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The Making of a Wooden Stool


Gerry Boyle

I was there to photograph six participants as they undertook the various stages involved in making stools from logs of wood. My initial concerns focussed on camera angles and exposures. There was no hint at this stage of the subtle and profound changes that the course would have on the participants and myself and as they unfolded I realised that they could not be photographed. In the morning, course leader Eoin had introduced us using only our ďŹ rst names. With so little information to go on any common ground that we might have shared was limited to our participation on the course and to it being an all male group. As we would have to work in groups I wondered what type of glue would bind us together. As work began there was an awkwardness and a self-consciousness among the participants as they split logs using ageold methods. One person steadies an axe that has been embedded in a log so that the other one can hammer down on it splitting it in two. No one wants to make any mistakes. The priority is to be seen to be competent. It is very important that all stay safe but it is equally important to make a good impression.

The next stage involves each person working with a side-axe to strip off the bark and shape the legs for their stool. The power comes from the strength in the arms. It is not surprising that this stage tends to demonstrate the fact that expertise with an axe may not rate as highly in today’s lifestyle as it might have done in the past. The work is challenging and tiring. Help is on hand and the tutor has been attentive to the progress each participant is making but very little help has been sought. Independence is a characteristic that has underpinned the development and progress so far. But now changes occur as arms begin to ache with effort and wrists grow weak. Inevitably the workers pause for breath and to rest. As they look up from their tasks they now see that they are not alone but that others are breathing hard and have also stopped for rest. It is in having to recognise and accept this weakness and vulnerability that changes occur. The insularity of the independence is giving way to something else. An acceptance and an understanding are replacing it. This vulnerability constitutes new common ground. Now there can be empathy and sympathy for those who share the same experiences.

Weakness and fatigue have also helped foster a humility that now recognises the beneďŹ ts in having a tutor with such strength and knowledge. Help is no longer equated to failing in some way but is now accepted as a way of acquiring skill and of obtaining advice. The atmosphere around the work has undergone a change. The self-awareness and self-consciousness of the early morning no longer holds sway. A sense of community is taking hold. There is more of an acceptance of one-self. It is ok to be tired and it is ok to struggle. It is ok to ask for and accept help. It is ok being human. Slowly the wood is being laid bare, stripped of its outer coating; allowing the grain to show. Something similar is also taking place within the group with the shedding of self awareness. Focus is directed to the task in hand and distractions now disappear. The wood now holds each one’s attention, as it becomes the priority. Shaving and shaping proceed in silence. Talk is unnecessary.

Each person knows what he is trying to achieve and the responsibility is taken seriously. By the end of the stage it is clear that what had started out that morning, as remote chunks of wood had now become unique in the eyes of those who had worked with them. The emergent legs now have their own identities and each worker can recognise his own work. A relationship had formed between the worker and his work and with it a pride in what they were doing. What happened next seemed to me to cement the disparate elements that were combining to change the dynamics of the group and those individuals. Holes needed to be cut in the seat of the stool for the legs to be inserted. One person alone could not manage this. It required co-operative action and it was readily given. It was the offering and accepting of help that consolidated the sense of being in community. As the teamwork ourished the self consciousness waned. This quote “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.â€? (Confucius), focuses on the individual and culminates in an understanding.

By this time I was also working on a leg for a stool. This work had been progressing for some considerable time and silence had descended on the group. I had slipped into a working rhythm and soon became oblivious to the surroundings and to those working alongside me. My personal narrative ran along these lines. I didn’t know where the tree had been planted or by whom. I only knew it had been planted before I was born. So logic would seem to suggest that these factors would result in the tree and it’s history being remote and distant from me. But this was not to be the case. As I worked I realised that this was the first time in my life that I had actually worked on wood. This thought triggered a sort of chain reaction that spanned time and distance and culminated in me sensing a bond between the wood and myself. The connection extended to those hands that had helped plant it and so like bookends, we shared in this tree’s life.

Eoin had explained how pressures and strains build up in the tree as it struggles to access sunlight and how these are reflected in the twists and turns seen in it’s bark. I thought how like us. Unable to go through life without experiencing stresses and having the evidence of it etched into our faces as we age. He went on to explain that when the fallen tree trunk is prised apart the splitting releases the pent up pressures with such force that the sections of the trunk buckle and twist before coming to rest. I could see echoes of this in death when a body is eventually “laid to rest.” I began to understand that this relationship that I was becoming aware of was not being limited to one tree and me. I felt that I represented humanity and the tree represented the environment. What happened next was that I suddenly felt a deep sense of responsibility towards the wood and the tree from which it had come.

I remembered that some years ago I had attended a workshop given by the motivational speaker Jack Black. Something he had said then resonated with me now. He said if you were going to chop down a tree you had a responsibility to go to the tree and explain to it why you had to cut it down. It deserved to know. Although I had not cut the tree down I needed to thank it because I had beneďŹ ted from it. In life we interact not only with others but also with our environment. At it’s worst, society can seem to be in opposition to the natural world and can even appear oblivious to it. In a culture where market forces dominate and where personal development is associated with achieving wealth, status, power and privilege any environmental concerns are not always treated sympathetically or seen as a priority. However if we approach the environment with humility, respect and a deep sense of responsibility towards it perhaps we would be in a better position to understand it’s needs and be more able to repair brokenness. This was my understanding.

When I had first spoken to Eoin he had explained about the course in a Zen-like statement when he said, “You know the stool is not the end product - it is the making of the stool.” He did not elaborate much on this. By working on the wood and with this group I had caught a glimpse of the relationship that exists between man and the environment and in glimpsing this I was able to understand what Eoin had meant when he had said that the end product was not infact the end product. © Gerry Boyle 2012

“I’m not a human being ... ... I’m a human doing” Working with wood and green wood in particular sustains the spirit. Individual creative input and manual work create a bond with the object that makes its beauty and purpose appreciated for longer. The action, participation with others and eventual outcome of that activity are often more than the product itself. The making of something from tree to final piece of furniture is a great achievement. The combination of heads, hands and hearts however is the product that maintains people. An underlying social objective of the workshops is to achieve common unity. It is the main driver of our workshop ethos. It is the environmental context and productive content which allows conversation to happen and enjoyment result. This approach allows people to focus their attention on a third thing rather than on themselves and others.

The Big Tree Society courses are more hands-off than hands-on, from a facilitators point of view. We get the participant started, get them familiar with the objective; whether it is a stool, a chair or a spoon and steer them through a process. Everyone learns and shares the new knowledge with fellow participants. The exercise is demanding, stimulating and fun. The new confidence and interpersonal skills that develop are self taught. Teaching is gleaned by the participants during the day and hopefully continued and transferred beyond.

The Big Tree Society Harestanes Centre, by Ancrum, Jedburgh, Scottish Borders TD8 6UQ

Making of a Wooden Stool - Journeys - Gerry Boyle