Wood and Its Metaphors

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On the Origin of Barns

Many of us walk a path of disconnection.

What does it mean to walk disconnected? It means we have no real sense of the ground beneath our feet, the sky overhead, nor the beings with whom we walk on this plane. When was the last time you touched your bare feet to the ground? Feeling the rhythm of life all around and the ancestors who went before? Have you stopped to smell the roses lately?

Walking with plants is a way of life. It begins with gratitude for everything that supports us and is ultimately part of us. Our movement through the world cannot happen without connection with the world around us. As "progress" lurches forward, that connection diminishes. "Progress," in a way, is a measure of how well we use and abuse the natural world for our own designs and desires usually without the understanding that we cannot survive without it. Not really very "progressive" in the true sense of the word. So, I begin this with a criticism of sorts of our own foundation of disconnection.

Having lived rurally a lot of my life, I was once struck by how people have connected to the land and the community on the land through the structures that they build directly from materials there. Specifically, barns fascinate me, but this could apply to any structure that people come together to build from materials gathered from the land — adobe, timber frame, waddle and daub. What’s interesting about barns to me is the cultural history.

In the not so old times, communities had "Barn Raisings,"which brought everyone in the community together to help provide shelter for members and families who would have a very hard time accomplishing this task on their own. To me, old barns express the beautiful connection between humans and plants, being hewn almost entirely of lumber cut from trees. It’s a profound experience to sit nestled within a barn, with the wind blowing and rain falling outside, and ponder the deep connection between people and plants; in this case, trees.

In many ways, trees are born of earth and sky. Their lives depend on these two things. They draw nutrients from the earth, as we do, and they breathe the air, as we do, and they absorb the sun and drink the rain. Recent studies show that they even communicate through a network of mycorrhizal fungi in the medium of their soil, perhaps akin to the sound waves of our own voices carrying our human language through the air. Humans share a lot more with trees than we tend to think.

So, these old barns made of oak you see miraculously still standing, on closer look are still quite sturdy, because of their relationship with humans who maintain them. Oaks used for barns are, for the most part, very slow growing trees, sometimes only a foot or so a year. Slow growth provides it with its incredible strength and longevity. When harvested to build barns, the trees can be hundreds of years old, year after year of eating from the earth, absorbing sunlight, breathing air.

When I see one of these barns I have a tremendous sense of gratitude — for in the structure is the earth, is the sun, is the air! Pieces fall off, perhaps are burned in a fire for warmth and connection, and then replaced… much like us, physically and emotionally, dropping parts of ourselves, and rebuilding.

People are born and die during the span of a barn’s existence! A barn is a relationship between humans and the natural world around them. They hold in them the stories of the people who have lived and worked in them. They carry memories of the storms they have endured, the cold, the rain, and the blistering sun. Recognizing this and understanding this sacrifice of the tree for our lives helps to build connection between us and the natural world, a tremendous side benefit of the old fashioned "barn raising," not to mention that it reminds us of the importance of community in order for us to not only survive, but thrive.

Barns, and other structures built from the earth with consciousness and awareness, remind us that humans and trees as well are not dissimilar in that we, too, are hewn of the elements of nature — fire in our hearts, iron in our bellies, water in our veins, and the breath of life. Alongside us on this middle world road walk these beings we call plants. And they make this walk with a dance-like grace we can all learn from and receive healing from. Walking with plants begins with this recognition and gratitude, in some cases for things like buildings, which we often forget originated from the earth and plants. From this place of experience and connection, we might just save ourselves from our selves.

From Plants to Planks

This kind of engagement with plants requires some acknowledgment of how community weaves through our lives. Plants, particularly trees, have much to teach about healthy community. Once we find our way to a community of people amidst nature, we realize we also have community among the other than people: in one of many forms, the plants. It’s a given. It’s a necessity. And trees are big glorious plants.

In Tennessee, straight line winds came though our intentional community in the early years of the new millennium. I came out of my little house to find big oaks like matchsticks strewn about the forest. Rather than fret, we milled those trees with the intention of replacing siding on our Civil War era barn and building other structures. We needed to repair that barn. And we needed new housing. We couldn’t use this bounty right away. The planks we cut had to be stacked horizontally out of the weather to “season.” Plants can teach patience, and the importance of careful planning.

Dead or alive, trees provide protection from wind, sun, and cold. In high semi-arid New Mexico over twenty years ago, I remember walking up into the nearby ponderosa forest on a windy, cold, and sunny day. Our exposed homes, situated away from any trees, were uncomfortably cold inside, the wind cutting its way through our unfinished Main House. But as I walked north into the forest late in the afternoon, with hundred-plus foot ponderosas towering over, the wind cut down to a soft breeze warmed by the trees, which had collected heat from the sun with their thermal mass. It was a like a balmy summer day within the arms of these giants.

To live in community you have to be open to learning, letting go of the notion of knowing everything. Compromise becomes an art. If we come to community with the modern idea that we only live for ourselves and we have to get what we want all the time, or that we deserve everything we want, then community will be a problem. If you practice the art of compromise you put community first and realize that the health of the community as a whole and your own personal health are one and the same. While compromise is a mostly human trait, it derives from the observance of how nature moves. It asks for acceptance. The winds came. The trees fell. Do we lose ourselves in the damage? Or move with it?

Walking into the forest that day I experienced something I did not know. When the suggestion was made to mill those oak trees, that was something I might not have even considered without the wisdom of others with more experience, people who had seen this straight line wind phenomena before. From my perspective, the forest had a bad day and now our houses were less protected. How we regard the actions of nature over which we have no control may help determine the depth of our relationship with nature.

This is the one thing that Nature teaches us; plants in particular teach us this. Trees like to grow next to each other because they help each other. People like to grow with each other, too. We’ve just forgotten, both that deep desire to be near each other, and how to do it. People and trees (and other types of plants) have intimate connections with each other yet to even be discovered.

Our capitalist system despises communal living. Living closer with others and the land discourages things like wastefulness, excessive spending, and out-of-control growth. The Gross National Product thrives by keeping people separate and making the sharing of things seem counter to the pursuit and attainment of “happiness,” which we think we can find through “self reliance” and the hoarding of things.

When we listen to the voice of Nature we can see that healthy community, both among each other and the myriad of beings around us, brings “happiness” and health to ourselves. Through the act of walking with plants, we include Nature in that circle of community.


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