Winter’s here, time to curl up by the fire and listen to a guy who spent his life looking up at trees.
Robert Penn’s quirky and personal book, The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, tells the story of one ash tree, felled and turned into arrows, bowls, spoons, tent pegs, canoe paddles, catapults, dominoes, axe handles, a desk, and paneling. This isn’t a quaint catalogue of wooden goods. It’s a crackerjack story of the world, as seen through one kind of tree.
Penn’s life-long love affair with trees animates his stories, which are chockful of deft details, such as:
- “Ash is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.”
- Irish mythology includes ash in a trilogy of sacred trees believed to have healing powers. During the Potato Famine, before setting sail for America, emigrants whittled chips from an ash tree in County Cork as protection against drowning.
- Ash was known as the ‘sportsmen’s wood,’ and used for everything from cricket stumps, hockey and lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, baseball bats, skis, snowshoe frames and gymnastic parallel bars.
Penn introduces readers to craftspeople, broadening his saga, like the rings of a tree. Starting from his home in South Wales, he visits various English woods and woodshops, an Austrian Alps toboggan maker, then onward to Ireland to see an epic hurling game and a $2500 bicycle frame made of ash, and eventually to a Pennsylvania sawmill that’s produced more than 100 million baseball bats.
Each chapter frames a new woodworker, from the lumberjack who fells Penn’s ash to a fourth-generation wheelwright, making wooden wheel rims just as his mother, father, grandfather and great grandfather did, to an eccentric fletcher, the traditional term for an arrow maker. Arrows, Penn writes, were known as the Devil’s Finger. Reading his crackling chronicles of medieval longbowmen and archery battles, I can hear arrows zinging.
Along the way, Penn sprinkles little asides, seeds that may take root in a reader’s imagination, like the mention of shinrin-yoku, what Japanese people call forest-bathing, going for a walk in ancient woods
Penn’s engaging anecdotes got me thinking about trees I’ve loved. From a neighbor’s walnut tree that Uncle John transformed into a wall of rich dark paneling in my childhood bedroom, to a pretty fringed paper birch that caught my eye the first time I saw my house in Saint Paul. Copper birch borers killed that tree, just as emerald ash borers are decimating tens of millions of ashes, like the weakened specimens shedding branches and limbs on my block.
Soon, my street, Ashland Avenue, will be ash free. In time, all the ash trees may be history. Seeds of new trees will spring up, spreading canopies that some child will gaze up at in wonder, daydreaming about the secrets of nature and our world.
Robert Penn grew up playing under an ash tree that he remembers as “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” His book has spurred me to look at trees and see more.