It’s often maples that rule the ridge tops of Minnesota’s north shore. Cedars thrive in swamps, ash trees favor floodplains and creek beds, birches are everywhere, from stony cliffs overlooking Lake Superior to cold north slopes up country. The rare oaks are sometimes found on south facing slopes, and basswood and elm are few and dispersed, but will grow where the soil permits.
When I came into this country, I came as a stranger, all of these phenomena bereft of both name and explanation. I wandered the hills and ridges and valleys broadly, slogging upstream knee deep in creeks until they tapered down to a trickle I could no longer follow, merely to try to discern what lay at the source. I began to notice patterns in the landscape; black spruce and tamarack growing together on the long and deeply faceted lakeshores, ash leaves falling sooner in the autumn than all others, and later to return in the spring. There were lessons here, yet I was unsure how to interpret them, and I had work to do.
A cabin built of logs seemed a suitable shelter, wooden bowl and spoon for daily sustenance, a paddle to push the canoe, a chair to sit on beside the wood stove, and billets of split dry wood to feed the fire. Wood revealed itself as the very essence of survival in this place, and I created what I needed with clumsy hands and dull tools, inordinately proud of these rude implements of nourishment.
As seasons passed I ranged more broadly, observed more sharply. The long dark of winter provided ample time for reading by candlelight, and I became a student of a new vocabulary. Felling and riving, cudgel and froe, axe, adze, gouge, chisel. I learned that maple is fine grained, heavy, and hard, but decays readily; cedar seems improbably light, soft, and fragrant, and its intractable rot resistance is the stuff of legend. Ash wood is tough and springy; it is good for an axe handle or the long curved planks of a toboggan. It can also be pounded apart, one individual growth ring at a time, to create a strong and flexible material for basket weaving.
I honed my tools with files and fine grained sharpening stones; I must have found something similar to strop my brain upon, as steadily the combination of experience, education, and intuition worked magic. Seasons accumulated into years and I found that I knew where to look for the right tree, and how to convince it to yield to sharp steel.
Bows, bowls, baskets, a roof over one’s head, a table where supper is served, music to delight the ears and stir the heart: all are fashioned from the flesh of a tree. I have found myself called by this material, and I am now privileged to spend my days up to my elbows in wood shavings, ever designing, dreaming, imagining the possibilities.
By modern standards, this is an obscure and archaic way of working with wood. There is no room in a fast paced, industrial economy to go wandering the hills, hunting the right tree.
Some woodworkers understand wood as a commodity: order it in the species of choice, so thick, so wide, so long. It seems to make no difference whether the wood in question was cut on the other side of town or on the far side of the planet. It has become a homogeneous material, like bricks and mortar, fiberglass, sheetrock.
And some foresters have roamed continents, surveying trees and forests, soils, plants, and animals of all description, size, and species. But they seem to see the forest as an entity apart from the material of their own lives, to see trees in percentages and statistics, failing to notice the way a branch or a root curves just so, the way one tree’s trunk has grown straight as a ruler while another twists back upon itself, riddled through with irregular humps and divots.
The interwoven threads of the natural world and of the woodworker’s craft have proven impossible for me to tease apart. I have long believed that what is precious is found in the specific. The birch tree that grows on the north ridge is not the same as the one that grows in the southern valley, nor ever shall be. From each might be made a bowl that holds soup, but it’s not so simple.
These days when I’ve dreamed up a project and it’s time to go hunting for a tree, I seem to know where to look. I might walk a long way, passing acres of trees of the right species and size before finding one suitable. Or I’ll have watched a stand of trees for some years, waiting for the right purpose and the right time to take the one I know will cleave, plane, and bend the way I ask it to.
So it is the farthest thing from burdensome to go wandering the shapes of this land, paying the utmost attention to the sweep of a branch, the twist of a root, the pattern and direction of a tree’s crown. Coming to know these woods has given me a vocation; it’s also lent me a sense of belonging in this place.