Unchopping a Tree

“Tree Down!”   Jeff Peachey, 2013.

“Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, … .” (the rest of the poem)

W. S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree” is a wonderfully meditative poem/essay that will resonate with anyone in craft, conservation, technology, or environmentalism. It articulates the hubris of humans when working with natural materials by emphasizing the complex and one-directional time-bound nature of growth and craft.

There is not a backspace key for craft. Only starting over, or more rarely, working around a mistake. A second of inattention can create hours or days of extra work when dealing with physical materials. Possibly even failure. Chopping is quick. Unchopping takes a long time.

We can all appreciate the section on the structural inappropriateness of trying to glue back the severed fibers of the tree, which will never function as the original. It is as futile as gluing a spinal cord nerve.

The poem ends by zeroing in on the insecurity at the heart of all art and craft. How can any human construct even begin to compare to Nature?

Two Ways of Reinforcing Splits in Wood

Walnut board with splits

I inherited this lovely walnut board, 16.25″ wide, 24″ long. Unfortunately, it was starting to crack in two places. I repaired the larger crack with an ash bowtie (aka butterfly), which I rounded to echo the grain of the board. It it is the full thickness of the board. In the image you can see how it has pulled the crack together next to it very tightly, so that it almost seems to disappear. I tried a different repair on the smaller crack, an end-grain insert, also ash, that has two wedge shaped legs on the inside. I’m hoping this will keep the board from splitting more, though it didn’t seem to affect the appearance of the current crack.

In both cases, I drilled the walnut to remove the majority of the wood, then cleaned it up with chisels. Working on something I own is a pleasant change from the ethical constrictions of performing conservation work on wooden book boards. It is also a good chance to experiment a bit, since I will be able to monitor any changes. On a related note, a version of the article Alexis Hagadorn and I wrote, “The use of parchment to reinforce split wooden bookboards, with preliminary observations into the effects of RH cycling on these repairs”  (Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 33, No. I, p. 41-63) should be available soon online at Columbia University’s repository. I’ll post a link when this happens.