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Interstice: Wood What sense can it make to suggest that everything is made from air, fire, earth, and water? All the sense in the world is the answer—at least when we are talking of trees . . . so the old Greeks were absolutely right. Trees, at least, are compounded from earth, water, and air, and the sun that powers the whole enterprise is the greatest fire of all. —Colin Tudge, The Tree If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of bleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. —Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral Epistles Wood enters the fiber of our lives in little noticed but significant ways. My grandfather worked regularly with this material. On birthdays and Christmas, he would gift my siblings and me wooden mallets, coasters, and paperweights that he had lathed or carved from rich brown oak, bird’s eye maple, and light-hued poplar. I grew up splitting logs and dried stumps for the fireplace and enjoyed applying the repetitive rhythmic strokes of a sharp, wood-handled axe and sledgehammer to timber or to a metal wedge lodged within it, as I learned to read and follow the lead of the grain. A smattering of carpentry skills I acquired from my father through helping to remodel a house, build a deck, and frame a dormer—as well as by making an occasional towel or gun rack in shop class or a small vehicle for a pinewood derby—also taught me about the peculiar textures and nuances of the substance. Trees and wood possess the unique capacity to at once record passing time through growth rings and, like wise elders, to “witness” quietly and affect a deeper current of ecological events, usually being among the oldest organisms in a biotic community and living thousands of years in some cases. The truth of a tree is 93 94 | Elemental Philosophy revealed through language given that the two words share a similar etymological root, and both suggest rectitude and aspiring heights. Ezra Pound must have sensed this link when he wrote, “I stood still and was a tree amid the wood, / Knowing the truth of things unseen before, / Of Daphne and the laurel bough / And the god-feasting couple old / That grew elm-oak amid the wold.”1 The potential bond between wisdom and wood is evidenced too in experiential encounters with the vast scope of arboreal flora from the birch and beech to the banyan and bamboo. As anyone who has spent a span of time in the forest knows, the effects can be both calming and contemplative, like the consolation in coming home. “The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more,” Emerson appropriately opined upon visiting the sequoias of Yosemite.2 Eastern stories are especially telling. When a monk asks the Zen Buddhist Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhiharma’s coming to China?,” Joshu replies, “The oak tree in the garden.” When another monk likewise inquires of Zhaozhou, “What is the living meaning of Zen?,” Zhaozhou says, “The cypress tree in the yard.”3 Wood, in fact, is one of five elements in Chinese traditions, typically being associated with qualities like new growth, the direction of east, and attributes such as flexibility and strength. In Taoism, an uncarved block (Po) of wood is a key material image connoting our supposed original nature, which can be shaped, cut or sculpted into different expressions or simply be left alone in its pristine condition . Indeed, this particular philosophy emerged in the wooded south of China, where iconoclasts and rebels often flourished and took refuge from the law in the interiors of the forest. And in India, the Buddha attains nirvana beneath a tree—likely a Bodhi or Peepul. Trees, which hold a special status in most cultures, were once considered to be the wooden spines and sacred spires of the earliest forest shrines, especially in places like ancient Greece. Speaking more recently from an outpost in the Sierra Mountains, John Muir waxes in a religious vernacular: A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship . . . Every hidden cell...


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MARC Record
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