The Tulip Tree
When asked what his preferred wood to fire with is, without fail you can expect a response from Simon in the form of a smirk followed by two words, "Free wood." It's a slightly unsatisfying answer for the curious inquirer, but it relates a reality about woodfiring that is important to consider: wood ain't cheap. Of course the wood-firing enthusiast would love to hand pick their preferred species of tree to fire their kilns with, but with wood costing upwards of $200 a cord, and kilns burning through 4-5 cords per firing, this is a luxury that the majority of us don't get to take advantage of.
Being able to source wood for little to no money is an essential skill for the woodfire potter. Back in Gresham, Simon sourced about 99% of his wood from a nearby lumber mill that allowed him to scavenge through their discard pile. He formed a relationship with the operators and would periodically drive up with his pickup and trailer, pop his head in to say hello, and politely ask if he could take some scrap off their hands. It was a nice relationship and tie to the community. Simon gets wood to fire with, the mill gets a shrinking scrap pile, and a part in a local artist's process, and gifts of pottery to see what became of their wood. No trees need be felled unnecessarily; everybody wins.
Down here in Pawnee, IL, we have yet to find our local go-to wood source, but have been slowly building up our supply. We've learned some important tips such as that the county trims and fells trees, and leaves them by the roadside for anyone to come and haul away. We've met some folks who run a pallet-making factory and have been scoring trailer loads of scrap pine from them. Craigslist is also always a great resource. Our eyes and ears are always open, ready to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. And just the other week, an opportunity did just that.
While driving down New City Road last week, Simon noticed a big tree in someone's front yard had fallen over in a recent wind storm. A few days later we were driving by again and decided to stop in to investigate. We met John, the friendly brother of the property's owner, and his little, 12 year old pup, Sammy. We asked if.he had any plans for the wood, and he told us that we could take as much as we liked.
The next day we got to work. We brought our chainsaws, clippers, and axe, and started disassembling the fallen soldier. John would come out with Sammy to watch our progress.
After about 3 hours we had cut up all of the manageable branches into stoke-sized logs, hauled them back to Simon's, and unloaded and stacked them. "You two sure made quick work of that tree," he complimented. I'll tell you what, it feels pretty good to have your work ethic validated by a lifetime farmer.
Now there was only the trunk left, and the 3'+ diameter rounds were just a tad too big for the two of us to lift up into his truck. We were going to have to bring in the big guns...
We returned with this beautiful, shiny, new toy to aid us in the home stretch. Log splitters are loud, smelly, and can be extremely dangerous, but when it comes to processing numerous cords of wood for a firing, it is a tool to be truly grateful for. Despite the previously noted adjectives, I've actually come to quite enjoy using splitters. Splitting the wood is a chance to become familiar with the material. While splitting you get in touch with the structure of your wood; a sort of intuitive relationship develops where you can pick up a log, analyze the best place to aim the wedge, and execute. A rhythm develops and the whole activity becomes a meditation. You notice the smells and the moisture content. This particular tree was very pungent and full of liquid. Some of the logs were even squirting or producing rivers of juices as the wedge sliced into their surfaces. You hear the pitch of the powerful cracks and splits as the wood tears apart. (Side note: it is quite disturbing to read and think about this having the tree in mind as a living being. My apologies tree... Your corpse was beautiful and will live on in the pots that you fire for us. Thank you!) Anyways... The loud motor can be drowned out by some good music in my headphones, or maybe an interesting podcast or audiobook, and the smell of the little motor's exhaust is actually not one that I mind too much. I realize that all of these great things are true (probably more so) of splitting wood the old fashioned way. Swinging an axe and feeling the wood split right down the path that you were aiming at has its deep primal satisfaction, and that can't really be beaten. However, when working in these volumes with many other chores to do as well, the splitter sure does come in handy.
The wood from this Tulip Poplar was incredibly beautiful, almost psychedelic. In fact, it was by far the deepest, sexiest purple that I'd ever seen in a wood grain. I'm often floored by the wide range of color in ash surfaces that can be seen emerging from a woodfiring. How can all of that color come from the wood? Well, check that out. It has been in there all along!
Wood sourcing is an integral part of the woodfire process. Yes, it is a laborious part of the process, (honestly though, which part isn't), but it's really more than just the work. All in all, this tree has provided us with a great many things: A couple of new friends in our neighbors, John and Sammy. A human connection that is worth more than words can quantify. It has increased our wood supply by a total of about 2 cords to be used to fire our pots, and at home in the stove to keep us warm. We've earned the soul satisfaction of some hard, physical labor which does have a quantifiable result. And personally, I've received the inspiration from the beauty of this newly discovered tree. These dry flowers peppered the small branches of the tree and I thought they were quite wonderful. I collected a bouquet of them to keep close while I work in the studio. I have a feeling that they will make their way into my clay in one way or another.