When I make an arrow, I look for a piece of pine or cypress from some damp, sheltered valley, where all the trees stood straight and tall, each like the next, near identical. This way my arrows, like the trees they came from, are straight and true, and all behave as the others do.
When I make a harp I choose cedar for the soundboard, and choosing carefully can make a well tempered, uniform board, that will give a well tempered, uniform sound for many years.
My bokken is made from white oak, that grew slowly in the thin soil of some Asian mountain, where the gusting wind tightened the grain and toughened the wood; that one won’t break easily.
Beech for my kitchen, larch for my log cabin, yew for my bow, purple heart for my pipe stem – whatever I make, there is a wood suited to it, each grown according to its nature, each valuable for its particular properties.
What happens though, when the tree does not grow according to its nature? What of the sapling clinging to a crag, searching every crevice for enough soil to root? What of the stunted, angular bushes swept out of shape by constant gales? The twisted misshapes crushed by landslide and rockfall, that struggle to rise again, fight back towards the light, strive against the odds to fulfil their destined form? The drought baked, the lightning struck, the fire scarred? What of them? What of the driftwood relics, ripped from riverbank by some flood, washed out to sea, tossed, tangled, eventually cast upon some windward shore with no identity but the warped and weathered patterns of their past?
What of the wood that is so gnarled, so warped, so deeply and fundamentally damaged that it can’t possibly have any value?
Look again, and look properly, because this is where beauty is found. Straight grain may make straight arrows, yet whenever I seek beauty, I seek character. I seek the flow and the curve. I seek the healing and the recovery that shows the power of life. I seek variety, I seek healing, I seek inspiration. The way the spirit strives towards the light, however the environment is twisted, produces the richest, most evocative patterns, each swirl and ripple evidence of some small triumph over adversity, some hardship overcome. The dancing flame patterns of a fiddleback veneer, the intricate convolutions of a walnut burr, delight the eye and fill the heart in ways no straight line could ever reach.
When I choose to create, when I choose to express myself through art, when I choose, and I do choose, to surround myself with beauty, then I look for the gnarled and the twisted, the raw and the real, the honest evidence of a life hard lived, a story told with truth and feeling.
If all I had was straight grained pine, I would not be a wood carver. I wouldn’t even make arrows, because straight grained pine is no use for making bows. Without the cragfast sapling, the mountain would hold less beauty, and fewer birds. Without driftwood the endless flat beach would overwhelm my eye and underwhelm my soul. Without the twisted history of the bristlecone pine, each moment would drift unanchored and meaningless, here and gone without consequence, each experience dissipating like mist in sunlight.
This is no fairytale. Many trees are withered by drought, consumed by fire, smothered by landslides never to rise again. There will always be death. It is a part of the great cycle, and however hard it may be to witness, I would not stop that wheel from turning. Yet even those trees that don’t decay, and by their death nurture new life, will eventually be transformed into coal, or fossilized into fascinating rocks, eternal record keepers and reminders of the enormous scale of this creation.
So it is with wood, and so it is with people. We each grow from our roots, swayed and distorted by our hardships. Most rise, some fall, and so it is.
Whether you deem yourself to be one of many, like the forest of pines, or an isolated individual clinging to your niche, you still have your nature, and you still have your value. Whatever it is, be true to it, to the best of your ability.
I, being true to mine, will struggle out from under this landslide and reach once more for the light, seek the sun on my leaves and stable soil for my roots. Perhaps my fruit will nourish others, perhaps my bent boughs and twisted trunk will make good shelter. I will not hide, and I will not pretend to be other than my self. Maybe one day, some like minded individual will see the beauty in this gnarled old stick and choose to include me in their creativity.
Take what you can from this, with my blessings. Then go and be, simply be, however damaged you may think yourself; you may be surprised.