If We Sacrifice Trees, then Who is the God?

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Working with wood has always seemed like it’s something more than just refashioning dead vegetable matter into useful items.

Unlike metal, wood has a way of reminding us of the time it took for every stick to grow. Pick up a door stile and look at the end grain. Count the annular rings and you know it took 40 years to make that part for a cabinet door. A door panel might take 100 years to grow. I have a piece of slow-growth huon pine in my shop that is about 4” wide and took more than 300 years to grow.

If you respect your elders, we all need to tip our hats to the scrap bin every day.

But I don’t think of time and lumber as mere linear things. Perhaps it’s my affinity for Buddhism, but I have always suspected there is a circle behind the work I do. But that the circle is so big that I am like a gnat walking along the rim of a dog bowl and unable to see that my path curves upon itself.

This week I’m reading a fun little book that has been fertilizing my circular logic. “The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture” by George Hersey (The MIT Press) seeks to unpack historical architectural terms – torus, dentils, triglyphs and echinus, for example – and explain their connections to early Greek and Roman culture.

While Hersey explores a lot of fascinating ideas, the ones that stuck in my mind relate to Greek ritual sacrifice. Temples are in many ways a man-made grove of sacred trees, according to Hersey. Temple columns represent many things, including both a sacred tree and the human body.

In a ritual sacrifice, the animal victim is taken apart. Certain parts, such as the head, thighs, feet and horns are given special treatment. Some parts are eaten. Then the victim is reassembled on the altar. The head might be hung on a stick and draped with the skin. The bones might be arranged as they were when the animal was alive.

Without getting too deep into the religious aspect of it, the animal was the vessel of god during the sacrifice. And reconstructing it could represent that it has been reborn, or is immortal or wasn’t killed in the first place.

Whew. Should I insert a fart joke here?

When I make a piece of furniture, I am struck by weird and uneven aspects of the process. We take this massive entity – a living thing that took hundreds of years to grow, and we quickly girdle it and end its life so fast that it can take a week for the leaves to get the message that they’re dead.

We work these bits into ever-smaller chunks, getting down to the parts that are the strongest or most beautiful.

Then we rebuild these small bits into ever-bigger and more massive assemblies. We join them so they are as strong as when they held the forest canopy aloft.

And if we are successful, our work might last as long as the tree itself lived. It feels a lot like the description of Greek ritual sacrifice in Hersey’s book.

The implications of this view of the craft are personally staggering. Are we priests of a pagan religion? Are we recreating trees to give them immortality? To prove we never killed them?

Or is it as simple as when you spend hours at a bench every day sawing and planing a material for 20-plus years, that you get a little funny.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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31 Responses to If We Sacrifice Trees, then Who is the God?

  1. We all leave our mark, just as the tree that housed its birds and insects did. And some future life will make use of the stardust that we putter around in, for something just as wonderful (it is to be hoped). We’re all probably a little bit funny, and that’s a good way to be. 🙂

  2. Sending freshly cut city trees through massive chippers is funny.

    Crafting furniture into art is the way to honour these sacrificial trees, right?

  3. Rachael Boyd says:

    I often think the same things when planeing a piece of wood and putting it together as a piece of furniture that I would hope will need repair in say 100 years and that craftsman doing the repair will see my tool marks and my name and the date I made it and wounder where the wood came from and it’s own history.I myself could go on and on about using wood that all ready has a history I use a lot of salvaged wood from old houses. the perfume that rises up as you run a plane over it is something so nostalgic. so I guess I can say I understand what you are saying…

  4. davelehardt says:

    I like it. That kind of circular journey has always resonated with me.

  5. Jim Maher says:

    Are we recreating trees to give them immortality?

    No. We are the destroyers, ravishing all of existence to serve our whim and fancy in a vain attempt to defy our own mortality.

    It serves neither god nor man to deny our sacrilege or seek to rationalize our epic arrogance.

    (Kinda in a dark mood today.)

  6. occasionalww says:

    ” Are we recreating trees to give them immortality?”

    More like a macabre, Frankensteinesque re animation of dead tissues. Tell me truthfully that you haven’t wanted to reach to the heavens and shout,
    “Give my creation, Life!”

  7. Well, I’ll happily accept that working in the shop can make a person go a little funny – I spent most of the day talking to myself as I worked on project 😉

    Love what you’re saying here, Chris. In woodworking, there’s an undeniable sense of reconstructing to preserve and honor the source.

  8. KA Cruise says:

    A combination of both perhaps, to answer the questions. Sacrifices of animals were made to appease the Gods before war, adventures or questions were to be asked. Maybe we do this with wood cause there’s less mess? Not everyone has access to an ox or goat to find out if a project will work. And some will have a problem with the livestock in developments and apartments.

  9. Skip Mathews says:

    I think…
    It is always good to reflect on the source of your happiness.
    Everything you make takes away from something else.
    You can’t make something from nothing, but honoring where it came from is always a good thing.

  10. richmondp says:

    Wow! Think what you might come up with after a few more beers. OK, that’s flippant. I take your point and I agree with you.

  11. Paul Murphy says:

    Hershey’s book is excellent. I read it years ago and the ideas have stuck with me.

  12. “And reconstructing it could represent that it has been reborn, or is immortal or wasn’t killed in the first place.”

    We appear to kill trees when we cut them down, but they don’t really die. They are only transformed. We usually overlook the transformations. Thich Nhat Hahn teaches about the transformations of tree to paper, paper to fire, fire to clouds, and clouds to rain. One rendition of the teaching is found at http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=222.

    This most important thing I know is that “Separateness is an Illusion.” This is a deep truth that is accessible to nearly everyone.

  13. Bob Johnson says:

    By giving re-birth to a tree though making its carcass into something we hope has value and will last, I think we hope it will carry us along, giving us a tiny bit of immortality if we make something worthy of lasting well beyond the “curb”.

  14. Franky says:

    Old growth Huon! You have gold there. There is no such thing as new growth Huon. One of the last stands of Huon was nearly lost this year in bushfires in Tasmania.

  15. Very appealing thoughts – I’m just glad you’re a woodworker, and not a doctor at the local ER! 😲

    May I add though – looking at a shingled house – or an old Norwegian church, the wood practically goes back to the place it was in as a tree. Like cones stacked one on top of the other, just like the growth rings, and also like the old tree, the timber framed house is hollow on the inside, has it’s strength close to the inside, and a skin for protection against the elements. So yes – I see where you are going with this!

  16. Reblogged this on The Dutch Luthier and commented:
    Some very profound words of Christopher Schwarz…

  17. dickolsen says:

    Creative wood working for me is no different then creative laboratory research.It originates in the craftsmans mind.

  18. skilledno says:

    If the religion helps you through the day then that’s great but don’t under estimate what doing the same job (with small variants) for years does to your mind.
    Modern life does us no favours.

  19. vadoucette says:

    Chris,

    On Greek notions of sacrifice, I’d recommend Roberto Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

  20. Eric R says:

    Your post correctly relates the exact reason why I try and respect every single thing I assemble with this magnificent material.
    Good work Chris.

  21. mazamamama says:

    I’m not a wood worker, but I love furniture, jewelry, buildings, everything made of wood. I enjoy looking at furniture in my home, for example, admiring the lovely wood grains and patterns and thinking about the trees whence they came. Wood is warm and comforting. I think I like it so much because it makes me feel closer to the living outdoors, the natural world, which I love. After all, the biblical book of Genesis tells us we began life in a garden and this is our true earthly type of home. We were given the garden to use for our needs and also to care for so it would sustain us. On the subject of religion and sacrifice, Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice – the Lamb of God, who atoned for the sins of the world (our sins). For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Something to ponder when using God’s gifts.

    • capie001 says:

      Amen, my friend, amen! We were given this earth also to maintain, cherish and to enjoy. Thoroughly enjoy working with wood, but, while marveling at the wood grain or smell or workmanship, by no means consider it more than just a mere man made usable object using these gifts from our Savior.
      And no, we are not trying to idolize or immortalize trees when we do woodworking (as priests). Woodworker needs chair, woodworker cut down tree and build (nice) chair, simple as that, nothing more. And because we are under orders to enjoy and maintain this garden, strive to ensure the cut down tree is replaced.
      Lastly, if the wood you are working with makes you say funny things, change to other wood (or go work outdoors).
      Frank
      Cape Town

  22. jdsteed16 says:

    i have been fortunate to live my adult life in the wooded hills of northern california. as in any biota one of the main drivers of this self-organizing system is the soils ability to break down the detritus of woods and meadow so that it may be absorbed into living organisms again. over the course of a year, mulch that i have put around trees will all but disappear; over decades tree trunks will do the same. in comparison when i go out with my stihl, cut up a dead fall oak, and bring it home for firewood, the change is abrupt and rude. logging shows i have been part of are simply brutal, no matter how sustainably done. impossible to do without leaving a gaping, diesel poisoned, wounded hole behind. all part of feeding urban america’s voracious appetite for natural resources.
    i imagine the ancients, when gathering trees for their metaphorical sacred groves, at least did so with ceremony and intentionality; mindfullness if you will.
    the wood we use is a sacrifice of the living woods to us and our needs/desires, and i wish i was more mindful of that sacrifice when i put it to use.
    at least, that is how it looks from this end of the bar.
    joel

  23. Richard says:

    Nakashima’s discourse in “The Soul of a Tree” about a tree’s full potential, the motif of its resurrection as wooden objects useful and beautiful to man, should appeal more deeply to anyone with Buddhist or Christian convictions.

    “It is our deepest respect for the tree which impels us to master the difficult art of joinery, so that we may offer the tree a second life of dignity and strength.”

  24. As an anthropologist and a woodworker I have the tendency to look at the wood that I work with in some spiritual manner – mainly after a hard day of sawing and planing :). Woodworking is an ancestral art, same as metalworking and many times in history those arts where associated with rites, mythology and so on… But I think that if you watch woodworking from a more holistic view, trying to see behind methodology of working that piece of lumber until you make something useful and beautiful from it, you might feel that creative enthusiasm, that feeling of being more close to divine and eternity.

  25. carpenterman says:

    Jesus was a carpenter, there is a reason for that.

  26. Kinderhook88 says:

    If it’s the second thing, then I hope I get a little funny and stay that way.

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