Tree Rings: A Time-Line

"A spoken language works / for about five centuries / lifespan of a douglas fir"
Tree rings (Digital manipulation of flickr/mdpettitt )

2014                Every schoolchild learns that trees, as they grow, lay down new wood each year, so the age of a tree can be determined by counting the growth rings, officially called dendrochronology.  Not only do those rings mark time and weather (temps & temps, as the French say), but also they are subtle ridges to the hand and form supple patterns both geometric and chaotic, warm and arresting, fragile and strong. Wood remains a constant in 21st century culture, still forming the basis for much of what we do, how we live, and how we mark out our days. 

1722               John Harrison finished the Brockelsby Park tower clock, a timepiece that still functions after almost 300 years and is built almost entirely of wood. Harrison eventually received much of the prize money set aside by the British Parliament in the 1714 Longitude Act for service to the crown for finding a practical solution to the longitude problem.  His solution was a clock—the H-4 chronometer—which to the modern eye looks like a large pocket watch, but that device helped to usher in the modern era, global capitalism, and the industrialization of time. Brockelsby Park was a farm clock.  It measured the rhythms of feeding, milking, plowing, and reaping. Although it did not require the precision of the H-4, this clock did demand adjustment and regulation. One of Harrison's innovations included using tropical woods with a high oil content to reduce friction and eliminate the need for lubrication. Of equal importance, was his understanding that a well-regulated clock was not the result of the interaction of uniform, homogenous material, but instead by compensating for the variations those materials produced. A bimetallic pendulum counteracts the different rates that metal expands in temperature fluxes, and Harrison's wooden clock exploits the varied properties of dozens of wood species and their interactions with other woods. Closed and open grain expands and contracts at different rates, its stability determined not just by species but also by the angle of the saw cut, the direction of the rive.  Compensation in clockmaking is not a philosophical or theological concept, but it is fundamental for measuring time and, perhaps, eternity.

1056                The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian, the world's oldest multi-story timber-framed structure, was built. The trees for a timber frame—felled by axe, squared by broadax, and smoothed by adze—form a structure through massive beams and time-tested joints.  Heavy timbers slot tenons into mortises, dovetail tie-beams to headers, and peg girts to posts.  These beams carry the full load of the structure without nails, screws, or metal fasteners.  The joiners work with care, selecting wood with structural integrity, cutting mortises with long handled chisels and mallets.  It is exacting work, slow and patient, but it is also communal.  A craftsman may linger in solitude for hours over a kerf-wedged dovetailed through-mortise, but when it comes to raising the frame, he is part of an agile choreography of joiners, timbers, and joints, working in concert to raise a frame that will, given proper care, stand for a millennium. After the joiners finish, the beams, in compression and tension, flex and creak through the days, continuing their own dynamic dance through time. 

1665                In Eric Sloane's imaginative recreation, an English family prepares to sail to the New World, packing a cutting of an apple tree, a variety called "seek no further." Sloane's A Reverence for Wood is a paen to tree products, beginning in 1965 with the dismantling of an old barn and proceeding back century by century to detail the importance of wood in American life, eventually arriving at the colonial period.  The constant in his story is the 400 year life-span of the "seek-no-further" apple tree planted in Connecticut on its arrival in 1665. Apples were fundamental to the American colonies for more than just pies, providing sweetness, vitamin C, and alcohol.  Early American settlers consumed unimaginable quantities of what today we call hard cider—a drink deemed safe and palatable for all in the family.  As the legend of Johnny Appleseed makes clear, the United States was settled agriculturally with apple seedlings, some wildings and many from cuttings propagated on wild crab stock.  Sloane's apple tree was grown from the latter, and, although an individual apple tree cannot live 400 years, this seek-no-further was also self-propagating.  Planted on the crown of a hill, it became the first great American time-lapse photographic episode. Growing, dying, tumbling over, and re-sprouting from trunk shoots, Sloane's tree slowly walked down the hill, producing its 1965 fruit at some distance from its original colonial position.

350 BCE         Aristotle writes his Physics and initiates the Western way of thinking about stuff.  Technological objects are formed matter (hylomorphism), a world made up of compliant, malleable matter upon which humans impose their designs.  Hylē, Aristotle's word for matter and the foundation of all physical interactions, actually means wood.  This bit of etymology prompted Henry David Thoreau to question the notion of art determined by form alone, noting that Aristotle defined art as "The principle of the work without the wood,  and going on to observe that "most men prefer to have some of the wood along with the principle; they demand that the truth be clothed in flesh and blood and the warm colors of life." As a hewer of the arrowy pines he cut to build his Walden house, Thoreau knew hylē not as malleable material but instead as a knotty, twisted living being that can only be known through patient, careful engagement.

Presented by

T. Hugh Crawford is an associate professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

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