Tree Rings: A Time-Line

"A spoken language works / for about five centuries / lifespan of a douglas fir"

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.

1894                On the death of his father, George Sturt took over management of the family wheelwright shop in Farnham, Surrey.  George, ever the intellectual, wanted to explain in objective, technological terms what his workers knew through centuries of practice, gestures with wood that spoke directly to them, but only faintly murmured to George.  They would fell large trees, section them, and place the rounds in a barn loft, waiting years for them to season, only then discovering if the wood was either sound or frow as a biscuit. Time in Sturt's shop, or at least the time of his workers, seems glacial, and his book, The Wheelwright's Shop, is his remembrance of things past, though it is a past of trees: the slow revelation of their strength and affordances. The waggon timbers they formed with axe and adze only resemble the dimensional lumber sold in home centers today in name, those 2x4s expressing their time in decades if that.

2013                Summer in the New England woods was a constant hum—cicadas—a sound both deafening and soothing, heard only every seventeen years. The floor of the forest was a diagram of holes, 1/2 inch across with hundreds in a square yard.  Millions of insects, first leaving behind crisp exoskeletons, then waiting quietly, drying out, only to fly crispy and crisply to treetops in order to eat, mate, trill, and die. In 1856, Herman Melville published "The Apple Tree Table," telling the story of another emergence, this time three unnamed insects waking up and chewing their way out of an antique table brought down from a cold attic and warmed by the hearth of Melville's huge chimney at Arrowhead. Apparently a famous or at least common event in the era (also mentioned at the end of Thoreau's Walden), Melville chooses to frame his version as a ghost or at least ghostly story of uncertain and frightening noises requiring late night exploration.  On the capture of a beautiful, iridescent bug, the narrator and his naturalist friend compute the time from this insect egg being laid to its emergence as 150 years. Melville's characters speculate on the miracle as possible proof of the truth of Christian spirituality, but, beyond theological speculation, time and the table remain.  Waiting in that wood were creatures whose temporalities are simply different from that of humans. The trees in New England waited seventeen years for 2013. They were transformed for a few brief weeks, then lapsed into primeval silence, waiting out another seventeen.

1379                New College, Oxford is founded and College Hall is built with a massive oak-beam roof.  In the late 1800s, those roof-beams became infested with beetles, so the school's dons cast about trying to find 40 foot oak timbers of sufficient heft to replace the existing roof.  Someone suggested checking with the college forester to see if there were any ancient oaks in the college's woodlots. As the story goes, the queried forester smiled and informed them that a stand of oaks had been planted when the hall was first built with the express purpose of supplying those timbers when needed. The perfect parable of planning for the future, the story has been contested (the  forest land was not acquired by New College for a number of years after the college hall was built).  Nevertheless, it resonates: the college maintains forest land for production with exceedingly long-term plans. Even though the trees were not explicitly planted to replace that particular roof, those oaks were nurtured over hundreds of years, and, when needed, timbers of sufficient strength and size were available. An ancient version of just-in-time management.

1996  Gary Snyder publishes his long poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, and puts wood- time in perspective:

A spoken language works

for about five centuries,
lifespan of a douglas fir

1964    A young University of North Carolina forestry student researching Bristlecone pines breaks off his core-borer in an attempt to determine the age of a tree. He secures permission to cut it down, only to discover 4844 growth rings.  He had cut down Prometheus, the oldest living tree on earth. The mythic Prometheus was bound to a rock for all eternity; his evergreen namesake was bound to a rock, perhaps not for eternity, but a damn sight longer than human understanding extends. You cannot think wood without thinking time.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things