The following is excerpted from “Honest Labour.” This column was first published in The Woodworker in 1949 – please excuse the gendered terms as a product of their time.
Woodworkers deal in the very kindest of materials, the friendly, living wood. I think there can hardly have been a time when men were not tree lovers, for even if we go right back to the time when cave men piled brushwood on their fires to scare away prowling beasts, the living trees had always something to offer man. It is almost as if some sense of kinship, some sense of “mystery in the trees,” comes to us when we view sturdy trunks bearing witness to lives which long outlast our brief span bearing on them the scars of their own struggle for existence and hidden in their innermost being the life rings which make up the tally of the years. Not without awe does one see them when a tree has been felled and its life secret is bared as we count the annual rings. Two hundred? Why this tree was a slim sapling when Dr. Johnson was rising to fame in the literary world of the eighteenth century, when the Stewart cause was going down in final defeat at Culloden Moor and North America was still only a little group of English Colonies contested with the French. And here in this wide ring was a good year in which the tree grew apace, and here was a wild, cold, hard year when life was a battle for survival and growth was slow, a year which toughened the limbs and sent roots digging down deeply into the soil to keep the tree in heart.
No wonder trees are an ever-recurring theme in literature and art, especially in English literature and art, because here in this miniature land of ours they have a character and individuality which are one with the landscape and yet help to give it an infinite variety. So many trees, those which are native—the oak, the ash, the thorn, beloved of Kipling, the yew of churchyards that bred the mighty bow of Agincourt, the poplars and their “whispering, cool colonnade,” the beech for restful shade and the turned bowl; and those others, imported through the centuries till now they seem at home on our soil as on their own familiar ground—the plane trees which have become such a typical feature of London, the walnut, originally a native of the far Himalayas, the lovely, symmetrical horse chestnut which in the springtime gladdens the eyes of suburban dwellers with its flame-like blossom, the larches and the firs in dreaming blue copses—all have something to give. No wonder that our two great countrymen painters, John Constable and John Crome, responded with such wonderfully intimate studies of trees. No hazy splashes of colour for them, but careful, loving work showing the trees in their own individual character, growth and structure, so that at once one may know them for what they are, elms, poplars, willows, oaks, rejoicing in the light and air, with the wind whispering through their branches.
In one of Hardy’s novels, The Woodlanders, an old man becomes ill through fear of a tree which stands outside his cottage and which, in his sick fancy, he sees threatening him. It was planted on the day he was born, he says, and has human sense and has grown up to rule him and make a slave of him. When reasoning fails, his doctor orders the tree to be cut down, unknown to the sick man, and the elm of the same birth year as the old woodman is brought to the ground as silently as skilful hands can contrive it. But the next morning, when the old man sees the vacant patch of sky where once the lattice of the tree had been he has a stroke and, after lingering all day, dies as the sun goes down. “Damned if my remedy hasn’t killed him,” murmurs the doctor. Although mercifully one need not anticipate quite such devastating results from a tree felling, to see a mighty tree brought low by the woodman’s axe does induce a feeling of regretful sadness. Here was a living sentient thing which could, if we are to believe the poets and our own imaginations, take pleasure in the sun and rain and the life it lived. And now this is the end.
But is it really so? Isn’t the life that is ended only one part of the story? Rather it means that new life is beginning, one which will take a new direction in house or ship or barn or fence. Maybe a century or more of growth has formed the oak which has gone into our gateposts, and they may still be standing when we ourselves are no more. It is a humbling thought, and yet because there is so strange a parallel between man’s life and the life of a tree there is comfort in it too. So often in life we feel that everything for us is over when plans we made and rejoiced in have been axed at the root. But it may be something which only seems the end and is a beginning, opening up new, unlooked-for possibilities at present hidden from us. There is much more of a pattern in life than we are often ready to credit, it unfolds so slowly. That is what makes youth so difficult a time. If its joys are keen, so are its sorrows. For youth cannot abide frustration and takes it so hardly when plans go awry. But if we will but possess our souls in patience, opportunity comes again in full cycle, not the less because it comes along unexpected paths. It is something the woodworker will understand better than most. He knows the living wood, knows how generously it gives in the patient hands of a craftsman, and that the real end comes only with decay. Life is not always a woodland dream, but it has its moments. And if we keep our belief in it to the end, some of them will be great moments.