Tag Archives: douglas fir

Wild Wood, Deep City

An essay of mine published in City Arts, on the old trees in our coffee shops, how they can be an antidote to our Amazon ennui



read the story here: http://cityartsonline.com/articles/wild-wood-deep-city

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infinite mini, or three notes on a koan


What people see in the koan mini coffee table is a mystery to me. And maybe it is best that way. But from hunting the raw material, and from navigating the weird, truncated conversations with post-lingual men of the reclaimed lumber trade, I can, like an emperor’s attache, report back what I have learned. I understand that maybe all the rings, and just the counting of them, is enough. Or the pure weight and density of the thing. But there is more, more! And in this case, because it is a Friday morning, almost but not yet the weekend, I will limit this deposition to just three things:

The black vertical shadow is mineral stain from a massive bolt that passed through the beam there, where more recently my borrowed chainsaw passed, through space that is now part of the room. Awesome industrial evidence. In close, you can see that the rings persevere through the black. But in the black there is a granular, pebbling texture to the wood, from the way that it reacted with the steel, and to the rusting of the steel, over time. As though rust could be hot, if time could be compressed, and burn.


This beam was what they call F.O.H., or “free of heart.” The heart being the core of the tree, the sapling that was. Which actually, you can see in this koan, as negative space. The first ring is there, just barely, as the inside curve of year two. It anchors the koan, gives it its compositional gravity. But what they mean when they say FOH is, the wood as milled is of higher quality. And they charge more for it, because heart in the middle of a beam often makes it more prone to cracking. Not prone to failure. But aesthetically, and structurally, beams with the heart right out in the middle aren’t quite as stout as FOH beams. And comparatively anyway, to get FOH, you need a much larger tree. So the tree that this koan is from, a century or so ago they probably quartered it at one of four or five sawmills on Puget Sound, into four massive beams of this dimension – 11-1/2 inches X 13-1/2 inches. So you could say, this koan has three sisters out there in the world, maybe still doing duty, in a warehouse, maybe in a barn with horses.


The dark brown of the tabletop is from the process of oxidation over the years. It almost reads as bark, or as a hide. But initially, when the beam was first cut, the tabletop would have been the same light orange tone as all the rings. And as far as this dark brown goes, often people in the reclamation industry refer to it as a chocolate tone. It is amazing to touch, like it is now, after being burnished with steel wool and beeswax. Because it really does read as an exterior, both to the eye and the touch. But it is just air, elements and time.


So, there they are, three notes from an infinite koan mini. This one is on its way to Detroit. I crated it and sent it off yesterday. In a few days, a woman who rides horses will travel over the Canadian border to retrieve it from her brother’s house, and bring it back north.


To get to birdloft’s home site, birdloft.com

For koan mini availability and pricing, birdloft.etsy.com

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out of the wet and raw

the long slow dry begins

the long slow dry begins

Was working with a chainsaw the other day, getting all wet, wanting to bring some material in out of the cold and rain. Harvested three koans and some massive beams of Douglas fir with beautiful sawblade imprints. They’ll all need some time to dry. And they won’t dry as fast in the woodshop as they would in the living room. But you can only test the bonds of marriage so much. And any test should always be with good cause. In this case, I am just excited. Cannot wait to see what is revealed as the wood dries.

One premonition – the length of beam in front with the two slow curves, the curves being wane, where bark and sapwood meet – I’m pretty sure the wane is going to be topside of a console. Two curves. At hip height. Soon enough will see, and who for. Meantime, plenty ahead in line on the list of things to do. No hurry. Temperature about 48 degrees. Murmurings already of spring.

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How Spotted Owls gave us Free-Range Chicken


A standard Pacific Northwest export in the 1920s – 30″ x 30″ Douglas fir cants. Photo detail courtesy of West Coast Lumbermen’s Association

How Spotted Owls gave us Free-Range Chicken
by Jeff Libby

Book review of The Final Forest; Big Trees, Forks and the Pacific Northwest, by William Dietrich, 2010

The mind-blowingly naive mindset of hipster thought leaders in the early 1990s, even as satirized by the ultra ironic Portlandia, is hard to grasp just twenty years later. But if you’re getting on in years, like middle-aged pranksters Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, you probably remember the spotted owl rage. The setting of the national debate was Forks, Washington, lately of Twilight fame. But it wasn’t anything so unhinged and modern as heart throb vampires playing baseball by thunderstorm. The story line for Forks’ Twilight of the Nineties was simpler, almost wholesome – a relatively small, bright-eyed bird almost nobody had ever seen was in danger of extinction, and would only survive if the harvesting of a certain group of trees, known in timber industry speak as decadent virgin growth forest, was stopped.

On the ground, in Forks, the story was different. It was more about choice. You could save the bird, or you could save an axman. To hear the working families tell it, the entire Pacific Northwest timber industry was being sacrificed to save a single species of owl.  Timber barons and National Forest Service administrators were telling the same story, focusing on regional economies and predicted balance sheets of propogation and harvest. Bottom line, thousands of people would have to give up their livelihood and culture because a cabal of East Coast transplants and Washington DC activists had decided an endangered bird was more important than the working man. And for what – to preserve hiking trails.

As it turned out, the reality was that the timber industry was in a Twilight of its own. The old growth forest that scientists were claiming for owl habitat represented a tiny fraction of the forest available for harvest. And the old growth forest that was eventually put aside amounted to 2 to 5 percent of the massive centuries-old trees that white Americans first found in the mid-1800s when they began settling in the Pacific Northwest and northern California. In other words, by the 1990s, when the owl debate exploded, the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest was already pretty much timed out, had been harvested, milled and sold. It was no different than the old growth forests of the mid-west and the East Coast before that. The Pacific Northwest forest was the final forest only in that we hadn’t quite gotten to it. It was the last chapter in our Manifest Destiny handbook, and as early as the 1940s, Weyerhaeuser and other lumber giants were already researching the alternatives for survival in a post-old growth world.

But as quickly as the giant trees came down, there were enough of them that it still took decades to cut through them to the sun. The conquest, such as it was, was laborious, and men were crushed like beetles along the way – there are endless photos of puny men with handsaws gathered in the freshly cut maw of a collosal tree about ready to fall. Cutting sped as blades morphed from manpower to machine power. The rain kept falling and the air stayed cool most the year – perfect climate for a forest to continue producing something on the order of four times the biomass of the Amazon jungle. More families arrived, usually during storms – these are the origin stories related by Dietrich from kitchen and sawmill. They humped it into the trees. The forest that was viewed alternatively as wild as decadent and as virginal eventually was tamed. The small towns grew, even if they didn’t always prosper. 4-H came. Streetlights. American Idol. Vampires. And meantime, the industry had begun planting new growth behind the clearcuts. Miles and miles of tree plantations in perfect grids were sprouting along riverbanks and over mountaintops like super slow-mo human waves. In roughly forty-year cycles – from seedling to harvest – this new forest, a managed crop, was emerging as the staple of the timber industry.

In a way, the spotted owl was less a harbinger of the end of an era and more our country’s first free range chicken. Up until the 1990s, wildlife biologists had tended to study one species at a time, each in its own silo. Protectionists for the spotted owl introduced the public to the ecosystem. It was a radical construct, to study animals and plants as part of a larger interconnected system. The idea that an owl might be inextricably linked to a habitat of definable trees, and that additionally, that habitat might need to be contiguous, for other species as well as owls to propagate successfully, was new, even if today that may seem obvious, and hardly up for debate. The idea spread, until scientists wanted to manage and protect a multitude of species said to need and be needed by old growth forest – from murrelets – another rare bird whose nests have yet to be observed directly – to the red-backed vole, a forest rat that eats only underground truffles, spreading spores critical to tree root health. Not surprisingly, this re-imagining of the forest as a complex web of interconnectedness eventually made its way to the restaurants, where hipsters and thought leaders are prone to gather, and – twenty years later – informed eaters are asking about the lives, i.e., habitat, of the chickens they eat. It shows discernment. It’s precious. And it’s beautiful.

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