Our Giving Trees: Appreciating Wood for Warmth and Beauty

Reader Contribution by Jonny Malks
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An image from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a story in which a tree loves a boy so much that she gives everything to him, her shade, her apples, and, eventually, her entire body to sell so that he might be happy. At the end of the story, the boy comes back an old man, and sits on his tree’s stump. They are ancient and broken, but they are together, “and the tree was happy.”

I’m on a walk with my friend Kate in the forest. It’s the College Woods out behind William & Mary, where we go to school. It’s misty and some water begins to condense and form little droplets on my brow. Kate’s clad fully in denim with a painted-on sweatshirt underneath. We jump across the access logs placed in the low-lying swampy bits of the trail that it always takes me minutes to traverse alone. Kate’s confidence is palpable, and it makes me feel better. We don’t know each other all that well, but I feel close to them out under the trees in the little bits of rain spitting down from the grey sky now occluded by one-thousand branches.

When we arrive at an outcrop just below the Keck Lab, William & Mary’s hub for environmental sciences nestled on the edge of campus, Kate discovers something up ahead and suddenly becomes quite giddy. They’re generally very even-keel, so I was interested in the kind of cute forest creature, lost ruin, and/or resplendent gemstone that could have caused such a reaction. When I catch up to Kate, they are staring at a pile of light-colored wood, the remnants of a tree that had been cut up into pieces and dumped down a hill, eventually coming to rest in a ravine right off of the walking trail. Kate senses my surprise at seeing their discovery, punctuating their chuckle with the words: “Sorry, it’s just that, I love wood. Man, I have to get my car and come back here. I’ve got all of these tools for making wood prints and so many sketches and paintings that I want to get down on these stumps.”

Appreciating Trees for Art, Warmth and Beauty

They exhale. With one short paragraph of conversation, I’ve been schooled anew in the art of appreciating trees and their warm, beautiful bodies. Wood is a resource that is perpetually undervalued in western society, on account of what I believe to be a tragic disconnection with the material’s ever palpable and tactile nature. In the suburban U.S., the closest that most kids get to wood comes in the form of paper and self-lighting fireplaces. Unless you live up north, you don’t see too many wood stoves for heating these days, and the idea of using wood for art – be it sculpture or prints, like Kate enjoys – is something that only the artsiest of folks might consider.

Coincidentally, Kate does hail from far up north, Connecticut to be exact, and in their next sentence they tell me about their routine over winter break: “I’d get up, put the coffee on, and light the rest of the fire we had from the night before, before heading out to the shed to get more fuel.” It was poignant, I thought, that wood for Kate was both a medium through which they could express their artistic passion and a source of heat that they and their mom relied on to get through the cold New England winter. For the first time in my mind, it made sense that the same fuel that we’ve relied on for survival throughout human history, could be made into works of art that take us back to our roots.

Kate’s bright and beloved wood covered in this morning’s snow.

Finding Connection through Wood-Based Chores

Specifically, this conversation took me back to Dayspring Farm, where, the week before, I was stacking splits of hickory with my mentor, Charlie, and best friend, Gabe. The wood was to be stored in the shed outside the barn to feed Charlie and Miriam’s stove for the rest of February, and we sure did have a big pile to get through. During the work, Charlie talked about his favorite writer, Wendell Berry, and resilience. He talked about how doing a job with one’s full effort and care was a simple way to express love. I smiled so wide when I took in a full picture of what was happening. We were two young men in our early twenties, stacking wood for hours with their 70-old farm teacher. We broke into sweat and laughter.

We watched the sun go down together. With the sliver of remaining light, we packed the last bits of the pile into the tattered shed that Charlie’s oldest son, Jason, had built when he was only 17. That was almost twenty years ago. I felt very simple in this moment, calm and so in love with what was happening.

All that Trees Give

We make so much out of wood: instruments, furniture, supplies of all sorts. We interact with wood every day in overt and subtle ways alike. Many of us will spend over half of our lives sleeping on wooden bed frames, losing ourselves, during certain nights, in the euphonious sounds ringing out of a musician’s acoustic guitar. It’s made of Rosewood, of Mahogany, Ash, Maple, Basswood, Agathis, Alder, Poplar, Walnut, Spruce, and/or Holly. In short, of trees.

And we certainly won’t be able to appreciate the living wonder of these gorgeous beings if we can’t first accept our intimate reliance on their bodies. In order to live and, indeed, live well, we must consume them. Therefore, no walk in the forest should be without gratitude for the many cousins of the trees who give us shade for our rest, and leaves for compost and cover, and the flowers and fruits and nuts of spring, and natural ticker-tape in fall, who weren’t so lucky. For those who we’ve cut down and made into tables, and chairs, and boats, and dolls, and paper. The least we can do is appreciate their warmth, whether it be through art, fire, or a quiet walk amidst the trees left living. A wholesome life, I would argue, should include all three.

So, this winter, I encourage you to get outside and start engaging with the trees that stand. Go out into the woods and find your own medium for art, your own warmth, from the very place where all humans come from. That ancient forest of earth, in whose shade our ancestors survived and evolved, has now all but been destroyed in the wake of our incurious modern craving to consume. But we, together, can break the mold.

Go into the forest. Go in the snow, the rain, the sun. Feel her chill, hug her trees, engage with her floor, the ever-shifting weight of her many creatures. Meet friends there. They don’t even have to be people (in fact, it might be better if they’re not). Other humans can sometimes make us feel like we’re the only ones here in this world, that we are all who matter, around which the rest revolves. But this isn’t true. Your forest is close. It gives and gives and gives.

Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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