House of Wood / Conversations with Trees
from the book – The Attentive Heart
by Stephanie Kaza 1993
I have woken up at the end of a long week of tiredness, I am too tired to go anywhere. Too tired to seek out a tree for comfort. Too tired to walk in the forest on the mountain. Too full of sadness and tenderness that speaks through me as I teach about how we are living with the environment, how we are dying with the environment. It is a difficult work to be present with the state of the world. The more I pay attention to the economic and political forces driving environmental deterioration, the less certain I am that anything I do will stop it. My heart aches for the thoughtless deaths of so many trees. Sometimes I long for a break from the destruction and grief.
Here in my home I find some comfort in the beauty and simplicity of this house. I am grateful to be surrounded by wood and the memory of trees. Wood walls and ceilings, a beautiful oak floor, paned glass and wood windows, kitchen cupboards crafted of wood. From all sides I am embraced by wood. The presence of trees soothes my eyes and soul. The natural warm brown color is restful. It is just what it is, nothing extra. No decorations, no wallpaper, no paint, no layers of anything masking the wood. The simplicity is refreshing. I appreciate the unevenness and random variation of the wood.
All these trees – the oaks in the floor, the firs and redwoods in the walls, the cedar in the yarn chest – are trees of the Pacific forest, trees of my homeland. But here in the house they are quiet and alone, no longer dancing in the wind or singing with the birds. It feels a bit like a tree cemetery – in elegant form, of course. It is hard to think of the wood as dead. It doesn’t feel like I live in a house of death. The grain of the wood is too alive. Its memory is too vivid, etched from the experience of lifetimes. I feel the histories of individual trees; they resonate in each beam and board.
One thing is wrong though – the straightness. All of the wood has been cut into straight forms. Trees, however, are not entirely straight, especially the hardwoods. It is convenient to live in this straightness. It makes walking and organizing things easier. It works well with gravity and the desire of the inner ear for balance. But I miss the graceful curves of the living tree. I miss the tangle of branches, the intimate spaces between the twigs and the fingers of each limb. Planed surfaces in a house have all the intimacy ironed out of them. They have been flattened, standardized, regulated, cut to conform to the human design. In the process the trees’ own naturally beautiful shapes have been altered beyond recognition.
So this is the pain of it: in leaving its life-form behind, the wood has become an object for human use. Object – where is the heart in that? An object is something to carry around, to count, to purchase, to collect. It is something separate. The process of objectification begins with the first cut toward straightness. After the tress are felled the conspiracy of object continues in the timber sales report, lumberyard accounts, and architectural plans. The carpenters perhaps cradled the wood in their hands as they built this house, but did they remember the once-living trees? I wonder who among the many people who deal with wood as product have walked in the forest of these trees and listened to their voices. When the memory of tree has vanished and the connection is broken, the wood becomes corpse, or not even corpse, but something that appears to have never been alive.
I try to remember the trees.
I’m sure I heard about chlorophyll and photosynthesis when I was in school, but I don’t believe they ever struck me as having any more importance than, say, the Declaration of Independence–or geometry. No one ever impressed upon me…the astonishing priority held by the green plants of the third planet: priority number one….Take away all governments and armies, take away all businesses and industries…electricity, clothes, medicine and police…and most of us would survive. But take away the plants and we would all die.
Malcolm Wells – Gentle Architecture – 1981