Good-natured trees

Good-natured_treesMy 91-year-old mother, who doesn’t know where she lives or if she’s had breakfast yet, is enthralled by trees. When we go for walks, she stops and gazes up at them in joyous wonder.

I asked her what it was about trees that caught her attention so thoroughly. She replied that it was because trees were so good-natured. Then she laughed, spotting her witticism.

Yes, trees are good-natured. They exemplify nature, and nature’s goodness. Not all of what we think of as nature is good, of course. There are problems from bears, to poison ivy and hurricanes among many other examples. But trees don’t usually give us any trouble. They simply stand there, doing their job. They catch the sunlight and turn it into living material. They capture carbon (sequester is the current popular term) and store it away. And by doing this, they make the air clean for us.

They give us shade, and shelter from the wind. And they give us beauty, from the delicate colours of spring buds, to the brilliant multi-hued fall displays. There are people who claim that they don’t like trees, but that’s pretty rare. There is little about trees to object to.

Maple syrup is a wonderful treat, but trees’ most significant gift to us, beyond the comfort of their presence, is that they give us wood. We can burn this material and the necessity of bodily warmth and comfort of hot food has been a very significant factor in the progression of our civilizations. We still seem to reflexively find comfort in the sight of an open fire, whether in a fireplace or at a campsite.

But burning it up is the least constructive use to which we put this very adaptable material. It was malleable enough to have been worked with very simple tools: stone and early metals. This led to the creation of boats, shelters, weapons, musical instruments and many of the other accoutrements of early life.

How would we have managed without it?
With advances in technology, many of which were directed towards woodworking, our wood manipulation prowess increased. Axes, steel saws, drill bits, and so on allowed for ever more complicated artefacts. Violins, for example, and boats that crossed oceans. Early cathedrals had wooden roofs and they still do, the surviving and well shingled examples, still enthral us with this now very old material up there keeping the whole building from falling down.

Wood is nature and wood is good.

Until the middle of the last century, wood was the default material for almost everything we made or used. Its virtues are numerous. Its flexibility, in advance of other alternate materials, gave us bows, for arrows or fishing rods. Its insulating properties kept us warm. Its buoyancy helped as to get where we hadn’t been before.

Its malleability gave us the opportunity to make bowls and totems. Wooden fences kept our livestock domesticated and available. Wood’s acoustic resonance allowed for drums and pianos.

The benefits that wood has provided us could be a very long list. Although we now have a much greater range of materials to choose from, wood retains a special place in our emotional lives. We like to be around it. It’s still popular for furniture and floors.

Wooden musical instruments have rarely been replaced with better alternatives. Wooden boats remain a special aesthetic experience. Wooden skis still retain some special characteristics that keep them in (very limited) production.

But things have changed. Now, rather than burning firewood in stoves, we are more likely to use wood pellets. Our houses are woodframed, but what we see is the outer brick veneer or the gypsum interior.

The wood that we see will often consist of a very thin representative surface layer on top of a highly engineered substrate. Newspapers are more likely to be on-line than thumped against our doors in the morning. A few things are more resistant to change. Although much of what we read will be electronic pixels on a screen, we don’t use virtual toilet paper. Despite wood’s goodness, it has undergone a major transformation, and a diminished role in our lives. This is a particular challenge for designers.

How do we continue to utilize what most will agree is a special material, in a way that makes economic sense, in the context of the way we live now?

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and former chair of its Industrial Design Department.

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