In a fast paced world many of us find ourselves looking for the exit ramp into a slower pace of living. Perhaps it’s slow cooking, meditation or just switching the phone off on a Sunday. I found a slower pace of life in furniture making. Early last year I embarked on a 10-week journey to create a desk. Ten weeks came, 10 weeks went and what was once a three-meter long plank had become a collection of smaller pieces. Perhaps the longest one if propped up on a few milk crates could function as a desk but certainly it was a long way from the refined Danish form I had in mind. Another few months passed, progress was slow and an impatient mood hung over me, “why was this taking so long?” In my backyard I could have whacked this together in a weekend. But this was a new practice and a new philosophy. A philosophy of measure twice, cut once and with millimeter precision. A far cry from backyard wonky cuts and butt joints I dabbled in. Half a year later my unrealistic expectations gave way to an appreciation of the slow rhythms of the workshop, allowing knowledge and technique to seep in. Somewhere between chiseling out dovetail joints and calculating splay angles, strange ideas and associations became emergent between furniture making and the human body.
In osteopathy we talk a lot about structure and function or design and performance. These ideas can be difficult to convey without analogy or metaphor, and over the years I have surprised myself with the things that have come out of my mouth in the attempts to explain issues in the body and how they may have arisen. Conversely when things are going right, I have found that a tree provides a good comparison tool. In a well-integrated body we want our legs like roots, well connected and sensitive to the ground beneath us, our spines like trunks, tall, strong and uplifted, defying gravity and our arms like branches, soft and gently falling away from the body. Ideally we are looking for strength but not rigidity and flexibility but not floppiness, in short, dynamic stability.
This dynamic stability is a property of organic materials particularly those that are living. This property allows adaptation in the face of changing conditions. For trees this may be the ability to absorb forces such as strong winds or the young at heart to climb them. These properties persist into the afterlife and stretch, compression, twist and flex can still be observed in a piece of wood. Human tissues being an organic material have these qualities too. Cartilage without compression, tendons without stretch and intervertebral discs without twist would have us feeling rather rigid. This malleability is healthy in the body, but in the workshop too much of this can be problematic leading to joints expanding and cracking or table tops warping over time, visualize Darryl Kerrigan’s pool table in The Castle. To account for this after milling the timber is seasoned or cured, reducing moisture content to levels where the movement of the timber is minimal and reduces the chances of deformity in the furniture. That being said there are still seasonal variations. If you observe your deck or kitchen table closely you will perhaps hear it creak and groan as it changes form between seasons, not unlike a few knees I take care of in the treatment room.
Soil nutrients, the prevailing weather, other nearby competing trees, disease and pests all leaving their mark and on the tree and all contribute to its unique character. In short a tree is shaped by it’s environment, people are the same. The place we live and it’s prevailing culture, the activities we participate in, people with whom we share time and the food we eat all shape the unique character we become. In furniture making it’s often the gnarly or highly figured pieces of wood that are the most revered. These gnarly specimens are the survivors who made it through inclement weather and multiple setbacks from disease or pests. Sadly we often forget to observe the same beauty in gnarly or ‘highly figured’ people, those who have formed out of this same adversity. In the workshop this gnarliness gives rise to technical challenges, but the journey of problem solving and perseverance is just as much a part of the process as the end result. Often the end product, with it’s strange character and imperfections is far more interesting. This celebration of character and imperfections is revered in Japanese aesthetic philosophy and called wabi-sabi.
Fast-forward a year, and the day finally came to fold down the back seats of my Subaru wagon and place down a desk sized woolen rug over scratchy balding carpet. My desk was coming home. It is crafted from three different timbers; Ancient Red Gum hard and brittle a little like dry bone; Huon Pine; soft and buttery like fascia or connective tissue, incredibly easy to shape and American Walnut, like well formed muscle peppered with knots and gristly bits, though nothing a good hand plane doesn't take care of. My woodwork teacher said that well made furniture should last a long time, at least three generations. Whether or not that comes to pass I’d like to think it will outlast its Ikea equivalent.
Like assembling an Ikea bookshelf making changes to the tissues in the body is relatively fast and patients are often elated with how aches and pains vanish or become only a faint whisper after a few sessions. Sometimes this is enough, but often this approach though dazzling at first, falls apart rather quickly. These aches and pains likely the culmination of life itself full of old injuries, altered movement patterns, and sometimes if we’re to be honest a lack of movement at all. Over time this causes minor but repetitive strains to the tissues. The only long-term way out of these recurrent issues is to change the pattern of movement so it is more appropriate to the anatomy or design of the body. To do this we need to learn new patterns or update our operating system that is running the hardware. We do this all the time for our computers and phones but forget to do so for our body. Whether it’s rehabilitating an ankle, working with a grumbly back or refining a tennis serve, connective tissues must reorganize, muscles and ligaments must strengthen, holding patterns must be observed and with attention to detail, new movement patterns practiced. The journey of refining the body is slow, but good things take time and it’s often only in looking back that we realize how far we’ve come. Along the way there are always small but satisfying victories, little milestones worthy of celebration.
Upon starting furniture making I would not have thought there to be so many similarities between trees and people, a plank of lumbar and a lower back. The body is connected, the world is connected, there are reflections everywhere, the learning continues...
Written by Dr. Nicholas Arora (Osteopath)