Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation and hearing yourself say something, which you suddenly realize is a previously unarticulated, but basic truth about yourself? What I said was: “I feel more comfortable when I am somewhere where there are more trees than people.” Oh so very true, to this day. I love trees, in all seasons. And, as you probably know, wood comes from trees.
When I think about my love of wood, as in items made from wood, a couple of things come to mind. The smell of sawdust was utterly intoxicating, from my very first whiff to my most recent exposure. My paternal grandfather had a woodshop at his place in Vermont. As a girl I would stand at the doorway, inhaling deeply and sensing that magic was happening in there.
He was retired, a self-taught woodworker and he was also a stingy old bird, holding tightly to the dictates of his generation. I see that now, but as child all I heard was his strict rule that girls were not allowed to enter the shop. Ever. It was for men and boys. There was no attempt at explaining the ban by citing safety or even his private pleasures. It was simply a matter of being excluded from this enticing space.
I grew up surrounded by old wooden furniture. A lot of the tables, beds, bureaus and such were ‘well worn’, but that was a good thing because then we children couldn’t really hurt them. It was the warmth of the wood, the many shades of brown and the patina of age that I liked. Over the years I began to look more closely at the mystery of the grain, the depth and organic designs that appeared when wood was sanded and finished.
Wooden bowls and handmade wooden spoons were crossover items, combining two loves – cooking and wood. As a young adult, it was difficult for me to resist touching and occasionally purchasing small, handmade little boxes when they appeared in shops and at craft shows. They didn’t need to serve a real purpose; I just wanted them around.
Then some friends asked to store a piece of furniture in our recently purchased house, while they were in the midst of a move. It was a magnificent sideboard, replete with carving and a silky, shining finish. I was all over that thing, clearly out of place in our hand-me-down furnished home. What an incredible antique, I thought. The ball and claw feet were gracefully carved; every detail was crisp and perfect, in pristine condition. Well, they didn’t have children yet, maybe they were just careful with it.
When I learned that my friend had made the piece, I was disbelieving. No. Furniture like that had to be an antique. Nobody made that, certainly not these days. I was forced to admit that at some point in time, each ‘antique’ had been newly made by someone, but that was a really long time ago, right? Come to find out, he had gone to trade school and learned to make traditional furniture. Wow. Really? Sparks!
I wanted to learn how to do that. The rejection I had experienced with my grandfather was undoubtedly a source of motivation and as I butted my head against further sexism when applying to the school, I doubled down on my determination. The man who initially interviewed me was dismissive. I did not have any of the qualifications to enroll. That was that, as far as he was concerned. Bye, bye.
He pissed me off and I set to work acquiring the requisite experience. I needed to learn drafting, so I left my job and got hired to do very basic floor plans of buildings at a nearby university. I enrolled in a night school program at a local high school to learn how to operate woodworking machines. Eventually I progressed to a class, taught by a very sweet young man who introduced me to the fine art of hand tools. I practiced working with chisels, planes and precise measuring tools; being naturally neat, compulsive and careful was an asset.
And wood… I really got involved with different types of wood for the first time. The transformation from rough lumber to a finished piece was truly (Truly!) thrilling. The grain was not just a thing of beauty, but an inherent quality, which I would come to know through the interaction of tool and wood. The ease of ‘working’ straight-grained pine or mahogany was so different from the more brittle and seemingly rock hard challenge of working with walnut or an exotic wood like ebony.
Armed with some skills and confidence, I marched back to the admissions office to make my case. The same man tried to dissuade me, but I was determined to gain entry to the kingdom. I was later to learn that when I had first interviewed, two years earlier, they had just been forced to admit women for the first time. The Feds said: no accreditation or financial aid unless you allow women students. It was the 1980’s for heavens sake.
So, I was in the second, very small batch of women to enter the Furniture and Cabinet Making program. Many tales to tell, but what matters here, today, is that this is a Spark of joy that is still very much alive. I have neglected the pleasure of working wood for decades, but the act of Triage, answering the question of what I have Truly loved has brought me back to this elemental joy and I intend to re-explore.