At an art gallery in a courtyard entryway in Santa Fe we spotted a rustic garden bench. My other half, some say the best of the two halves, we were inspired, the bench a Southwest relic, was still providing useful service, the durable wooden bench was simplicity itself.
Brainstorming. I volunteered to build a bench something like this piece, once finished we could place next to our front door where we could take off or put on our shoes.
We went to a salvage lumber distributor in Richmond. There we searched through stacks of planking and came upon two thick short redwood slabs we thought would be right for the project, they were the right size and for sale at a fair price. We struck a bargain.
Peroba is the name of the company, I’ve shopped here before. Two years back, I’d bought bay-laurel planks to rebuild a planter box around an abandoned California live oak. When we bought the property back in 2009 it was a small tree that had been temporarily set in the front yard by the previous owner, they’d been running a nursery operation out of the place, and this was one of their unsold trees we’d inherited by default. The immature live oak did what trees so often do it became a bigger tree. This evergreen live oak had by now outgrown the wooden and steel strap container it had been planted in. Building a larger planter box would solve an eyesore in the front yard and it would also help to maintain the proper soil height at the tree’s trunk.
When I’d last visited Peroba they’d just received a huge trove of wood planking and beams from a two-hundred-year-old Brazilian barn. The barnwood had been weathered by time, it was hard and heavy, easily the heaviest boards in the store. Brazilian barnwood is expensive, I was out of my league, forget the cost, it would have been a waste to have such an inexperienced woodworker trying to build with such rare Amazonian treasure. I was at a museum, that the boards were fine works of art, and me I’m like a janitor, the guy who turns the lights off at closing time. The clerk at the store wasn’t sure what species of wood this barn was made of. It could literally have been any one of many thousands of different kinds of rainforest hardwood, the material had an otherworld quality— foreign, an object that spoke in its own tongue, it was mesmerizing, entrancing— all these many hundreds and hundreds of boards stacked into perfect rectangular piles, floor to ceiling 20 feet in height.
Peroba is a dynamic marketplace, the South American barnwood now long gone. The shop also market salvaged logs. The warehouse is full of long and thick planks with live edges— there is walnut, mahogany, cherry, ash, oak, madrone— there is a vast trove of different species here. Much of the fresh sawn wood comes by way of woodsmen that bring trees purchased from private landowners. These are old trees that have fallen or are about to fall. Then, there are the grifters, the poachers— a mature western red cedar is so valuable many are cut down in the dead of night and by morning have been cut into sections and carried off. The fight to end illegal logging especially western red cedar has become impossible to stop.
It turns out both my wife and I share a common element. At least based on work provided to us by our Feng Shui guide, our consultant listed the five elements— wood, fire, metal, water and earth. Both of us have an affinity for wood, and as it so happens of the five elements, we are both wood. Somehow, in some very tangible way my sawing, drilling, and sanding produces harmony and peace. We halfway believe our relationship is improved by our being around wood— maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, we seem to both want to believe there’s maybe something to all of this, something that exists on these other levels. Isn’t that human in some sense— there are so many ways our physical world influences our inner world.
Cork oak trees come from the Iberian Peninsula (so does the loyal but obstinate donkey); it is estimated that there are perhaps as many as 5000 cork oaks in California. I’d never spent much time around cork oaks, once you know what they are they’ll get your attention, they’re quite stunning, the bark is unusual, it is the bark of the cork oak tree that is used to seal a bottle of wine. There are six cork oak in our yard. The three in the front have foot wide trunks, stand 20-30 feet tall, by my reckoning they’re 50 years old— that’s a fair guess, the trees have a lifespan of 250 years. In our backyard we lost one in a windstorm but there are two younger trees that are doing fine— they’re not more than teenagers now. They’ve a lot of growing up to do.
There are more cork oak trees in this neighborhood than I’ve found anywhere else here in the valley. I’ve printed a map out of the nearby streets and have been marking anywhere I find a cork oak growing. By my count I’d estimate there about 100 cork oak right around here where I live. This is an ongoing investigation and once I’ve a good tally I’ll post that number.
The largest cork oak trees in this neighborhood is one I look forward to seeing on my daily walk. Like the California live oak the cork are evergreens, come spring not all but some leaves turn yellow and fall.
Why I don’t find cork oaks in the adjacent towns is odd. I keep thinking there must be more around. We hire a company to trim our trees, the foreman is a cork oak tree fan, considers them to be a prized tree. The foreman said there are plenty out there.
I’m hoping to talk to the local municipal gardeners. Often, they’ll know the backstory. About a century ago this area was part of a ranch, the land was sold and subdivided. I’m guessing the original settlers may have introduced cork oak trees right here around this block. If so, it is likely squirrels would have spread the acorns. That’s one possible theory.
I pet the friendly dogs in the neighborhood, try to entice the cats to say hello. If I’m in the garden and around the trees I try to pat them too, I speak to the trees, keep on an eye on them. I like to be encouraging— you look great today, your shade that you cast is just glorious, hope your enjoying yourself, this is a fine garden you’ve found to live in. I’m happy for you, plan on keeping you happy and healthy—
Consciousness isn’t just about what passes through a mind. I like to believe a tree knows something about how to set down roots in soil, how to transport water up through its trunk to give its branches a drink to go with the sunlight it is catching. Just because the tree isn’t talking out loud doesn’t mean it doesn’t speak. As far as I can tell my job is to put myself in a tree’s shoes and do my best to consider what kind of life they are having. They’re like offspring, I’m always hoping they’ll get a little bigger, hope their life turns out good, that they’re happy.
I find I’ve family and friends that are doing much the same. This is good work and fun. It sure as heck beats having to trap out the gophers. Sometimes a man has got to do what a man has got to do— keeping the trees happy and giving hell to those pesky varmints.
Building a bench, appreciating a tree and trapping a gopher. I’m two for three right now, that gopher is smarter than you, me, and that cork oak tree all put together—