Pictured here is a piece of walnut-dyed ash from a round coffee table, and if you look close at the darkest part of the marking, you’ll see the glint of a nail head. It was hammered into the tree however many years ago, creating a wound. The insects and bugs suddenly gained access to the soft meaty pulp, and started to work their way into the sap wood. The tree, in defense, put up a kind of shield around the wound. You can see in the markings a black dome built up around the nail, and the effects of that ripple outward, marking the board, making it beautiful, making it distinct.
A few years ago Dan was working with some exceptional walnut. These boards were unusually wide and he had three slabs. On the outer backside of the top slab, he noticed a scar on the edge. When he was cutting through the last board, his ban-saw suddenly made a horrible noise and sparks flew out from the blade. He had to slowly back the board out, the blade instantly wrecked (as it was with the nail), and from the board dropped a single round musket ball. The bullet must have been fired somewhere around a 100 years ago, entered the tree, and never came out. It left in the wood rich, smoky markings you could follow through all three boards, pictured here in on the left side of this walnut trunk.
The different color variations in wood also come from different obstacles the tree had to overcome. In sugar maple, there is a certain fungal growth that colors the wood in a ghostly, bluish way with beautiful results when finished. A certain kind of beetle makes its hole in a tree, and the way the maple heals from it creates an elongated, greenish triangular scar that’s also very pretty. Another fungus that gets into maple leaves behind a blood red stain that runs into the tree and turns to a soft rose hue before it disappears.
There is a stretch of road in Pennsylvania where all along the road’s edge, a line of 50 to 80 year old oak trees grow. Every single one of them tilts forward, bowing, in effect, to the road, before rising straight up like a healthy tree. When they were young saplings, the road crew came through, loosened the soil where they grew, and all the trunks tipped sideways. After years of adjusting, the trees all righted themselves, and managed to grow straight after all.
People are drawn to the character markings in wood. What’s interesting is that these markings are, in effect, a tree’s attempt to heal itself. The structure of a tree – how it grows and responds to its environment – becomes a blueprint for what happened during each season of its life. From the wood grain we can tell whether or not there was rain, the minerals in the soil, and the fungal growth that attacked the organism. Trees are more than just a part of their environment; they are recordings of everything that happened around it, writ in the language of tree.