Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? (What shall we do without timber?)

Time to get dressed again

Chris McDonnell
Catholic Times Friday May 4th 2018

In the Northern hemisphere the bare limbs of trees are getting their green dresses together, leaf by leaf, in preparation for Summer. The dark rough bark of Winter is slowly covered with vibrant shades of green, each with a purpose.

With the end of April, a time of showers, the month of May has arrived. The lyrics of Paul Simon touch the season-

April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May she will stay
Resting in my arms again.

Just as the tree canopy opens in woodland and forest, so the ground life stirs for another few months under Summer sun.

We do not appreciate trees until they are lost, to be replaced by brick and concrete and the harshness of urban development. Yet still across the planet we strip away the trees, exposing the land to erosion at a huge cost. One of the most damaging and indiscriminate acts of the war in Vietnam was the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant that destroyed the cover for Viet Cong troop movement. Not only did it damage the forest canopy, but it had long term effects on the health of the people.

When Samuel Beckett wrote ‘Waiting for Godot’, he had two of the characters, Vladimir and Estragon wait at cross-roads by a tree. Their tree, designed by the artist Alberto Giacometti, was a sparse structure with barren boughs. The symbolism of the tree can be taken in a religious sense. Often the Cross is referred to as the tree of life, the crucified Christ gives his life for the world on the very form that biologically sustains our lifecycle. At its foot Vlad and Gogo appear to wait and wait and wait … or are they another representation of the Two Thieves? Beckett does not answer our questions.

The wooden stick is the companion of a person in their later years, offering steadiness when walking and a leaning post when standing still. A pine tree became the centre piece when the South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took part in a planting ceremony in the Demilitarized Zone during their meeting in late April. Together they paused a moment as soil from both sides of the DMZ was heaped around its roots, a hopeful image of a wish to grow peace between North and South. Now after the long years of a tentative truce, is it too much to hope and pray for a lasting peace? 

Wood is a precious commodity, it has a quality that plastics can never approach. The experience of handling wooden prayer beads is different, for the material of each bead that slips silently through our fingers grew from the earth we share. Shaped and pierced, it is worn smoothed and polished by touch, its changing nature the very essence of prayer. I wrote these lines a few years ago.

              Strung Stones

Words are shaped smooth round
beads,  handled each day, gentle
strung stones, passed between
finger and thumb till darkened wood,
worn by touch, cross grained, is reached
and the return journey begins.

There is a simplicity in wood in contrast to the gaudiness of so many other materials. The smell of wood being worked, the dust and shavings littering the workshop floor is indeed a precious memory. We are told it was the trade of Joseph whose feast we have just celebrated on May 1st, Joseph the Worker.  He would have been familiar with the tools of his craft, understanding of the nature of the material of his trade. The squinted eye, glancing down a length of wood to check the run of the grain, is a skill of every wood-worker who knows his material of choice.

I have often thought that if my years had not taken me in to teaching, then working with wood was an alternative worth considering. Each of us is a form waiting to be discovered, an outer shell that hides an inner gem. Just as the craftsman takes rough wood and finds shape and form hiding in the grain skilfully using tools, so too the teacher, through careful use of words and questions enables children to find their true selves. All of us in our Christian communities are essentially seeking the same thing, finding who we are now and discovering who we might be in the years to come.

As trees dress themselves for the months of Summer, so should we take the opportunity of doing the same, for just as this brief season leads to Autumn so too our own passage is seasonal. When the trees come into leaf, appreciate their shade and vitality, for leaves that once were green will later turn to brown.

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