Long before he became a successful author, journalist, and tv host, Rob Penn was a kid with an ash tree in his backyard. After moving to the Welsh countryside and setting up a woodland community 14 years ago, Penn found himself reminiscing about his old tree and his latest book, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, is a love letter to the ash, which has provided the raw material for everything from Achilles' spear in The Iliad to the bodies of London's Routemaster buses. In learning about the tree's secret history, Penn met with equally storied craftsmen who continue to connect human to nature by making things with their bare hands. Ahead of his book's US release next month, Penn sat down with us to answer some questions.
Project Woodchips: The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees is not your first foray into writing about (and celebrating) true craftsmanship. That distinction goes to your first book, It's All About the Bike. What is it about the art of craftsmanship, be it in a handmade bicycle or a bespoke desk made from handpicked wood, that draws you in as a subject, and what do you hope readers will take away from your experience?
Robert Penn: Craftsmanship is synonymous with things being well made. We retain possessions that are well made: over time, they grow in value to us, and even enrich our lives when we use them. Not long ago, much of what we owned was alive with the skill, and even the idealism of the people who made it—the blacksmith who forged our tools, the cobbler, the wood turner, the carpenter, the wheelwright, the seamstress and the tailor who made the clothes we wore. In a generation, we have abandoned craftsmanship for cheap, mass produced goods, which break easily and cannot be repaired, forcing us to buy them again and again. I suppose I’m hoping a few folk will read my books and understand that craftsmanship provides an alternative to mechanically-produced, standardized goods.
PW: This book is also an ode to the ash tree and its deeply rooted history in humankind's history. But why ash over, say maple or elm? How much of your affinity for ash is directly linked to deep connection you felt to your tree?
RP: I grew up under an ash tree. That tree has somehow stuck with me over the decades and I have looked for ash in all the landscapes I have known. In fact, that tree was a sort of lodestar that brought me to live with my family in a bit of the Wales that is heavily accented with ash. However, only recently have I come to understand the part that ash has played in our cultural and economic history, over the millennia. And this sets the ash apart: you couldn’t write a similar book about maple or elm. So, whilst my emotional connection to the ash is strong, to write an ode to it I had to steep myself in the history and science of man’s relationship with this most versatile wood.
PW: You meet quite a few craftsmen as part of your project, but it's not lost on the reader that each one of them feels like the last of their kind. Given the popularity of anything with the word "artisanal" in it and the backlash against desk jobs, why do you think there's still a lag for a next generation of craftsmen?
RP: I think it’s because we have become so used to the affordability and built-in obsolescence of man-made materials and mass-produced goods, in such a short period of time. In the same way, we have forgotten that how we value things made out of natural materials is a reflection of how we value nature itself. It will come back: we will value artisanship again; we will choose natural materials over man-made materials again; and we will place craftsmanship over cheap machine-made products again. It just takes time.
PW: Woodland culture in the UK seems much more organized and accessible for a city dweller to escape into than it does in the US. Do you find that to be the case? Could you talk a little bit about your experience moving to the Welsh countryside?
RP: The UK is a small, densely-populated space with a relatively small amount of woodland cover (around 11%), so we have to be quite organized about ensuring folk have access to what there is. Sadly, much of our woodland culture has actually been lost in the last sixty years, but we’re working hard to reverse this decline. People are trying to rejuvenate interest in the woodland skills and lore that our ancestors considered a birthright.
I moved from London to Wales when I had children, fourteen years ago. We bought a house beside a stream, in the middle of a small wood. I knew I wanted to associate myself somehow with the land, and to create an environment whereby my kids came to understand some of the cultural traditions that make up rural life here in the Black Mountains. I also implicitly understood that trees summon us to witness nature; they are closest to its heart. In the first few years, I brought my own small wood back into management, to provide firewood for the house and to improve the biodiversity. Then I helped set up a community woodland group, which manages a few neighboring woodlands. I now have a role in my landscape, which fixes me in a turning world. I am sure my kids look longingly at the bright city lights. When they are old enough, they will probably head there but the woods will be always be there for them.
PW: Collectively, there's societal craving to get back to basics; to make real things using our hands. We can certainly attest to the satisfaction of getting outside and swinging an axe or shaping a piece of wood with a knife, but I can't help but notice that women are few and far between in these chronicles. Why do you think that is?
RP: It’s a really good question. Traditionally, the various woodland management trades like tree felling, timber hauling, saw-milling and so on have been heavily male dominated. In researching my book about ash, I came across a very small number of women working with wood. That’s not to say women are under represented in crafts per se, but they are in woodcrafts. This will change. In the UK, I know of a few female carpenters, cabinet makers, basket makers and spoon carvers—and they are all young. It’s a good sign.
PW: Of all the encounters you had while writing this book, which one stuck with you the most?
RP: That is a hard question, not least because the encounters I had with the craftspeople shift in my mind, as I use all the things they made for me from my ash tree, in my daily life. If pressed, I would probably settle for the wheelwright, Phill Gregson. He was a lovely man, but I was particularly enamored by how so much of what he knew is not written down in books anywhere. The wheelwright’s knowledge of timber is a feel for the characteristics of the different tree species, including ash, which was always used for the felloes (it rhymes with ‘bellies’) or rims of the wheels, gained through lengthy empirical acquaintance. It is knowing about seasoning and where a knot will be helpful or a bit of shake a source of unexpected strength. This intimate understanding of timber was passed down from father to son, and from master to apprentice, like oral folk-songs. This consciousness of materials forms a continuum in the history of making wheels, connecting Phill to the earliest wheelwrights in ancient Mesopotamia, over 5,000 years ago. I knew if the timber from my ash tree was to be critically examined anywhere, it would be in the wheelwright’s yard.
PW: You found 44 different uses for one ash tree. How are the objects doing--any favorites you can't live without these days?
RP: I am writing this at my bespoke desk. I sit here for at least a part of most days. If the desk went, a small piece of me would go with it. I’m a bit of a creature of habit and the first thing I do everyday is make tea: I use an ash spoon to put leaf tea into a pot. Of course, if the spoon broke I could get another one made, but I have become so attached to the unique shape, the ripples of grain and the pin knots of this particular spoon that I would be briefly lost without it. At the other end of the spectrum, I am deeply attached to the toboggan and the canoe paddle. Neither of these ash items get used often, but when they do, it means I’m having a good time.
PW: Any idea where your next adventure might take you?
RP: If I only knew...
Want to get in touch with your inner craftsman? There's still time to sign up for next month's Project Woodchips Lumberjack Getaway in the Adirondacks.