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Wood Culture Renaissance: The Economy and Reverence of Trees

mark angelini

Mark Angelini is an ecological designer, green woodworker, forager, and fermenter living and working in southeast Michigan. He promotes and establishes edible and ecological landscapes with Roots to Fruits, LLC, teaches about wild foods through Eat Here Now, and produces hand carved spoons and other woodcraft, which he sells through Quercus Woodcraft. He is also an organizer for the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup.

What is Wood Culture?

An aroma of sweet apple blossom and earth fill my nostrils. My tongue tingles front to back as my palate is hit with tangy, sweet, then bitter. Fresh crushed apple fades into a faint backdrop of sweet, oil soaked wood. This is wood culture.

Culture, “The beliefs, values, behavior and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life.” Wood, the products derived from the structure of trees. Wood culture is a way of life that places a great emphasis on the role of wood. I like to take it one step further and include all products of a tree, since there is no tree without the blossoms, fruits, nuts and seeds.

Both the bowl holding the cider and the cider itself are embedded in a cultural reference tied directly to a reverence and economy of trees. This reverence and economy forms the structure upon which a wood culture renaissance takes form.

where wood culture begins

Orchards, woodlots, and forests are working landscapes where wood products are not only grown and harvested, but where economic activity is tied directly to a visible ecological framework

Wood culture is not happenstance. In many ways it is the direct by-product of craft and awareness; Craft in the forms of skills, tradition, and attention to detail. The union of man, tool, and mind. Awareness through the form of understanding systems. The union of ecological processes, man, and hope.

Trees have been the backbone of terrestrial ecology across the planet since before humans evolved. Throughout history, they’ve been central to our cultures and economies, even to degrees of reverence. Trees were critical in the making of fire, building, for food, and myriad ecological necessities.  Nowadays, with the advent of petroleum based fuels and polymers, trees are relegated to far fewer human uses than in the past, perhaps to the detriment of human culture and economy.

In the same breath, all is not lost. Trees have not lost their essential role. With much thanks to small pockets of committed individuals and bearers of ancient cultural heritage, as well as renewing interest in ecological living, local economy, and hand made/craft culture at large, the possibility for a renaissance of the trees may be at hand.

Craft manifests through various skill-sets and focal points: timber framing, green woodworking—wooden spoons, cups, bowls, chair making, joinery, and so on. All of the forms of using wood to make useful and valuable things. Awareness manifests in forms of ecological stewardship and recognition, by actively learning to participate as part of the greater ecological whole.

The renaissance aspect of all of this has been culminating for some time, as the promises of industrialization give way to reality and increasing numbers of people gather back around the fundamental skills and livelihoods that demarcate humanity. And this renaissance can be encapsulated by one sip from the ale bowl.

Economics of Wood Culture

Wood culture has seen its respective ups and downs throughout time—the coming and going of fads, eras, and other vagaries of human societies. Regardless, many aspects have held on. Timber framed structures hundreds of years old, wooden bows, bark canoes, boat building, or the trusty wooden spoon. Even still, this culture is not something, at least in America, which has a huge presence. That’s why I’d like to zero in on the wooden spoon.

tools

Green wood work uses simple, mostly hand powered tools. A sample spoon carving kit—hand saw, mallet, axe, straight knifes, crooked knives, adze, and detail knife.

Most people own a wooden spoon. You probably have one in your kitchen. It 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. It doesn’t scratch pans, it feels soft in the hand, and has a sense to it that no metal or plastic spoon can achieve.

That one cherished wooden spoon has a story, however obviously or otherwise. The main problem with this spoon’s story, as I see it, is the manner of its inception. It was more than likely produced in a far away land, likely in a factory. It was manufactured. A nameless tree, shaped by machines in a production line operated by what could be described as human machines. The spoon’s shape and size were probably engineered to use the least amount of material and be produced as uniformly as possible at the lowest possible cost.

This model of production may have made an end product that is useful enough, should the end user think nothing of an alternative, let alone the conditions which created it. Those conditions are unanimous with other economic conditions of modern industrial capitalism—produce a lot of something as cheaply as possible to the benefit of a small number of individuals, and at the expense of all other parties.

A spoon birthed out of a culture of wood, as I’ve defined it earlier, has a much different story—And for that matter, a much different economy. I carve spoons using a process that is quite traditional: my tools are a handsaw, an axe, and an assortment of knives. The most sophisticated tool in the process is usually the chainsaw I use to fell and buck the wood.

I also work with the world around me—the forests, orchards, and woodlands—for my source product. I even manage certain systems so that one of my net yields is wood for spoons. Often these are small diameter prunings, low-graded trees, fallen branches, and downed trees.

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, are all thoughtful and informed by craft and a greater awareness. The end product produces a spoon 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. Not to mention, its’ design and execution exist in a continual chase for optimum function and inherent beauty, informed by the past and the wood, the present.

process_triptych(1)

This small diameter log from a low-graded tulip poplar is transformed by saw, axe, and knives into a working implement and object of value.

A 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, I can take what is often considered low-grade material by foresters, loggers, and the wood industry at large, and turn them into something both very functional, full of beauty and life, and of significant value.  A single 12 foot section of 10 inch diameter low-graded black cherry may yield me enough wood to produce close to 200 spoons. I could in turn sell these spoons, gift them, or use them in trade and barter.

This seemingly unprofitable tree becomes a viable source of economic production, allowing me to manifest profitable activity, as well as incentives for my connection and ongoing work with the trees. This simple process of carving a spoon 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.

Moving Forward

I speak as only one tiny component of a larger system of crafts people, tree people, and other folks involved in maintaining and propagating this wood culture and its renaissance. There are many individuals alive today who are true masters of their crafts, who have committed to working with the trees, the traditional tools and skills, and to passing on and reviving a world enchanted by the presence and daily connection to trees.

For me, that is one of the core motivations in my work. Not only is it the refinement of skill and craft through the blurring of man and tool, it is also the ecological importance of a healthy forest ecology—or rather, of a world inhabited and enhanced by wood; Whether in the forms of food production, building material, firewood, or sources of material to produce an almost unimaginable list of useful and necessary items.

Trees are central to any human ecology that wishes to exist indefinitely into the future. Therefore, in my mind, the renaissance of a wood culture must take place. It supports and incentivizes a connection and work centered around skills, craft, and of working with and tending trees, forests, orchards, and more. It empowers local economic activity. And last but not least, it makes life richer. As my friend told me, “it’s so much work, but the work is the life, so it’s so much life”.

To support your local artisan, purchase tableware from Querus Woodcraft, or another local crafter. The quality will make you want to take up carving and join in the crafting of the wood culture renaissance!

All pictures courtesy Mark Angelini, Querus Wood Craft

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