Wood is an incredible medium. Each year a new layer of carbon (and life) stored as cellulose and lignin, is deposited into the trunk. This resulting growth ring becomes a sample of atmospheric carbon, processed through photosynthesis and transported to the growing meristem, ending up in the walls of wood cells. But this process also records the conditions conducive or in opposition to growth. Limited moisture or poor temperatures stifles growth and the resulting ring of wood is narrow or even absent. Year after year this process continues; the meristem continually increasing in circumference as the trunk expands. Wood serves two important purposes for the tree. Connecting the moisture laden soil to the transpiring leaves above, the dead hollow cells form a conduit of water refurbishing the leaf, thirsty from continual water loss through it pores in a quest to gain carbon for photosynthetic endeavors. The leaf struggles in this paradox of function meeting reality. It is a Catch 22 of the botanic world. Secondly, with no skeleton for support, the strong cell walls of the wood cells provide support for the tree – enough to span 400’ in the tallest of species, yet resilient enough to sway in winds or bend under the weight of heavy snows. But this is only part of the magnificence of wood. For each species is uniquely defined by color, fragrance and the physical properties of density, hardness, resilience, and durability. But I digress into the scientific and thus leave the human connection I so cherish. So let me take you, for a minute, into the boat building process.
Wood strip boat construction entails abutting then gluing long, thin cedar strips next to one another. Simple enough it seems, but the laws of physics challenge the builder. Wood strips, with right-angled edges, only fit together on flat surfaces. The curving form of the boat hull precludes such surfaces. Thus each strip edge must be beveled to fit the adjacent strip. I prefer to do this by with a small bronze apron plane, cradled neatly in my hand. I angle its flat sole on the edge of the cedar strip and shave off a thin curl of wood and move down the length of the strip continuously adjusting the bevel, repeating until the fit is satisfactory. In the process I cut through time, 10 years ago, perhaps 50, 100 or even more. The wood can’t speak of the time past, of the day in June when the cell deposited carbon into its cell wall, but yet it releases a fragrance that connects me to the wood in an elemental way. It is this connection through smell that awakens my mind and causes me to search for times past in which that fragrance permeated a memory.
Why woods possess a unique fragrance is mystery for me. I know the answer occurs from a sound physical basis, yet I care not to discover and I am not inclined to research the causality. A simple pleasure is manifest when released and this is enough for me. I wish only to participate in the experience not to analyze any further.
A magic – a mystic – exists in my woodshop due to this smell, uniquely western red cedar, oak, walnut or pine – and from that I connect to the medium in an intensely personal way. Today I sit in my shop, watching the sun’s rays enter through an ornate window on my front door. Weeks past I worked white oak forming precise tenons fitting snuggly into their respective mortises. But today the smell is absent. So I am called to remedy this oversight. I’m currently working on the rectilinear – Arts and Crafts style furniture – end tables to be precise. The simplicity of form and rigidity of function appeals to my simple side. Yet I long for curves of a boat hull. The three-dimensional form, in particular the bow and stern sweeping upward to the gunwales, inspires in me a creative endeavor; this twist and turn of wood that in the end functions to cut elegantly through water, embodies the marriage of form, function and beauty.
I find boat hulls magnificently attractive, their curves simply pleasurable to view. To think that I could create this form, then to realize it in practice was a life-changing event. I find great pleasure in building, then of course using a boat – not just the first time, but in all subsequent times. This experience transcends belief as I marvel in actually constructing the very object I paddle. I wonder why this thought so novel. Isn’t this the way it should be? Humans have for many centuries crafted boats. Now I am one of those builders of boats, connected to a distant past and I wonder if past builders also found similar pleasure and wonder when building boats. I hope so.