New wood culture

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

woodlands12A new term is making the rounds, so to speak, and it is called “wood culture”, “new wood culture”, or “wood culture renaissance”, and we can but hope that it is catching on.

The new wood culture and use of local coppiced wood is also entering mainstream, so to speak, in the fist decade of the twenty-first century, with wooden kitchen ware of all kinds, made by local craftsmen and -women appearing in stores such as the Conran shops in London and also B&Q supporting locally grown wood and wood products from such wood.

Wood was once the most important raw material and most of that timber came from coppiced woods, at least in Europe. Wood is the product derived from the structure of trees and the various products that are made from this wood, are often referred to as treen goods, unless they happen to be products that do not fall into this category, such as furniture, fences, houses and other structures, wagons, and such. Without trees wood would not be possible and without well managed woodlands and forests the supply of good wood is not feasible.

In some people's minds – presently – this “wood culture renaissance”, “new wood culture”, or “wood culture”, is represented by the resurgence in green woodworking, that is to say making spoons and other products from wood that is either freshly cut or eighteen month or less laid up to semi-season.

Wood was king not so long ago in every home, and almost everywhere else as well. That was before the advent of plastic. Kitchen utensils, whether spoons, even for eating, or spatulas, chopping and cutting boards, salt containers, and much more, were all made from wood. So were baskets of all kinds, from small ones for holding bread (rolls), over those used to collect eggs from the hen house and for going to the grocery store, to those for the laundry, to, in fact, baskets that were, much like rucksacks, worn on the back that were used for all manner of things. Walking sticks, hiking staffs and the handles of tools were all made from wood. So were most bowls in use, whether troughs for the making of bread or those for fruit to be placed on the table, etc. as were the tables themselves (and in the main the later are still today).

Trees have been the backbone of terrestrial ecology across the planet since before humans evolved. Throughout history, they have been central to our cultures and to our economies, and in many cultures trees were revered the the extent of worship even, especially certain types of trees.

Trees were critical in the making of fire, to the building houses for homes and other uses, including churches, for food, and a myriad of other necessities.

With the advent of petroleum based fuels and polymers, trees have been relegated to far fewer human uses than in than they and wood were in the past, perhaps to the detriment of human culture and economy, and definitely to the detriment of the woods themselves, as the reduction in use of wood products caused the woods to fall into disrepair, especially coppice woods and small woods in Britain (and probably also elsewhere).

Now wood, and with it trees, are coming back into vogue, so to speak. Whether it directly started with the use of wood for fire fuel again, as a more environmentally friendly one to fossil fuels, as it is carbon neutral, in that wood being burned (not counting any particle emissions) only releases as much carbon (dioxide) than what the tree absorbed during its life. And any wood product, other than firewood or charcoal, retains this carbon for as long as the product exists. Therefore, when you buy and use a wooden spoon, bowl, or other kitchen implement, or wooden products in any other way and maintain it, for as long as that product exists. This goes, obviously, for all wood products, regardless where they are made and how, in the regard of carbon retention. However, when you buy a product that is made from local, ideally coppiced, wood and ideally made by hand you buy a much more sustainable product than a wooden object that is made by machines in some far away country or made from wood that has been imported from abroad.

This new wood culture or wood renaissance includes much more than the wooden objects that are still common place, such as furniture, cabinetry, and various architectural additions. It includes green wood stick chairs, spoon carving and other household treen... but with a certain ethos and this ethos is, basically, that things are made by hand. This is the heart of The New Wood Culture or Renaissance.

Most people own a wooden spoon and you probably have one, or more, in your kitchen, and maybe even other wooden utensils. Your wooden spoon may not be handmade, but you probably turn to it often since it serves such a fundamental role, stirring food to prevent it from burning. Most cooks have their well-loved and hard worn wooden spoon. A wooden spoon does not scratch pans, it feels soft in the hand, and has a sense to it that no metal or plastic spoon can achieve. And, what is more even, you can safely leave it in the pot or pan without causing it to heat up making it hot to the touch or without the danger of the plastic melting or infusing some nasty chemical into the dish that you are cooking.

Your cherished wooden spoon has a story, however, whether this story is obvious or not. The main problem with this spoon's story, as with so many other wooden kitchen utensils, and other wooden products for that matter, is the manner of how it was produced. It more than likely was manufactured, as the word made does not really fit here, in a far away land, likely in a factory, and today most of those spoons, spatulas and what have you are, indeed, “Made in China” or “Made in Vietnam”. That is to say they were made by machines, more often than not, in those countries or other countries.

The problem is that the spoon was manufactured and not “made”. A nameless tree, felled in a factory way, shaped by machines on a production line operated by what could be described as human machines. The shape and size of the spoon having been more than likely engineered to use the least amount of material and be produced as uniformly as possible at the lowest possible cost. Often this also means that no consideration is given to the grain of the wood and thus strength is compromised also.

This model of production may have “created” an end product that is useful enough, should the end user think nothing of an alternative, let alone the conditions which created it, but sustainable it is not, even though it is produced from wood. But then, those conditions are unanimous with other economic conditions of modern industrial capitalism, which is to produce a lot of something as cheaply as possible for the benefit of a small number of individuals, and all that at the expense of all other parties, including the Planet.

A spoon, spatula, or other treen object, that has come out of the New Wood Culture or Renaissance has a much different story to tell. And for that matter it is also the offspring of a much different economy and method of “production”.

The worker of greenwood uses a very traditional process that has changed little through the centuries and even millennia and mostly the tools are all hand tools, often only handsaw, hand axe, and an assortment of knives. Maybe added to that a few rasps and maybe a plane or two (no, those ones don't fly). The only power tool that is used in this process is usually a chainsaw used to fell and cut up the tree into manageable pieces.

In most cases the woodworker also works with the world around him or her, be those the forests, woods, orchards or other such places where wood for the products can be obtained. And in many cases the woodworker him- or herself is also a coppice worker, maintaining the wood to ensure a continuing supply of raw material, while at the same time enhancing the woods for wildlife. Others sources for raw material may be local tree surgeons, tree prunings from gardens, parks, and cemeteries, etc.

The entire process from working with and amongst the trees, chopping carefully at the wood with my axe, and shaping it finely with my knives, and finishing it whether just by knife or by sanding and oiling, are all thoughtful and informed by craft and a greater awareness.

The end product of this is a spoon, or other treen object, that not only supported an entire system of reverence and work with trees, but one that lives on to bring life and culture to those who cherish and use them. And the management that stands behind it, the management of our woods, by coppicing, enhances the ecological balance in our woods no end.

A wood culture, and even more so this new wood culture, links economic activity to a working landscape that underpins both the stewardship of the commons and of local economic vitality and resilience. Economically speaking, the woodworker of the new wood culture takes something which is often considered low-grade material by foresters, loggers, and the wood industry at large, or something that tree surgeons have to pay for to get rid off, and turns this material into something both very functional, full of beauty and life, and of significant value.

In this way some seemingly unprofitable trees, or bits of trees, become a viable source of economic production, allowing the woodworker to manifest profitable activity, as well as incentives for his or her connection and ongoing work with the trees. The simple process of carving, whether it be a spoon or other treen object (and there are many besides spoons) then starts to foster a greater and greater reverence for trees, all of which supports the larger cultural and economic landscapes of a wood culture renaissance.

Many people are involved in maintaining and propagating this wood culture and its renaissance, myself as forester, writer and woodworker included, and many of those are true masters of their crafts and who are committed to working with the trees, with the traditional tools and skills, and to passing on and reviving a world enchanted by the presence and daily connection to trees.

Trees are central to any human ecology and have been since time immemorial and they are essential to any human ecology that wishes to exist indefinitely into the future. Thus, the wood culture renaissance must take place and we must do everything to encourage it and bring it about.

This new wood culture supports, stimulates and incentivizes a connection and work centered around skills, craft, and of working with wood and trees and of tending trees, woodlands, forests, orchards, and more, and at the same time it empowers local economic activity on more than just one level.

Yes, a handmade spoon, or other treen object, may show some flaws that do not seem to exist (or have been hidden) in factory produced wooden goods and do not have a uniform shape. They also may still retain, in some instances on purpose, the marks of the tools used, as in the case of “knife finished”. That, in my opinion, is, however, the beauty of the handmade ones as they allow the wood to be what it wants to be, to some extent at least. Such treen products are also more expensive, it is true, than the factory produced ones that nowadays mostly come from China and other parts of the Far East.

Do your part to bring about this wood culture renaissance by supporting your local artisans by purchasing tableware and other treen objects from them. I can guarantee that the quality, in general, and the beauty of such wooden objects, will make you want to take up carving as well and join in the crafting of this wood culture renaissance.

What is most important about this new wood culture is that it could and will, if we let it, all of us, including those who believe that a tree should never be cut, bring about a healthy woodland and forest ecology and a world enhanced by trees and by wood, whether in the form of food production, building materials, firewood and charcoal, beanpoles and pea sticks, or as sources of material from which to produce an almost unimaginable list of useful and necessary items that will enhance our lives.

© 2017

For more on coppicing and why, etc. see “Managing our Woods”, a small book that explains the whys and wherefores of managing our woods in this way and calls for us to return to that way.