Tuesday, 7 June 2011

wood for trees

there is a saying about people who are lost, that they can't see the wood for the trees, far from being lost, i'd like to think i have found the wood within the trees.

it has been dawning on me, over the past few weeks, whilst i've been up in the forest, how inextricably linked the past and my future are. i have, to all intents and purposes stepped back in time about 5 or 6 hundred years, maybe more.

first, looking at the trees, assessing each one i planned on cutting.

assessing them for girth and length, where i thought i could use them.

then, cutting and milling timber in the forest, knowing where each part is destined to go in the frame has been a leap into the past. this is the same way in which houses were designed and built hundreds of years ago in england and all over north america. the only thing that's changed, to some extent, are the tools.

last sunday, drawing a longbow of mine, and loosing some arrows, for the first time in a couple of years this sensation was heighten, and going much further back. every time i draw a longbow and let loose an arrow its as if the very act of loosing the arrow causes you to be hurtled back in time with it. the more ancient the type of bow and arrow the further back in time you are cast. at the end of the session i wanted a tankard of cold english ale or cider, something quintessentially english. there is a law still standing in england, but one not enforced, in which every able bodied man is to practice archery on sunday, a law that goes back many hundreds of years. i mention this, not out of quaintness, but because it illustrates how a nation was defined by an activity. some things it seems run deeper even than blood.

the two activities, timber framing and using a longbow, have, i would argue, quite a lot in common. now, that may not sound apparent, so i'll explain. for me they aren't about recreating a facsimilie of the past, but in finding something of value for now, something that existed a long time ago, something that has largely been forgotten. its about how they are made and why they are made in the way in which they are. the thing i see that links them is the understanding of wood, how it grows, and how that effects the way in which it performs. a knowledge drawn through a way of life, a connectedness to a rhythym of life that has all but disappeared.

many woods have been used for the construction of bows. and there are many different reasons for this. different bow designs allow for different materials to be used, and to be able to use those materials in a variety of ways. after all, a bow only becomes a bow when you have taught it to take the shape of the arc of the bow, until then its just a bent stick.

one of the simplest types of bow, and also one of the most effective is the longbow. its design dates back at least 9000 years, as evidence of the earliest bows found in the bogs of stelmor in germany, holmegaard in denmark, and meare heath in england. and throughout this entire history the one key component that determines the performance of the finished bow is the bowyers understanding of the billet of wood he's making into a bow. how the tree has grown, and the characteristics of how that wood performs both in compression and expansion. some woods do one better than the other and some, like yew and osage orange do both exceptionally. in creating bows its essential to have a good understanding of the different properties of different woods. it allows you to use them in different ways and to fully take advantage of their natural characteristics. for example, one of the reasons why yew is such a fine bow wood, is that its possible to take advantage of its natural growing properties, by leaving an amount of sapwood on the back of the bow which protects the heartwood during compression, preventing the bow from exploding, and then pulls the bow out of compression as much as the heartwood is driving it out. so even within the same stave of wood it has 2 very distinct properties. the fact that neolithic bowyers understood this, how by changing the shape of a bow you could create different characteristics is truly remarkable, as even now the dynamics of bow construction aren't essentially any more developed.

the same is true when you are looking for timber in the forest with which to build. some woods are better than others at certain functions. some have certain attributes that dictate their use. and even within the same tree certain parts have certain strengths and weaknesses. its about having knowledge of the different properties of trees and the wood they can provide. having said all that, i am largely dictated to by what i have available, what's there in the forest. and i am in the world of use what you have.

mostly what i have is maritime pine. which is a great building timber. its a yellow pine, very dense, and very strong.

a thing i like about timber framing in this way is the direct connection it gives you with the land, the trees, the very place upon which you are to dwell. it becomes as much a part of you as you become of it.

i like the idea of managing you own woodland to give you the materials with which to build a house. i had a conversation a few years ago with a forestry commission officer on the island of Mull in Scotland, about that very thing. he was advocating the possibility of this, and saying how the forestry commission were in the process of selling off tracts of forest particularly to communities who were interested in doing this. He referred to it as forest crofting.

for me this kind of management connects you directly with the land. it is the thing that gives you shelter, as well as providing food and hopefully water, and maybe sanitation, and possibly even power if you are fortunate enough. to be able to achieve one or two of these things is really something, to be able to achieve all would be the self sufficient dream. i don't know as yet how close we can get to that on this farm, but we will try our hardest.


Miguel Ângelo Leal said...

Loved it!

Wendy said...

How are you going to preserve the timber?

michelle said...

that was a great post.Very heartfelt and thought provoking.I admire what you are doing Rick!