Originally published on Medium.
Worldwide, deforestation has the potential to cause unforeseen changes especially in light of climate change. This has lead me to question where all of the trees we continually cut down go and how they show up in our lives. In the modern West, we are constantly surrounded by trees and wood products in our daily lives, yet we rarely consider them as such. Many wood or wood-based products are concealed by a veneer of plastic or within the folds of fabric. My own mediations on my home as a middle-class American living in a wood-framed condo illustrate the shift in consciousness that I propose around the forests of our homes. By seeing the wooden aspects of our homes, including framing, furniture, and domestic items, as a forest, we are invited to consider where each part of our home comes from and how it supports us. Similar to the farm to table movement in the United States, what if we had a forest to furniture movement that would help to trace living trees to their final destinations as community members of the household? Bringing the trees that exist within our homescapes to the forefront also brings forward a greater shift in consciousness around the environmental crisis as a whole.
Trees continue to remain as important to our domestic lives in the United States as they have throughout our history, although they are no longer as obvious. Most homes continue to be constructed with timber and plywood sandwiched between exterior covering and interior drywall. Americans are voracious consumers of wood and wood products. Each year, Americans consume on average 250 board feet of timber, 200 square feet of plywood and structural panels, and 700 pounds of paper products. We also rely heavily on forests for jobs and recreation, with 2.5 million American jobs directly dependent on forests and 7 billion days of activity spent in our nation’s forest.1 Many of the products we rely on are derived from or depend on wood components, although we are no longer aware of the production process or the names of the ingredients that mean trees.
American homes, in particular, continue to be made of wood due to our history of European wood builders. Early British settlers constructed homes using timber framing where eight by eight inch beams provided the structure of the home in a wooden grid filled with less expensive products which were popular in England. The North American continent provided so much abundant wood that, “the typical New England home contained so much timber throughout that, but for its size, it might easily have been mistaken for the dwelling of nobility had it existed in the mother country.”2 Even homes built from other materials such as stone and brick depended heavily on wood for finishes such as paneling, doors, windows, shutters, stairs, and furniture.3 As of the 1830s, when local timber began to become scarce and more expensive, builders found braced pine two-by-fours held together with iron nails provided a sound framing for a home, leading to what is referred to as balloon framing, from the quickly disproven joke that the house would blow away like a balloon in a strong wind. Balloon framing is still the most popular building method today.4 In contemporary homes in the United States, Douglas Fir, Hem Fir, and Southern Yellow Pine are acceptable materials for load bearing walls. Spruce-pine-fir (SPF) is generally used for interior walls. These species typically come from managed forests, in contrast to earlier in the century when local, old-growth species were preferable.5 Event with so much wood surrounding us, we rarely consider the trees that make up our homes.
Thinking in Forests
While many writers have spoken of their enchantment with the forest, particularly since the Romantic writers of the early 19th century, few have considered the interior forests we live with daily. Philosopher David Abram is one exception. He claims, “every solid thing, whether a toothpick or a trumpet, a porcelain plate or a helicopter, is fashioned from materials once birthed by the earth.”6 This is a key point. Even the most produced and manufactured product has materials with origins from the earth. The word material has the same root as matter, meaning origin or source. Both words directly refer to wood or timber as part of their etymology.7 Looking at the materials of our lives can generate insights about our place in the world, particularly the wooden frames of our lives in the buildings, furniture, and wooden items.
In his work Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Abram’s chapter titled “House” or “Materiality 1” is a meditation on a house he lived in with his family for about a year and a half. His daughter was born within the walls of the house, and about four months later, his wife and daughter left for an extended holiday with family out of town. Upon returning to the house alone, Abram felt “interrupted” by the house and called the house “distressed, disturbed.”8 Once he announced aloud that his daughter would return, he felt the oppressiveness lighten. Sometime later, the family learned they would need to move out of the home. Just days before moving, Abram sensed someone in the house in the dark of night. However, there was no human person in the house. As he moved throughout the home searching, the exposed beams stood out, and, “each wooden post was suffused with its own singular character…[and] the beams of the house had been quietly conversing with my creaturely body.”9 Abram said of the rough-hewn, exposed beams, “it was as though we’d been living for a year and a half in a dense grove of old trees, a cluster of firs, each with its own rhythm and character.”10 By acknowledging the presence of the house, Abram was able to move into a deeper relationship with the materials used in its making. What if we experienced the wooden aspects of our surroundings as a forest, even if not rough-hewn and exposed?
As I sit in my own living space, I’m curious about the wood products around me. I am a middle-class American person living in a small condo in the San Francisco Bay area. My home was built in 1979 of wood frame and stucco, and all of the trim such as the baseboards, doorframes, and cabinetry is made of wood or an engineered wood product. Only the fireplace is made of tile, but its frame is also likely wood. The blinds are made of paper, yet another wood product. My tastes in furniture, as well as what I could afford, has led to a room full of wood products with some hardwood and some particleboard pieces. The flooring is made of laminate made to look like wood planks, although this is also primarily a wood product. Ironically, one of the few things not originating from a wood product is the metal wall hanging in the shape of a willow tree above the fireplace.
While I am not able to see them, the walls are framed with two-by-fours likely made from SPF (spruce-pine-fir). These boards date to the late 1970s, and I have no way to know if they came from a sustainable or managed forest, or even a forest in the United States. I can imagine looking through the drywall, another product reliant on heavy paper, to see the stately posts which hold up the room. They are positioned about every 16 inches throughout my home, forming the outer, evenly spaced edge of my interior forest. Between these concealed beams, all of the inner workings of my home exist on the pillars of these posts.
Within the walls, the monolith of my bookcase looms almost to the ceiling. These beings are curious as they are made of particleboard, a composite material made from wood shavings and sawdust, with a thin layer of wood-grain plastic on top. While I appreciate that these previously wasted materials are able to be used, my desire for cheap wood-like furniture provides an aesthetic that is particularly Western. Only in our Western culture of efficiency and consumerism would we mash a living tree into bits, glue it back together to make furniture, then cover it with a picture representing the beauty of what it could have been. Still, the bookcases in my home act at the largest vertical wooden beings, providing housing for many wonderful books, all made from trees. They make up the tallest, densest trees in the forest of my living room.
The furniture in this room is mixed hardwood and particleboard. The couch I am sitting on is framed with wood even though I am not able to see it to examine it further. The trees supporting me are fully covered in batting and fabric. The tables in the room are made of solid, hardwood and stained in a dark finish. I can see the curves and swirls of the original tree’s growth lines. The sticker on the bottom of the piece gives no indication of the type of wood or where it might have originated, and instead only gives the color, “almost black,” and place of manufacturing, “made in China.” When I get close to the unstained bottom of the furniture to inspect it, I can still smell the faint odor of the wood. Both of these pieces I did not purchase myself, but bought gently used from a friend. Without a furniture expert, it is impossible to know the type of wood or where it might have originated. Similarly, my kitchen table, which I purchased several years ago at a discount furniture store, only notes, “made in Vietnam” on the underside. With a little research, I am only able to find, “Crafted of solid wood and wood veneer with espresso finish.”11 These smaller furniture pieces reduce the crown in the center so the room feels open yet full, like a small clearing in a forest.
I also have other pieces also made of particleboard. Some of these pieces, including the bookcases, come from IKEA, a Swedish budget home store. As a large, international force in furniture production and sales, IKEA has received pressure to provide reports on the sustainability of its items. Because of this, the company produces a yearly sustainability report that is publicly available on their website. According to the 2014 Sustainability Report, 41% of the wood used comes from sustainable sources, defined as either FSC certified wood or recycled materials. This is up from 32% in 2013 and works toward their goal of 50% by 2017.12 While this is a step forward, this in no way tells me if the items I live with were harvested from sustainable sources or from the 59% of unsustainable sources. Even if I wait until 2017, there is only a 50/50 chance that a product purchased at this store will come from a sustainably managed forest. They provide some diversity in the forest of my living room, but my concerns about their sustainability outweigh the joy I have in cohabitating with them.
In addition to these major items within and around my home, the rooms of my condo are populated with many products from trees or that rely heavily on trees for their production. These include lamp bases, books, paper towels, and many others that I am likely not even aware of as mentioned above like leather and metal products. This virtual wood embedded in unknown products is similar to the concept of virtual water, or “the amount of water consumed, from start to finish, in the production of various industrial and agricultural goods.”13 Virtual water considers the water involved in every stage of production as well as the movement of water around the globe within the products. Similarly, wood can be thought of as virtual or embedded when it is used to fire processes involved in making materials or components like cellulose is used in various products. I wonder what the forest held within the walls of my house would look like if all of the virtual wood used in all of the products I own was included within its bounds.
1 Rutkow, American Canopy, 6.
2 Ibid., 272–273.
3. Ibid., 273.
4 Ibid., 273–274.
5 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Review of Structural Materials and Methods for Home Building in the United States: 1900 to 2000,” 2001, 16.
6 David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 28. 7 Etymology Online, “Material,” accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=material&allowed_in_frame=0
8 Abram, Becoming Animal, 31–32.
9 Ibid., 34.
10 Ibid., 35.
11 Cost Plus World Market, “Rogers Pub Table,” accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.worldmarket.com/product/rogers-pub-table.do?&from=fn.
12 IKEA Group, “Sustainability Report 2014,” 2014, 10.
13 Christina Z. Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, (Mayknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2014), 69.