Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A hymn to xylem

One of the pleasures of living on an island without a furniture store has been furnishing the house ourselves. Of course, we could have gone to Nassau and had furniture shipped out on the boat -- as we did for mattresses and appliances -- but I've always liked woodworking and M. is a handy seamstress, so together we made a pretty good thing of it.

What a wonderful material is wood. Modern materials science has come up with nothing to compare. Warm, organic, porous, deep. Compliant under the whetted blade -- the plane, the chisel, the saw, the drill. No hardwoods are available on the island, just pine, spruce, and fir. But these are good enough, especially with hand tools. The fir is straight and firm, mostly free of knots, and takes a lovely finish.

The life cycle of non-woody plants extends from seed germination to seed formation, then death. It's all over in a season. Woody plants -- including all conifers -- continue to grow and fruit for many seasons, a slow outward division of cells, leaving behind those dead cells known as xylem, tough and supple, which support the plant and conduct through their collective pipes and pores nutrients and water from root to stem.

No two pieces of wood are the same, each is full of surprises -- a particularly attractive grain, a pesty knot. To work with wood is to engage with the beauty and messiness of life.