Branching out

A limb torn from a tree stem by weight and wind tells a story science does not tell. The formation of cells encircling the rooted continuity of fibrous strands of growth becomes evidence enough to convince me of the amazing attributes of nature in wood. I record the evidence in my brain, of course, but then a digital image serves as a memory prompt alongside. So it is with walks revealing the materials I live and work with. I watched as a branch grew in front of me knowing it was growing but also knowing I could not see its growth by eye. I don’t question its capacity to grow because I have seen past evidence of girth and length in measurements I took a year and two and three before. My knowledge of woodworking didn’t come so much from books or indeed from my working with George or other men. No. I would be generous if I said that perhaps 10% came from these resources.

Just peering into the parted-off branch, ripped not cut or sliced in any way, tells me more about grain structure to add to my notes and drawings and such. Recutting now, sawing and planing, even abrading but mostly plane work increases my knowledge of the wood, the tool responses, and this information can never come from science alone. Anything beyond what I see and feel from my plane’s cutting edge and my saw strokes is of little if any worth to my actual craftsmanship. I think science simply or mostly adds some interesting information confirming only what we might feel and know but not be able to put a name or two to. I mean, well, we all know that water and mineral salts and such like, travel through cells within the structure of wood. That these cells are named tracheids is of minimal consequence.

But here’s the punchline if it needs one. Back in 1997 I was leaving the house and discovered one of the branches of my peach tree had parted from the main stem under the weight of the peaches extending out a good distance. The leverage was just too much and a heavy wind in the night added to the stresses. I couldn’t get the car past the branch and so I cut a section of wood with a V notch in the end. The boys and I lifted the branch and cantilevered it from a centrepoint under the branch. That way the car passed under the branch as it had always done before. As it is with many things temporary becomes unintentionally permanent. Surprisingly to me the peaches continued to full fruit and then on to ripeness and we harvested without any problems. I ignored the temporary prop intending to lop the branch at some point but 9 months later I decided to tidy things up. Pulling out the prop the branch held and on close examination I saw that it was completely healed and solid. It remained so until we moved on and returned to the UK a decade later. Another lesson learned. The simplest of all. Don’t interfere unless it’s necessary and nature will take care of its own.

24 thoughts on “Branching out”

  1. Yes, and in life there are many things that are best left alone and allowed to heal themselves. Some choose to chop up the down fall to make kindling to fuel the fire instead of just to keep picking the peaches and enjoy the fruit and move on. If we choose to we can find a lesson in every situation and add to our basket of peaches. No regrets and no apologies, just live the day with thanksgiving and move ahead.

  2. Nothing is as permanent as a temporary solution.

    “Don’t interfere unless it’s necessary and nature will take care of its own.”

    There’s a reason the adage ‘Primum non nocere’ (firstly, do no harm) is drilled into medical students. Of course, the trick is to know when it’s necessary and when not. That one requires good judgement. Because, also, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.

  3. Paul, when the trees were getting heavy in fruit, my father used to support the the lower branches of our apple trees with such devices. One is supposed to scour the hedgerows for a suitable forked stick but dad used to cut a V in the end of a bit of floorboard or similar. The strategy was that the unsupported, and unreachable, higher branches might break and future fruit would be available lower down. The longest I remember would be about 4′ – but then I was about 4′ too and so my scale may be out. Forked sticks used for these support purposes are called gowlogues in the gaelic.

  4. Thats what I hope with my body, that it will heal itself if consciously I decide to give it a chance with what I feed it etc, I know some things do not work that way but I reckon a lot do. When we label diseases they can become intractable and I believe it’s what you strive for not what u avoid that makes life liveable

    1. Just to encourage you with this, in 1985 I had an incurable disease and they gave me 18 months to live because there was no known cure. I signed myself out of the hospital, read a hundred books on the disease and became ovolactarian vegetarian and eschewed any and all acid foods coming into my body. Six months later I was a new man going from needing a sleep after a 100 metre walk to migrating to the USA, starting a new business, building my home and so much more. 35 years later I am still here enjoying life to the fullest.

      1. I don’t mean to be morbid Paul, but while we’re on the subject, do you have any experience in coffin making?

        1. A peach branch fell on him. He plum forgot who he was. Not a cherry story at all. Hit him right in his Adam’s apple. He can’t pear wood anymore.

  5. Brilliant. You are absolutely right. I love observing these kind of things with my kids when we go on walks. Being at home during lockdown and helping with the kids homeschooling (my wife has done most of it as I am in front of my laptop doing a “dayjob”) had been a blessing. There is so much they can learn from observing nature, rather than being lectured from a book. I think people are losing the power of observation now that information is available at our fingertips. But a lesson learnt from observation will be retained forever. The difference between information and knowledge.


    I planted a twig of a birch tree, it had broken in half after a heavy snow. I put some masking tape on the break. 10yrs later the Birch is 30’

  7. And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things …

    [from God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins]

  8. Richard Garrow

    while I learn a lot from Paul, I also want to thank all who reply to his blogs. It is so nice to read other folks prespective on what Paul has written. I have learned a lot from reading other folks posts. I guess I have to say I need to wake up and smell the roses again as well. I have worked with Computers now for over 40 years, seems like a life time. In a few months I will turn 65, a age I really never thought I would see, as I did some pretty dumb things in my life time. I look back now as the day my bday is coming and feel lucky to be alive and have lived this long. Thank you all for sharing it has helped me open my eyes and see there is so much more to live for and enjoy.

  9. Being trained as a neuro-scientist and spending my career working with scientists to find new drugs, I’d like to share a few observations of science not typically discussed
    – Science is a craft where skills and knowledge and creativity intersect to create something new.
    – Science is one of the last disciplines with a true apprenticeship (2-5yrs working long hrs for minimal pay at the feet of a “master”)
    – Success in science requires patience, observation, accuracy and creativity.
    – In many areas especially biology scientists are required to make their own equipment from scratch. You can tell a lab is active when you see a pile of old discarded equipment in the corner waiting to be repurposed. I was hired into my first science job because I put down that I liked building model rockets, they felt that was good training.
    I’m trying to say that science really is the art of making.

    Now from the soap box..
    I truly believe that one’s understanding and enjoyment of things is partially due to an understanding of how they were made and work. In a very real way I can “see” the effort the artist put into a piece. You learn a lot about the person from how they approach making a joint.
    I believe the same thing about nature, being able to see something like a branch and understand how it’s impacting the surrounding wood gives me greater satisfaction than I had before working with wood. Wasn’t there a Judy Collins song “I look at Knots from both sides now”? 🙂
    Lastly I think we are all story tellers, including nature. Maybe a better way to put it is that as creators we all leave our footprints on what we make. We need to listen more closely for the messages left by the creator. Given that our current society is not sustainable, it’s now more important than ever to listen to what nature is saying in all it’s myriad ways. We are in for some very bad times if we keep drowning these subtle but deeply truthful messages in creations from each other through what we make. We need to be especially attuned to what nature is saying, and not drown these messages out with unthinking, unfeeling and loud machines that by their very nature block these messages.
    I hear you, there is only so much time in the day and decisions must be made to set priorities, you’ve taught me to prioritize “listening to the story the wood is telling me” and to take a walk which gives me time to hear nature and myself. That said, we all have a choice of our own priorities. Thank you for sharing your lifestyle and proving that we actually do have time to “stop and smell the roses” (sorry).

    One more comment: In my lifetime we have learned and seen more than I ever imagined. True we didn’t get our jet-packs, but we can see and manipulate individual atoms, see DNA replicate at the molecular level, create cybernetic life, copy a nervous system (you can copy the nervous system of a worm, download it and run it on a Lego Mindstorms robot) not to mention the impact of the transistor!!! What a great time to be listening in!

    1. Jetpacks AND peaches please!

      Paul is humble but he’s a scientist and a poet.

      Science at its best observes and predicts, measures and analyzes…reminds me of reading the grain and figuring out if you can split the cheeks of that tenon.

      Woodworking is a gateway to the real. Science opens us to the universe. How does that wood grow around a knot? How does rhe earth spin on its axis? What will happen if i put a camber on my plane blade at this radius or if i use that wood in my bench?

      The best part is hand tool work is aa democratic as science. Anyone can do either.
      Get a hatchet and make a spoon and learn the hidden secrets of the world.

      Woodworking is science and i treasure both disciplines.

    2. Jay,

      As an extremely novice woodworker, a journeyman researcher, and a longtime defender of the utility –even necessity- of comment boards for essentially any content (I used to work in the ML department at a news organization who eventually removed said feature to my dismay), I have to say this is one of the best comments that I’ve ever read. Thank you. (And as a little bonus to you or any others interested in neuro or even just the crossing of technological science and (very personally relevant) natural science, I recently stumbled across research on the reliable success of the analogy of dopamine “serving as” the TD measure in human decision making. I have absolutely no expertise in the neuro end of this work, but Nature has a very short, pleasant overview of a more thorough article for anyone interested in reading about it –and again, I really can’t recommend it enough as a key example of what I mentioned earlier.) Best wishes to you all.


  10. Its always fascinated me when trees grow around or through things as well. Like the civil war rifle they found inside a tree that the tree just grew over, and carious other things like that. And since trees can live so long its even more amazing what they have experienced. I once saw a cut down redwood or Sequoia that was sliced on display with a legend pointing at its growth rings, and things that happened hundreds pf years ago were marked in the middleish area. Hard to fathom the time really.

    1. Steve, was that the one on display inside a ranger station in California? If so, I have seen that as well. Definitely worth a look to anybody interested. Keep well, everybody.

  11. I feel closer to God each time one of his Devine designs is revealed in the wood we work with.

  12. Paul. I just wondered if as a craftsman cabinetmaker your admiration for natural forms of wood extended to ‘rustic furniture’, such as stools with a waney edge and stick legs with the bark remaining?

  13. Reminds me of some of George Sturt’s writings about the 19th Century woodcutters, how they could ‘read the wood’ before they even started cutting the tree.

  14. Well, I am very happy that you’re on the top side of the green, Mr Sellers. I thoroughly enjoy your blog!
    Related- I have some rather large chunks of osage orange, Black walnut, and pin oak that powerline clearing crews have left behind.
    My biggest fear is that there is a lot of reaction wood with these remnants, as branches are often 10° – 45° off vertical.
    Do you have any experience with curing, and sawing up these beauties? Did your pieces move much after assembly?

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