Humankind has sought to shape nature’s gift of forest materials to his own ends long before the wheel. It is conceivable that the first tool was actually a whole tree, pushed over a ravine or precipice to enable a crossing, the first bridge was made. It is also possible this happened before we even learned to control fire.
By the time people began felling trees for large structures, they would already have learned how to shape smaller pieces of wood into the tools needed to perform the task, and that there would be many uses for the smaller pieces of timber after the large trunk was cut to size. Little would be wasted, it would be logical to think a craftsperson would have much preferred to use a piece of already worked timber, than to labour at hewingsome great tree, the toil could have been done many years before, probably by his father, or even earlier ancestors. Reclaiming and recycling had begun, but much earlier than even this, the ancients had shown it is in our nature to re-use anything useful. The first broken spear could have become the stick used to dig and poke out the honey from a tree hive. Humankind would have been looking after the environment long before we today, would credit them.
Along with the basic needs of everyday objects, came the desire, when time allowed, to decorate objects into more elaborate and artistic creations, using not only shape and form, but the carving of ornate designs. Mostly these articles would have been commissioned by high nobles of great wealth and power, but sometimes, just sometimes, they would be born from the sheer artistic joy of its creator. Trade routes opened, and often payment was made in jewels, gold, silver or some other precious commodity, hand crafted by artisans into decorative jewellery often of a religious or sacred nature. We would probably be right to assume these craft pieces could only be made during times of civil peace and prosperity. There would certainly be more pressing need to build catapults and to make bows, rather than to merrily chisel away at a floral pattern on the city gates of ancient Troy, with Helens bloodthirsty Spartan army sailing across the Aegean.
During more harmonious times, artisans allowed their thoughts and deeds to flourish way past the necessary forms of everyday items. Still the craftsperson reclaimed broken pieces of timber and reworked that old beam of oak into maybe a bench and table, a chest for the family winter bedding could be needed, and when the table finally fell apart after much repair work over the generations, his grandson may fashion a few shelves in the family kitchen, and maybe even add some ornate carvings to his design. Smaller parts of the old table could eventually become the handles on the tools that carved the spoon, which stirred the soup. Humankind was literally carving out a future!
Forest materials, outlasted only by stone and the more precious metals, remained the most versatile of mediums, and saw no equal until the advent of plastic.
Today, glass, alloys, earthenware, and a multitude of plastics may well have replaced wood as the most used elements in the craft world, partly because our desire for the beauty of natural wood torments our conscience. Not allowing ourselves to buy a piece of new ‘chopped tree’ is a sacrifice many of us have endured. The image of the giant chainsaw slicing swiftly through a thousand year old mahogany tree, while the orang utan flees terrified to the next tree, only to forlornly await the next scream from the saw, strikes deep into our most primitive psyche. We opt instead to re-cover, paint or re-paint, we add screws, nails, bolts, dowels, fillers, clamps, and glue for repairs, in short we re-cycle, sometimes. The option to buy new is always with us, and difficult to resist. The option to buy old can be strong as well, how many of us would consider antiques as recycled, re-used, or reclaimed. Buying antiques can add a new twist to the three R’s. If the best we can do is reduce, then reclaim and reuse should, and does rightfully so, come before re-cycle, as re-cycling processes often require large amounts of electricity, further polluting the air, not to mention water used in cleaning, which may well become polluted itself. And so the spiral is endless.
When we look at the alternatives to wood, we find that none of them are perfect. Glass and pottery items break easily, and are discarded, though lucky we are indeed that some of these treasures have survived the maelstrom of history. Metals finally succumb to wear, fatigue or rust, and though much is gathered by our local, long established scrap merchants, and then re-cycled, again much is tossed aside. As for the plastic multitude, some made to last forever, unless they are re-cycled, would we do better to further clog our landfill space with this sea of waste? Or should we follow the past example of burning it? We know the disastrous consequences of that bottom option. The landfills grow ever more ominous.
So, back to wood. We can’t do a lot better than look around, find a few pieces of old wood and make something new, of stout design, maybe even elaborately decorated with carving work, that we may expect to pass on to our grandchildren. Some may even agree this is the Rolls Royce of the R’s Adding “Reclaim” before “Reduce, Reuse and Re-cycle” will surely work for many people, adding that extra R, surely works for forests.
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