Tree Rings, stories from The Atlantic, by Hugh Crawford

My friend, Hugh Crawford at LCC GaTech sent a link to his rich essay about trees.  I include some of my favourites and a link to the essay which just came out in the Atlantic this month.

2014                Every schoolchild learns that trees, as they grow, lay down new wood each year, so the age of a tree can be determined by counting the growth rings, officially called dendrochronology.  Not only do those rings mark time and weather (temps & temps, as the French say), but also they are subtle ridges to the hand and form supple patterns both geometric and chaotic, warm and arresting, fragile and strong. Wood remains a constant in 21st century culture, still forming the basis for much of what we do, how we live, and how we mark out our days. 

1056                The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian, the world's oldest multi-story timber-framed structure, was built. The trees for a timber frame—felled by axe, squared by broadax, and smoothed by adze—form a structure through massive beams and time-tested joints.  Heavy timbers slot tenons into mortises, dovetail tie-beams to headers, and peg girts to posts.  These beams carry the full load of the structure without nails, screws, or metal fasteners.  The joiners work with care, selecting wood with structural integrity, cutting mortises with long handled chisels and mallets.  It is exacting work, slow and patient, but it is also communal.  A craftsman may linger in solitude for hours over a kerf-wedged dovetailed through-mortise, but when it comes to raising the frame, he is part of an agile choreography of joiners, timbers, and joints, working in concert to raise a frame that will, given proper care, stand for a millennium. After the joiners finish, the beams, in compression and tension, flex and creak through the days, continuing their own dynamic dance through time. 

350 BCE         Aristotle writes his Physics and initiates the Western way of thinking about stuff.  Technological objects are formed matter (hylomorphism), a world made up of compliant, malleable matter upon which humans impose their designs.  Hylē, Aristotle's word for matter and the foundation of all physical interactions, actually means wood.  This bit of etymology prompted Henry David Thoreau to question the notion of art determined by form alone, noting that Aristotle defined art as "The principle of the work without the wood,  and going on to observe that "most men prefer to have some of the wood along with the principle; they demand that the truth be clothed in flesh and blood and the warm colors of life." As a hewer of the arrowy pines he cut to build his Walden house, Thoreau knew hylē not as malleable material but instead as a knotty, twisted living being that can only be known through patient, careful engagement.

1379                New College, Oxford is founded and College Hall is built with a massive oak-beam roof.  In the late 1800s, those roof-beams became infested with beetles, so the school's dons cast about trying to find 40 foot oak timbers of sufficient heft to replace the existing roof.  Someone suggested checking with the college forester to see if there were any ancient oaks in the college's woodlots. As the story goes, the queried forester smiled and informed them that a stand of oaks had been planted when the hall was first built with the express purpose of supplying those timbers when needed. The perfect parable of planning for the future, the story has been contested (the  forest land was not acquired by New College for a number of years after the college hall was built).  Nevertheless, it resonates: the college maintains forest land for production with exceedingly long-term plans. Even though the trees were not explicitly planted to replace that particular roof, those oaks were nurtured over hundreds of years, and, when needed, timbers of sufficient strength and size were available. An ancient version of just-in-time management.