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My Pathless Woods

SNA (Sado Island) — More than thirty years of woodworking and I still feel like an intern. The lessons I have learned, however, show a depth and intimacy that make me wonder how it is we today call ourselves the “material world.”

It seems to me that our ancestors knew materials much better than we do, having long worked with them. In many ways today we are straying from the knowledge given, benefits of, and care for natural mediums in general, which surely influences our ability to then understand and preserve the natural world.

In my more diligent youth I was long enamored with wood, good tools, and working with them, but after leaving behind ten years of employment in Seattle, moving to Japan, establishing my own workshop, and reaching the age of about forty, I began to think more about building reputation, making more money, and becoming well known.

This too was a worthy ambition, I figured. Several strained years were spent in frustration at the difficulties of business improvement. Gradually this began to feel like a wasted effort in self-indulgence and the pursuit of business skills that didn’t come naturally to me. Working in Japan as a lone, poor, unknown, foreigner has also felt like a trial, and the habit eventually formed of feeling frustrated at the culture here. It seemed there was resistance to foreigners. More positive business offers actually came during short visits to the United States, Finland, and even China.

All of this lead me to a period of depression and aimlessness which has not been completely relieved after more than five years. It is strange to think (and hard to admit) that in conscious proximity to bustling urban Japan, and the high stakes of America, that I am at last compelled to return to roots, sticks and stones, a dirty barn, humble relations, and working alone; the saw, the knife, the board, and the whetstone. And yet I have heard that these are also the places from which genius, great ideas, and beauty may spring. The final pages of Walden also remind me of this—against my “greater ambitions.”

One of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of custom furniture making is the one most invisible and least put into words: It is the mental orchestration of the many components of the work, gradually aided by increasing experience. For example, there are the customer’s needs and location, a suitable style, available woods and species selection, personal design sense, appropriate construction methods, overall budget and time constraints, and the tools and machines on hand. These all need to be selected, balanced, and blended.

A main focus for me in this process is to portray a natural warmth, while also selecting wood carefully for the given order, with as little waste as possible. It would not be a finite island economy, a Shinto reverence for nature, nor a craftsman’s respect to use wood as if the supply was endless and every piece was no different than any other. This means not using high quality woods where a project doesn’t deserve them, even if the client can afford it. A successful project is when many of the orchestrated components are quite satisfied, however unrecognized by others.

I suppose being able to “invisibly orchestrate” is true for many people’s work, and leads to growing satisfaction generally, if not necessarily fame and fortune. Nonetheless, I deem this ability as an instruction given by the medium itself. There is more wisdom and sanity to be had from ‘listening’ with our six senses (the mind included) to the great, eternal transmissions of nature, than not, than following our own proud, distracted expressions.

This listening, I suspect, is the key, the thing most essential which I keep forgetting, and coming back to. Am I listening? To plow into nature, to hunt or kill, is easy and self-satisfying, but it is more challenging and rewarding to listen and communicate there.

This “listening” was also well stated in Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In motorcycle maintenance he describes it as “the mechanic’s feel… a deep, inner, kinesthetic feeling for the elasticity of materials.” A deep sensitivity and intimacy are required to communicate with and handle well the world around us. Perhaps human self-interest and a lack of listening are what is innately wrong within our many global conflicts today.

Much of what wood has taught me has come through the tradition of Japanese woodworking, one of great depth and skill. I have heard Japan called a “fiber culture,” due to the refined use of the many natural mediums of its history: silk, hemp, tatami mats, bamboo, washi paper, straw work, woven cloth, and the pervasive use of wood. Working well with these fibers requires great skill and sharp, high quality tools, which results in intimate knowledge of their many characteristics.

While working with the shokunin (craftsmen) in Japan, it was apparent that they could “read” many significant things about wood at just a glance. Some of these things were not only the species and where best to use them, but certain good or bad qualities of each board, which ends were originally at top or bottom in the tree, which side of the board was the inner pith side, and which the outside, which direction to mill or plane a given surface, as well as selecting specific pieces of wood for given uses.

After coming to work in Japan, it had taken me a few years to understand the depth of this knowledge, and to see its value for myself.

And so, at the age of 55, it’s back to the barn, to sticks and stones, to humble means and working alone; to the saw, knife, wood, and whetstone. I am hard-pressed to admit that this work has turned out to be my only recourse for interaction and solution in an increasingly conflicted world. But at least it has the seeming merit of some relationship with the natural world, a mutual learning and listening.

Note: photo by Kayoko Hasegawa

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