Ash to Ashes
Published in the Toronto Star – February 3, 2018
What is it, this love affair that we have with wood? Robert Penn has some suggestions. He is the author of The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, a book that is a deep dive into the meaning of wood.
We recently picked up a copy while in London, UK. In the book, Penn works through his plan to fell a giant ash tree and make as many useful items from it as he possibly could. It is a 101 on how trees grow and why their wood is so serviceable to us.
Why an ash?
Penn chose to cut down an ash tree and explore its practical possibilities because it is reputedly the most useful of any tree in the world. He proves this by explaining how ash has won over various sports, how it has opened entire continents by providing the most serviceable canoe paddles, axe and hammer handles, and was the choice of native people for making snow shoes. The story grows more fascinating with each page.
What is so special about ash?
The straight grain and dense annual growth rings lend ash wood to an amazing variety of uses. Here are a couple:
Arrows. The best arrows in the world are made of ash wood. During the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the long bow was the British weapon of choice. When preparing for the battle of Crecy, France King Edward III wrote to King Philip VI of France, on the eave of the battle in 1346, ‘at whatever hour you approach you will find us ready to meet you in the fields, with God’s help, which thing we desire above all else.’
King Edward was a bit cocky about the coming engagement, with good reason. He had commissioned three million arrows to be made of the best English ash wood. His 5,000 archers stood on high ground that morning and rained down arrows on the unsuspecting French, 60,000 every minute. The best archers had three arrows in the air at any one time. “The scale of defeat was unprecedented and shocking,” writes Penn, “the consensus is around fifty English dead and 16,500 French.”
Ice hockey has roots in the Irish game of hurling, which features the hurly stick: a hardwood bat that looks like a cross between a cricket bat and a field hockey stick.
A professional hurler can wack a hurly ball, with an ash stick, up to 90 miles an hour. Most often, this is a high scoring game due to its speed and ferocity. Penn describes hurling as, “a cross between hockey and homicide.”
Hurly sticks are made of ash by selecting a special section of the hardwood from the bottom of the tree where it flares out to the root below. Sticks for ice-hurling, in Canada’s Maritimes, were made similarly from ash trees by indigenous people, using timber from the base of the tree. It was a thriving cottage industry until about 1880, when laminating wood put an end to traditional methods.
A Natural Love Affair
Equally fascinating as the tales of 44 useful products that Penn made from one tree are his anecdotes about our love affair with wood generally. He suggests that, “Through odour, colour, resonance and warmth, we develop a sentimental attachment to artefacts made of wood that often reaches beyond their practical use.” Penn reflects on our connections to nature or “perhaps a kind of biological response. After all, we come down from the trees and for 99.9 per cent of our time on earth we have lived in natural environments: our physiological functions remain finely tuned to nature.”
The power of wood has been demonstrated through numerous studies. Pen states that blood pressure and heart rates drop in classrooms and offices with wooden furniture.
The ash tree has been under attack here in Ontario. Emerald Ash Borer has wreaked its havoc with many of our native ash, which is why we write this column on an ash desk that Mark made with his own hands. It features a solid plank that a professional tree-trimmer recovered from a large, dead ash in a Toronto park.
There is a certain satisfaction in working with wood, to be sure. And taking time to be in the company of trees has its own benefits. Final word to Robert Penn, “Walking in a forest proves the magic of trees. How it works on humans at a molecular level, in our cells and neurons.”
The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, by Robert Penn
Published by Penguin in the UK and W.W. Norton & Co. in the USA