This is a story about how a fallen tree is turning into something amazing.
It started for me when Carrie Towers, whose garden the tree was growing in, got in touch in August 2017 to say that it had been blown down one windy night. It had been bought down because of a fungus, Inonutus hispidus eating away the wood at the bottom of the stem and roots. Other funguses were working their way down from the pollarded top. So after some hesitation and reservations – not sure what we were going to find – we started to mill in September.
The wood, although crumbly at the base, very soon revealed itself in its glory, full of colour and interest – pinks, oranges, browns, with lots of character and quirkiness – so we carried on, step by step.
In all it took us 6 days milling on site through the Autumn. Carrie was always on hand, providing enthusiastic support and encouragement, and delicious lunches. I worked with wood-loving friends, Afshin Dehkordi, Steve De St Coix, Patrick King, Mike Smith, and Ben Willis who all helped out in crucial ways with their heads and hearts.
Everyone has their own story but for me this showed me that the whole is always greater than the parts, and for this taking time is sometimes essential. At each stage the milling was tricky because of the presence of metal and we had to constantly problem solve. For example, Patrick came up with a fantastic new milling technique – running the saw through multiple times to create layers – and Steve heroically worked on cleaving out the central metallic section. I couldn’t have come up with this plan at the beginning in a million years!
I’ll be using some of the wood for chair making workshops at Brockwell Park Community Gardens, so much more to follow!
Here are some more stories so far:
I purchased the house in 2007 and soon noticed mushrooms spreading around the base of the huge beautiful black Ash tree; I took professional advice and was told it had a common fungal disease that eats away the tree roots so we had no way of knowing how far it had eaten inside. I was told it may fall down tomorrow, or in 20 years. (Alas, it fell down after 10.)
I took the precaution, sadly, of taking off what became dead branches after a couple of years and left the trunk standing for Mother Nature to decide what next. In its glory, the black Ash stood tall and proud, its branches spanning at least 20ft across.
I always had it in my mind to salvage what I could and the idea came to create a full vertical slice of the tree trunk to become a huge table top, although I didn’t receive much hope that the wood would be at all useable for such a project.
Forwards ten years to August 2017 and I was searching for a man with a mill… The resident family of foxes had been burrowing around the base of the Ash and I started to feel anxious it was nearing its time. After a very wet and windy week at around 4am, I woke with a fright and sat bolt upright in my bed from a thud (that could only ever have been an earthquake, or the tree falling)! I’m quite sure the whole house shook!! As you do, I listened for any intruder noises, heard nothing else and fell back to sleep. The next morning, after a few blinks, I realised the huge trunk was now laying on its side and the thud I’d heard during the night suddenly made sense.
Several milling companies told me they didn’t think it would be worth their time to come out to me in West London; then I found Paul. He wanted some wood for seats at a garden community and I still hoped for a full vertical slice, I was more than happy to share the wood; all being well the wood wasn’t rotten inside!
It’s not every day you get to watch a huge tree being milled in your back garden and it was an unforgettable experience. The wood was indeed useable and revealed its hidden beauty with stunning vivid colours and patterns; Paul and various helpers worked so hard to slice up the tree and I’m so grateful to the team that I now have a 12ft slab of black Ash waiting to become a garden table and live on, horizontally this time.
The first day was about seeing what we had: carefully cutting off limbs and bumps so we could both preserve what there was – a habitat for fauna as well as interesting wood – and create a fairly level area to begin milling on. We were fascinated by the fungus as much as the wood!
Days 2 and 3
Taking away small shards of spalted wood – wood as fungal landscape – these were carved into small utensils whilst green.
Lots of effort and creative thinking power!
A few more boards despite the nails. A couple of these on their way to Wales to be seasoned and then made into chair seats or perhaps table tops. Black Ash is a rare species in this country, so it’ll be interesting to see what colours it affords when it’s made into chairs in a couple of years’ time!
Steve De St Coix
By this time much of the fallen giant had been milled but there was a difficult section full of nails that had blunted the saw several times. So we tried the alternative strategy of cleaving this section. Aluminium wedges worked best and some intriguing lumps of timber which may make seat bases were salvaged from what otherwise would have become firewood.
Sinking nails into living trees seems such a careless and mindless thing to do. It got me musing on a concept which my friend Lee introduced me to – tree blindness. I believe the American science writer Gabriel Popkin coined the phrase. Tree blindness is ignorance of trees – not noticing them, not recognising them, not knowing how to use them, not loving them.
When you think where our ancient ancestors came from and how our closest living animal relatives live, well – what strange monkeys we have become!
I believe that apart from making some reasonably decent spoons, benches, even dibbers, green woodworkers like Paul are engaged in something yet more important – a great reconnection with nature, a therapeutic quest!
The home straight! A little more cleaving, creating some interesting blocks, one of which may one day become a bedside table?
Ben and Paul bring some of the wood south of the river to Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses where it will live for the next 18 months. It’ll need to slowly and naturally lose enough moisture so that it can be worked into chair seats.