Finding inspiration in something local is a big part of the studio’s work. While it is most obvious in the pigment colours foraged and used to make paint for its icons, it exists in other ways, too. Today that search for local sources took my son and I out into the woods to harvest a lindenwood tree.
About a month ago, I was talking with an old order Mennonite chair-maker named Walter, who is a friend. From time to time when our paths cross we talk about woodworking, and we help each other out. That day he spoke to me about his recent efforts to harvest his own wood from the forest behind his farm. It got me thinking about whether it was possible to do the same for the wood I use to make icon panels.
Until now, I’ve used a local sawmill to get the lindenwood (also known as basswood) that makes good icon panels. The mill sources the wood and slabs it for me, whereupon I dry it and work it into a panel. The benefit in this arrangement is that I can be very picky about the kind of wood I want—it’s width, grain, and condition. If I only want 12″ wide planks cut without any knots or heartwood, it might cost me a little more, but I’ll get exactly what I want.
Here’s the thing, using such boards means that I’m wasting a lot of the tree. The wood is also coming in a way that’s pretty straightforward and easy to use. The ideal of using the whole tree in the studio is much more in tune with an environmental conscientious approach. Even it’s ease of use doesn’t fit the approach of the studio. Inspiration is often found in working with raw, local materials so that the extra effort seems justified (almost necessary). A papermaker I know likes to joke about his work, “There must be a more difficult way to do it!”. I’ve sometimes thought that such a phrase would make a great slogan for the studio …
When Walter’s shared his childhood memory of a place with old Lindenwood trees, I knew there was an opportunity here. We agreed to visit that place soon, and talk more about seeing what we could arrange together.
Today we did both those things. Visiting the area took us to a row of trees along his eastern field. While the old trees he remembers have long since passed, their offspring now grow in the same place. As we walked along, we found close to a dozen lindenwood trees, each growing along the edge of the forest as they have for generations.
In the way that many Mennonites do, Walter knew which one would be best to harvest, but asked me anyway as a genuine question. I could pick any one I wanted, but two stood out. The first was the one I had found, which was the biggest, healthy and straight. The other was one that Walter had pointed out. It was of a good size, but was growing at a severe angle from the forest and had some dead branches. It was likely to topple over in the next couple of years—either unable to hold its weight as it’s branches grew or weakened from what looked like the beginning of some decay. This was a tree that had to come down anyway.
It took me a moment to see that harvesting this tree was part of something bigger than getting lumber for the studio. The second tree was a usable lindenwood tree for making icon panels. It’s removal now would mean that it wouldn’t damage the other trees when it came down, and it offered good lumber presently. But, in a few more years, the early decay we saw might change that. The choice was obvious, and we agreed to take down the tree that Walter suggested. After a bit of work with heavy chains, making sure we could get it to fall away from the main forest, we cut it down. Once on the ground, we cut the main trunk into 8 foot sections for lumber and then got to work cutting up all the smaller branches for firewood.
At this point my son got really involved. Although he’s only 10 years old, he helps Walter sometimes with his woodworking, helping to clean up and doing other odd jobs. He was along for the trip and raring to go. As we positioned the main trunk into the bed of the tractor’s trailer, he got to work piling all the firewood. His excitement in doing a job is always nice to have and he was a big help.
With many hands, the work went quickly. In the end, we had a trailer full of a tree now destined to become lumber and firewood that will both serve the studio. The next step is to have it slabbed at a local sawmill and then dried. If all goes well, it should be useable before the end of the year.
Harvesting this tree from the forest means that the studio will now have good, local wood to use for the next couple of years. Today was a good day, full of hard work and comradeship. It also taught me about understanding a tree in the context of the forest. And, I suspect that in working with the resulting lumber there will be more lessons to learn, too.