When teaching new turners I always try to instill in them the need to honour the wood, to always give it their best effort. In the past, wood was so prevalent that it was considered – and still is by some – utilitarian and disposable. Nothing is more disrespectful than referring to wood as mere “fiber”. This is the story of wood that took me to the other end of the spectrum; reverence.
I often collaborate with my friend Steve Smith (Dla’kwagila Oweekeno), making turned vessels and sculptures for his contemporary First Nation art. He asked me to turn some vessels from some old growth Red Cedar he had from Vancouver Island. Although Cedar has many wonderful qualities, it is one of my least-favourite woods to turn because it is hard on tools (very abrasive) and suffers from excessive tear out in the end grain. Nevertheless, I agreed because it was Steve. The wood was magnificent; tight grain, straight, clear – and huge.
I turned the pieces then let them dry for a couple of months, finally facing the part I dreaded: sanding. The largest was 24” tall by 11” diameter, there were two natural edge pieces for his “eagle nests” and three smaller conventional vessels but still quite deep. The vase/bowl forms were turned end grain so the bottoms inside were nasty and hard to reach.
It was a days-long process, so I had lots of time to reflect on the pieces I was working. My first observation was that the tree had undergone both good times and bad, several times in its lifetime. There were bands of wider grain lines about a millimeter apart but there were also bands that were so tight I couldn’t discern actual grain lines without a jeweler’s loop. Usually the change between the two was sudden, adding mystery to the story. I decided to try to determine the age of the tree. Anything to take a break from the sanding. Even though much of the heart of the tree was not present in the pieces, the arc of the innermost rings offered a clue to the missing years. Several times in my past I have counted annual rings in a tree, but this one was tougher than most (I counted the rings in three Douglas Fir trees that were felled on our property when I was a kid. All three were in the order of 1500 years). Without being able to stick pins in to assist counting I resorted to very thin pencil marks (that I could sand off), so the count was not completely accurate but still provided a decent order of magnitude. After a couple of trips through time I estimated the tree to be about 1000 years old.
I started to put that into context. The sapwood had been laid down between about 2005 and the present time, so during my retirement, more or less. My whole adult career (when I had a real job) took place in the next 1 ½” and I was born a ½” before that. Captain James Cook first sighted the island where this tree grew in 1778 when it was about 3 feet in diameter. It was a pretty decent sized tree at the time of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and the tree probably started growing somewhere around the Battle of Hastings in England in 1066. That gave me pause.
But then a staggering thought crossed my mind. I had been using event markers from history that related to a background drawn from history textbooks. A background that by modern era standards are way back in time relatively speaking. It suddenly struck me that in other relative terms, this was a mere blink of an eye. Steve’s Kwakwaka’wakw ancestors called the northern end of Vancouver Island (and adjacent mainland) home thousands of years before the tree ever sprouted. Thousands of years before all the markers that I had been using. Thousands of years in a defined culture that honoured – among other things – the mighty Cedar. In another age, this tree might have yielded a sea-going dugout canoe, a house post or posts in a longhouse, countless utility items like blanket boxes or possibly a massive totem greeting visitors to a long-established village.
I always try to honour the wood, giving it my best effort and wasting none of it. Any unused pieces of this cedar that can yield small carvings will go back to Steve. I’ll use the scraps around the shop if possible and what I can’t use will go to heat the shop at the Farm Museum. The shavings will one day provide a beginning for new plant life. I don’t know how I can fully honour this wood other than to acknowledge how insignificant my small part played in the life of this tree. A tree that watched down on this land over the ages, then came through Steve to my lowly shop. The physical things that I make from it are but a tribute to that legacy. Steve’s art will give it a new life. Wherever it ends up I can only hope that the legacy will continue to be honoured by the new keepers.