About a year ago, my friend Nolan invited me to Yosemite to do some camping and rock climbing. Reticent about rehashing a forgotten part of my youth–and newly wary of the risks involved, I decided to join him for what he told me was a short, easy climb. The climb itself did turn out to be easy–more like a very steep hike that needed ropes–but was quite long. Midway through the climb, I became a bit tired and had to regroup my mental focus. Perched a few hundred feet above Tenaya Lake, I took a few deep breaths and looked at my dirty hands. My frame shifted lower to the be-speckled granite knobs my feet were resting on. I noticed that these two lumps of erosion-resistant material had these tiny black dots all over. Even better, each of these black dots housed their own smaller flecks and refractive glitters. Zooming out, it amazed me that this whole slab had been done up in this same tremendous detail–a whole surface of surfaces, each dot with its own glitters. It is an infinite megapixel image. When we got back to the campsite, I noticed the same thing, but with the details in the leaves and needles in the trees–not a single leaf was missing its verdant green, all the bark had been marked brown and crunchy–not one blank pixel or corner cut. Nobody built this tree and said, “Hey nobody will ever see this, let’s skip the sap oozing out here, and you know there’s really no need to paint the dots on the underside of these leaves since they’re way up here. Just get the big stuff done and move onto the rocks in that creek and be done with it.”
I live in the city, so the wilderness guards its details more carefully. Ironically, I have begun to find wilderness details in the woodshop. Wood is ubiquitous in our daily lives–and it is there in its full wild detail if we choose to observe it.
I came across some mahogany (a.k.a. ordered a box of hardwood scraps online) and I decided to make a pen out of it. The chunk of wood that I began with was about eight inches long, and maybe two inches across in each direction. It was splintery pinkish red and heavy for its size. At this point, the wilderness details are hidden–one could mistake this for almost any chunk of wood. In fact, the grain structure looked a bit wide, so I was worried that it would not sand smooth enough.
I ripped this piece down into smaller strips, then cut it into two pieces to form the top and bottom of the pen. These pieces are drilled out, and a sleeve inserted.
Next, I mounted it on the lathe. The pieces spin in the lathe and in a fireworks splash of sawdust and wood fibers, the bowl-gouge chisel removes more and more material until you see all the detail in the tree’s growth columns. Once the diameter is within the specification, sanding begins. As I sanded, the grain tightened to a resolution that my eye could not resolve. Every grain was perfectly organized to fit next to its neighbor. The completeness of this tiny piece reveals the wildness of what was once a great tree. Thank you, tree. Soon, the surface becomes smooth enough to begin reflecting light. Each grain contributes its reflection, some black, brown, pink, red, mottled, perfect.
This pen was a challenge to turn. It involved cutting the two halves into different diameters, and cutting a tenon into one of the halves so the pen hardware can be installed. It turns out that I cut one of the halves too short, so that when I assembled the pen, the end of the writing cartridge still stuck out of the end by about a millimeter–leaving ink smears on everything. It was finished, but imperfect because I was a little too hasty in removing material. Undeterred, when I got home I took apart every pen we had in the hopes of finding a washer or a spacer or something that could make the pen functional. Turns out, I just so happened to find a pen with the same internal writing cartridge–but this one was about a millimeter shorter. It fit inside, and the pen now works as designed.
Looking through the grains of the wood pieces that make this pen, we see there is no foreign impediment to its being, it is not missing anything, it is wild and uncontrolled. A pocket reminder of where we all come from.
Imagine that: the world just as it is, perfect as can be.