“The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” by Robert Penn
c.2016, W.W. Norton
$26.95 / higher in Canada
by TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
Shade feels good right about now.
Just sitting in it seems to lower your temperature by ten degrees. It calms you, too, and makes you feel drowsy. This time of year, the shade of a tree is a welcome thing and, as you’ll see in the new book “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” by Robert Penn, that tree can offer so much more.
For most of Robert Penn’s childhood, an ash tree at the edge of a garden was the gateway to adventure. It was just a tree then; he never paid it much heed, nor did he consider that so many of his favorite possessions came from ash wood. And yet, that tree stood in the back of his mind and on a crisp winter day, he felled one just like it near his South Wales home, to see all that could be done with a single tree.
The tree hadn’t been easy to find: because each kind of wood has its season and ash is best harvested in winter, Penn began his search early. He wanted a tall, straight tree of the correct width, no extra lower branches, and with a wide canopy.
Surely, such a tree stood somewhere….
Indeed, he was nearly out of winter when he found it.
According to an expert, Penn’s chosen ash was in remarkably great shape, and had started growing perhaps 130 years before. Though that area had been cleared of trees during World War I, Penn’s tree had been spared for some reason; for that, he felt a small twinge for cutting it but once it was down, it was clear what the tree could do.
Its leaves immediately became fodder for livestock; thicker brush went to the woodpile. There were tool handles made, a handcrafted wheel, a set of sturdy bowls, arrow shafts crafted traditionally, a toboggan, tent pegs, an Irish hurling stick, a writing desk – in all, forty-four different items. Even the sawdust was put to use – but will the ash tree be around for future generations to enjoy in similar ways?
Sadly, author Robert Penn expresses his doubts. Between the emerald ash borer in the U.S. , and other diseases in Europe , the ash is struggling. “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” may, in a way, be its eulogy.
And what lovely parting words! Penn is somewhat of a modern-day Thoreau when it comes to his beloved ash trees, as well as to the forest in general; his words are peaceful and inviting, but they’re also sweetly charming and filled with curiosity. Readers will be delighted to learn history, biodiversity, sustainability, and ancient arts; moreover, we’re offered an invitation that’s irresistible: look up and out at the things that surround us in nature. Don’t take it for granted.
Yes, readers may note a bit of irony here, but I still think this book is worth a read. You’ll smile, and you’ll mourn what’s inside “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees,” so you shouldn’t miss it. Why wood you?
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.