainu people of Japan dissent, maintaining that God used a willow tree to make the first man's backbone, the seat of the soul. St. Boniface straightened them all out, when he walked up to the Germans in the Middle Ages and routed their oak. It laughed in liberation. No more sillies flinching at its bark. No lightning. No cracking of the earth. No gods in the grain. But plenty of furniture. And a new culture. All the druidic systematic theologians had missed Eden's poetry: trees are like men; God is like a tree. Eden started in a grove, a high place, and like trees, Mankinder grew out of the soil. The Lord of those druidmatic lords mocks their smoldering trees, "inflaming yourselves with gods under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys." And yet, He toys with the poetry and burns within His own tree, "in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed"; "I am like a green cypress tree; your fruit is found in Me." The second Hobbit house we found trickled light; we didn't know why until we looked up. This redwood had no top. About sixty feet into the air, its treeness simply vanished. We could see sky up through its trunk. It was a volcanic cone whose dome had blown. No remains anywhere.
That gash in my alder table couldn't remain. A salt shaker might hide it for part of the meal, but someone was bound to move it. Filling it with putty would look like some idiot couldn't hold down his router hard enough. It was a cold morning, so I threw some scraps of alder into the fire. Burning alder has a sweet but muscular aroma, a taffy and tobacco mix. Alder is the tree of mixes, specifically water and fire. In its natural state it grows by streams in North America and Europe. It resists winter rains and water decay. The Romans used it to cross marshes, and the Venetians set the Rialto bridge upon alder water piles. Several medieval cathedrals rest upon an alder foundation. But its name comes from Britain, for it was the tree of Bran, the ancient giant god of Brits, the god who walked over to Ireland to rescue his abused sister. He stretched himself across the river Linon to help his men patter to battle. The alder communes with water and yet retains a charcoal heat, a fierce heat perfect for blacksmithing. If you felled an alder in ancient Ireland, your house would probably burn in protest. It epitomized the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. Water and fire, though, are not its only conflicts. It is also known for its odd kaleidoscope of color. Its natural appearance is purple from a distance (the tradition says it's purple because royal Bran wore purple), red dye comes from its crushed bark (Welsh priests were fond of this), brown from its twigs, and green from its flowers (used for Elf attire). Combine these features with the fact that it doesn't stand straight like a pine; a typical alder grows out in something like a sphere. Several main trunks grow out from its base to give it a very circular effect, a natural Ferris wheel, pleased with its carnival garishness and contradictions—water, purple, fire, green, red, brown, spinning beside streams, breathing in ancient wraiths and holding up cathedrals. No wonder this wood spit out my router. I was walking on royal ground. I was toying with a Ferris wheel. St. Boniface hadn't totally tamed this tree yet.
Can anyone tame these things fully? Standing outside the kilns, Jim told me that one day he opened the giant doors and not everything was horizontal. On the top of the perfect stack, one piece of wood had lost it; it had broken away and curled up into the shape of a horseshoe. Apparently, if it couldn't keep its water, then no one would have it. Spite as a horseshoe. What sort of heat can twist a two-inch-thick board like a blade of grass? As we stood before the door to feel the blowing heat from the fans, the pine air enticed me inside. I reached toward it. Jim told me that it seemed nice from where we stood but that if we tried to walk the length of the kiln we'd be dead around the halfway point. I opted out of going any further. That kiln heat can go on for days and still the trees are not subdued. Some people try to tame trees in odd ways. There was a man in Texas kidnapping forests. He must not have known what he was getting into. Timber theft is apparently a big business, but it only adds to the trees' aggravation. How do people steal trees? I asked an investigating officer. He told me that the man searched the deed records for absentee owners, found the original land owner who sold to the current land owner, bought a quit claim deed to any rights the previous owner may have had, falsified a sales' contract, and started to cut the timber on thirty-five acres. He had been imprisoned for doing this before and was out on probation. Over $800,000 was at stake. A local surveyor noticed something odd and called in the sheriff. The crew had clear-cut six acres over six hours before they were shut down.
Until recently they said that redwoods didn't die from disease; that's why they can last for centuries. Their biggest threat is wind. As we stood there with the kids, I saw the battle scars left by winds. Soldiers lay everywhere, very little open ground. It's easier to run from a diseased tree than a falling one. And how can wind get inside there? There are no open prairies. Redwoods grow in communities; no lone rangers. These were especially tight. Something didn't fit. Not all trees should be made into dining room tables, but some should. Certainly not these mammoths. Even those that shouldn't are still restless for some kind of liberation, recognition. How many whiny Zeuses might they be longing to cast off? How many Daphnes? What does that hostility look like when we're not around? Branches sometimes ball into fists. Timber accidents are often described in very suspicious terms. The news accounts seem to be hiding something. Why do the words "hit" and "struck" so often show up when talking about trees? Perhaps some boxing is involved. Actual report: "Deputies say [So-and-so] successfully cut one tree, then moved to cut another about seventy-five feet away. For some reason, another tree gave way and hit and killed the man." A different account also downplays the boxing: "[So-and-so] died after something struck him in the head while he was setting chokers at a logging operation near [Such-and-such] Creek in [Such-and-such] County. None of his co-workers witnessed the accident, but found [So-and-so] unconscious at about 10:00 am." Maybe it was the wind. It doesn't have to be middle-weight trees, taunting trees. Wind can tame things like Boniface. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
I pressed my thumb into the gash in my alder; I could sense it was growing into a canyon. It couldn't be sanded out. Boniface left work for us to do. I don't know what a real woodworker would do, but I just flipped that board. The gash would forever face the floor. Its opposite side was smooth but ripe with fire. Alder is of the birch family and boasts a very white grain. But if you cut it in the wild, the white interior oozes a crimson liquid, like blood. Blood. Come on. Here, surely, God has overplayed His hand. Here His heavy-handedness breaks the narrative. How stupid do we have to be? Earth sprouts over 20,000 types of trees around the world. They are plants gone berserk, having a self-supporting main stem that contains woody tissues that twist outward into limbs and branches. Some species are short but the tallest tree is the Australian Eucalyptus, one of which was 492 feet tall. They grow just about everywhere on earth, from extremely cold regions to hot tropics. Forests are communities of trees. Trees can be divided into six major groups: broadleaf, needle leaf, palm, cycad, tree fern, and gingkos. Trees give us wood, fibers, cork, plastics, rubber, alcohol, medicine, and not to be outdone, food and oxygen. Food and oxygen, it says. Imagine pitching these sorts of beings to a sci-fi movie producer. "Well, my idea is that we fill a barren planet with these Ferris Wheel-like things that can grow almost anywhere and look beautiful and have this stuff that can be made into chairs and paneling and hope chests, and, get this, they actually secrete this sweet, moist bread-like stuff in all colors, and, and, and they automatically give off a gas that the characters have to breathe to stay alive!" Then the producer asks, "And I suppose the little characters themselves breathe out gas that keep these Ferris Wheel things alive?" "Yes! Exactly! How did you guess?" How blatant can one get? Trees, geez. How implausible. Unbelievable. Why not just hang giant words on mountains to give away the story?
And when you cut an alder it bleeds. The gospel starts with a tree, a Tree of Life detained, sequestered, impatiently waiting for man to grow up and see the heavy-handedness: a God who made trees to tell a story, to produce furniture, "Who did not create it in vain, who formed it to be inhabited." Trees picture humans, and trees picture God; they image the God-man. No surprise, then, when a carpenter shows up, Himself a Tree, Himself the God-man, to open the gate to that Tree, to be the gate, to be the door to that tree. One observer has noted that Christ lived about 33 years, ministering only the last three. He worked and played for thirty years. He spent most of his life then, working wood, transforming trees, mortising, joining, planing, shaping, designing, enjoying playing with His own miracles. I think He would have liked a router. He spoke of Himself as a worked tree, a door and as an unworked tree, "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned." The unworked Tree of Life in the Garden became the worked Tree of Life of Golgotha, a cross planed by some other carpenter, baked by some carpenter. "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree." Christ's own shine shadowed the baked wood, the burnt bush, upon which He hung. And when you cut an alder it bleeds. But this tree, this cross, dwarfs the redwoods, blows them down with His breath, hides its people in its grain, and scatters the Zeuses. The Carpenter liberates the trees. And the Cross goes on to make time and history its kiln, "for everyone will be seasoned with fire"—"it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test each one's work." One fire purges, but another burns us without consuming: "there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them." A forest fire spreading around the globe. When the Bertrand Russells of the world stand dumb before His throne on the last day, forgetting all their boasts about inadequate evidence, the Carpenter could ask, "Come on, are you really going to tell me you missed those weird Ferris Wheel things?"

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