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Eye of the Beholder

When I was living in Lexington, Kentucky I got a call one day from a friend who said that there was some wood available in the little town of Midway, just a few miles away. Midway is an old and charming little town in the heart of the bluegrass region. I called, and a dentist who owned the land said that I could have some wood.

It turns out that the land hosted a late 18th century inn called the Porter House. Most have heard of a porterhouse steak and that is where it originated. The inn now serves as a dentist’s office and residence. The tree was a mammoth silver maple. The neighbors had complained that if it fell it might damage nearby structures. So it had been cut down. I have no idea how old the tree was but I would estimate that it was over 100 years old.

When I drove into the alley that separated the Porter House from the neighbors I saw an array of bolts of wood with grass grown up around them. Some had fungus actively growing on them. It did not look very appealing to the casual observer. The rounds of wood were so large that I had to saw them in half to be able to lift them into my van and even that was an arduous task. The fresh cut wood surfaces smelled musty and were mottled in their appearance. When I had loaded all the wood I could carry I headed back to the shop to cut some bowl blanks and rough turned them.

What I was dealing with was spalt wood. This is caused by fungus attacking the dead wood. When alive, the tree’s immunity protects it from bacterial and fungal decay. When it dies, these microorganisms go to work to reduce the wood to carbon dioxide and water. Without these necessary aspects of nature, all the wood and leaf litter would stay with us and I don’t even want to think about the fire hazard that would make. The fungus can cause the wood to be black in areas due to formation of fungus spores. In other areas it blanches the natural color of the wood. The final result is very interesting color and pattern variation in the same piece of wood. The black lines may follow the wood fibers and reveal a wavy pattern.

In the past, timber men would regard this as a defect. Spalt wood is softer and less stable than the normal wood. So it would have been relegated to the fire wood pile or just left for the fungus to finish the job. It is not even considered good fire wood because some of the energy stored in the wood has already been consumed by the fungus.

Spalt wood is definitely harder to work than the same wood which is free of decay. It requires a softer hand with the tools and produces some design limitations. Sometimes it just won’t do what you want it do do and the piece must be discarded. However, I think it is well worth the effort for the visual display it produces. People seem to be naturally drawn to the color and pattern variation.

I got several large bowls rough turned from the damp wood and put them in paper bags with the top sealed so that they could dry more slowly to avoid cracking, or checking—as woodworkers call this tendency of wood to split itself apart when it dries unevenly. The rest of the large pieces I covered with a tarp and left to fend for themselves.

Eventually I moved along with my wood to Maryland where I live now. At a show I sold one of those large spalt bowls and the purchaser became my first collector. He and his wife purchased two more bowls from the same wood and then commissioned some large candle holders to hold three inch pillar candles. In the pictures above you see the rough forms before they were turned as well as the finished products. I treasure the remaining pieces of this wood and have turned some of it into wooden jewelry.

So what would be considered trash in another era has found a place of respect with those who appreciate the infinite variety and creativity of nature, even when it is tearing down and not building up. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If we have a limited vision of utility, we may overlook some of nature’s hidden treasures. When we are open to all possibilities then we find riches in what others would discard.

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