From Artisanry to Creation Care
Review of 'The Man Who Made Things out of Trees' by Robert Penn.
BRITISH AUTHOR Robert Penn writes fascinating, unique explorations of common artifacts, which, coming from less adroit hands and minds, would be cliche. For example, It’s All about the Bike chronicles bicycle development up to Penn’s own latest two-wheeler. In his more recent The Man Who Makes Things from Trees Penn follows one select ash tree from felling through hand-crafted tools he makes or farms out to the few remaining artisans of exacting skills.
First Penn finds a suitable tree, an ash grown in the checkerboard remnants of United Kingdom woods. Though mourning the loss of sea-to-sea forests, he lauds the stewards who prune and manage copses of the vanishing ash. (Think J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents as ancestors of forests destroyed by North America’s emerald ash borers).
Then he meticulously mills, shapes and sands exact millings of his archetypal tree into tools or furnishings. In some cases, he details the process of experts’ production of wagon wheels, canoe paddles, axe handles, kitchen spoons, tent pegs, baseball bats and more. The second last required a trip to Louisville, Kentucky’s Hillerich & Bradsby factory.
But then we hit Penn’s trip wire: Unless the emerald ash borer is contained and unless ash trees survive in Europe’s dwindling preserves, the ash tree will disappear – yes, turning to ashes or compost. In a magical and uncontrived bait-and-switch, Penn dekes from pre-computer age technical descriptions of artisanry to passionate, quiet paeans of conservationism. That single iconic ash becomes a powerful synecdoche for all trees, plants and creatures, woven together in a tapestry of creation care.
Maybe Penn believes God created the universe; maybe not. Regardless, here he winsomely preaches, either intuitively or intentionally, Genesis 2’s command to “care for/serve” the garden in which God placed us, and urges us to quit fouling God’s beautiful earthly temple.