Wednesday, January 19, 2011

story of a bookshelf

See this bookshelf?

Picture it as a tree.

A gentle old ash, growing near the edge of a University football stadium parking lot, who spent nearly a century watching young people play. One
day, lightning strikes, breaking one if its thick upper limbs. In the rounded stub that remains of its once mighty arm, birds nest, squirrels play, and rainstorm fury funnels through into the heartwood. Not tornadoes nor student drivers could bring down this old tree, but rot is a real threat. The decision is made, and the tree is painted for removal.

Enter the young forestry student. I was granted the privilege of taking down this tree because I was enrolled in an optional timber harvesting class. I felled it, with my borrowed Stihl 360 chainsaw and my much-respected instructor as my swamper and lookout. We loaded it onto a truck, brought it back to the portable sawmill to cut into rough-hewn boards, which were then dried. Stacking the kiln, one on one with a mentor like an old-time apprentice,
is one of my fondest college memories. Busy hands free tongues to speak. We discussed why the moisture content of boards intended for use as studs, used outside the vapor barrier of a house as structural support, needs to be different than boards intended for use as fine furniture inside a house. We discussed how the decline of square dancing popularity has left the young people of my generation with few outlets to interact with potential mates in a wholesome and supervised way. This was the kind of knowledge I wanted from college, and I didn't realize at the time that colleges are rarely in the business of dispensing useful knowledge. I learned a trade, and I learned to soak up the wisdom of elders whenever they are willing to dispense it.

From the kiln the boards go to the jointer, where they are straightened, and the edges made perfectly 90 degrees from each other. This step, I learned, is skipped in most commercial wood processing facilities. They place their boards directly into the planer, a different machine which smooths each side, but does nothing to ensure their squareness. As my teacher said, "If they went in as crooked boards, they'll come out crooked, too." After the planer, my boards could be ripped into the sizes I actually wanted for my shelf. Making the boards, in fact -- the steps changing the wood from a log into the pieces I could screw together -- was the most difficult and time-consuming step in the whole process. When you go down to the hardware store and buy hardwood boards, you've already paid someone to do the majority of the work for you.

I graduated that semester, said my goodbyes, and trucked the finished boards home. The stain was the only part of the process that I didn't see the creation of myself. Piece by piece, it took shape, until the final bookcase you see in the first picture stood proudly in my living room. I didn't see the seed fall to the ground and grow into a young sapling. I didn't see the lightning that doomed that old grandparent to its day with the teeth of my chainsaw. But the pieces of the process that are influenced by humans, I got to trace, from forest to furniture.

That's the story of my bookshelf.

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