Material Witness

Last week, I spent two days processing some old wood.  So it goes; de-nailing, tar-scraping, jointing, and re-sawing are all part and parcel of using old lumber, be it architectural salvage or alley finds.  I've worked with a lot of old-growth wood, which is embedded with history.  The trees themselves began life maybe fifty years before they were cut down, and then were used to construct buildings that stood a hundred years more.  By the time I come into contact with that wood, touch it, cut it, plane it, taste its dust hanging in the afternoon air, I am knifing through almost geologic layers of time.  Those trees were teenagers in some Michigan forest as Abraham Lincoln dropped the Gettysburg Address on freshly bloodied ground in Pennsylvania.

This time, the wood I was milling was different -- it was redwood.  That name sparks up a whole chain of associations, images of clear-cut hillsides, logging protests, and dim, fog-spooked forests.  Now endangered, redwood is rarely logged.  They are difficult to grow from seed, take an enormous amount of time to mature, and need a perfect storm of ecological conditions to prosper.  Once going, however, the giants are unstoppable, growing to unimaginable proportions and capable of living hundreds of years.  

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, fire-suppression technology became very important.  A fast-growing, mostly wood-framed city, Chicago was devastated by a lack of fire-fighting infrastructure.  New building codes mandated the installation of water tanks on roofs, allowing for a large, gravity-pressurized water supply for each building.  Tanks were built from then-abundant West Coast redwood and Gulf Coast cypress, two highly rot-resistant, spongy woods that made tight, leakproof tanks once the wood fibers swelled with water.  Redwood and cypress are also not good for much else, as their grain makes them unsuitable for structural applications.

Drawing for a railroad water tank in Chicago, circa 1937, similar in design and construction to the rooftop towers.  Courtesy of Cyberspace World Railroad.

Down at the ReBuild Foundation shop, we had a pile of timbers, 2-1/2" thick, that were once a water tower.  The outside faces still had thick strips of tar that had once waterproofed the seams.  Each edge was beveled, and the inside face was coved, so that when all the pieces were put together, they became a perfect circle.  This worked against me on the table saw, however, as there was no true edge to put against the fence.  The thickness of the timbers also meant I had to raise the blade as high as it would go, a sketchy proposition under any circumstances.  

First, I de-nailed and scraped the tar of the lumber.  Next, I cut them into 2-1/2" by 2-1/2" square blanks, then sliced them methodically into 3/4" strips, to eventually become wall panelling for bedrooms and bathrooms in some of the Dorchester Avenue houses.  This process began slowly, with the consideration of wood on the rack; the placing of a teetering antique ladder; the levering and pushing of each timber from rack to ground; the layering of dust mask, eye protection, ear muffs, gloves; the hum of the saw coming to speed, the cyclone of the dust collector whirling inside its canvas bag; the hard, sweating push of wood against table, blade, fence; the protest of the machine; the tiny, tense pop as grain gave way and the last of the wood slid past the blade, red and clean as a fresh wound.  

The scene of the crime.
Besides the physical effort of slinging around these huge boards, I felt, mentally, spiritually, that something primeval was fracturing in my hands.  There's no concrete way of telling, but this wood could well be three or four hundred years old.  It seemed wrong, on some level, to be torturing it with all these machines.  At the same time, I was turning something old, something carelessly discarded, into something startlingly new -- an alchemy.  At lunch, washing my hands, the porcelain sink turned brown with the dust of the ancients.  I was sending something unimaginable into the sewers, and felt myself shrinking, rendered insignificant by dust.  

Redwood sawdust.
The whole process -- a crap job, really, dusty and sweaty and difficult and kind of dangerous -- put me in a fugue state, caused by repetitious, meditative activity, at once mentally engaging and mindless, physically difficult but flowing, one task into the next, fluid and seamless.  I had to do something to honor that wood (besides the future construction it would become a part of), so I took a jar of it home.  

Looks remarkably similar to coffee, and smells a lot worse.  
The only other times I have found myself falling into this frame of mind have been during similar kinds of activities -- hiking the Appalachian Trail, mixing concrete, building furniture.  At Arcosanti, I frequently was the mixmaster for our concrete pours.  I got into a rhythm, measuring out 18 five-gallon buckets of sand, gravel, and cement; slinging them into the mixer, dosing it with water; dumping it into one wet wheelbarrow after another and beginning anew, all under the relentless sun, shielded in hardhat, sunglasses, earplugs, and mask.  I heard the blood beating in my ears, the clatter and thrum of the mixer, aware of my co-workers drifting in and out of my vision, the distant wet thump of concrete hitting formwork.  This was nearly the opposite of cutting the redwood -- instead of making something ancient new, I was making something new ancient, pouring liquid stone that would stand for hundreds of years, outliving me and everyone I'll ever know, sheltering some unknown future.

Concrete I poured.
This is all any of us can hope for, right?  Some small monument to our time, a tiny, fleeting achievement that our children, grandchildren, might one day touch, material witnesses, remembering.