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Siding for the Jewel Box

I’ve been sorely remiss in posting about the beautiful little Jewel Box project; it’s hard to believe we have the garage nearly built and rolled the trusses on the main house this past week! It’s moving right along. In fact, the homeowner has been deliberating on what siding to choose and has posted to his personal blog a lovely write up about what moves him in his selection process. With his permission, I’m reposting his entry here:

Wood is not Wood

I’ve been troubling over the a decision about siding for the new buildings at the Refuge. I agree with Artisans Group’s fabulous designer, Tessa Smith, who feels strongly that a wood bevel siding would place the buildings in the landscape in an important way, honoring the nature of the site. Wood sided buildings would require more effort to maintain over the years, but a modern alternative such as hardiplank might pry the buildings experientially out of alignment with the flow of the land. I get that.
Still, I have been swinging back and forth for six months now, looking for excuses to use one approach, then the other. A conversation yesterday with another long-time woodworker, J. T. Scott, provided me with an important clue to my disquiet. The light went on when I realized wood is not wood.
The conversation comes down to this: I’ve been working with wood for a long time. I’m old enough to have been blessed to begin in a world where old growth cedar was still available at reasonable prices. I’ve been fortunate to work it by hand and machine, to inhale the rich smell, to bear witness to the integrity and consistency of cedar that came from ancient trees.
I remember walking through a mill yard up in Forks in the seventies where there were stacks of 12 x 12 beams 24 feet long that were vertical grain, pure, razor straight, all heart, never-even-heard-of-a-knot, old growth. I remember it like it was yesterday. That rich wood came from trees that were ten feet through, lowest branches higher than a hundred feet—trees that had come up through the shade of elders countless generations deep. The wood was like nourishment to me; I can still feel the sensation of wanting to bite into it, as if to make that wealth part of my body. Truly sacred trees had been opened up like books, the heart of spirit exposed on every page—and available for two dollars a board foot. Walking by a wall of that is a spiritual experience for me. I can feel the majesty of the forest. I can see the eons shining through. That’s a gift. I know first hand the power of lumber from those old trees.
So you see some of my backstory in this decision. When I imagine the vision of a wood sided jewel box at the sanctuary, I go back to that mill yard. I can see just a couple of those beams sliced up and laid out on my walls, ready to go a century with their long-grown resilience, that majesty of integrity.
My wake-up call comes when I realize this is 2010. I’ve been dreaming. The cedar siding I would love to have just isn’t available anymore, at any price. Given the circumstances, I’m grateful for that scarcity. There’s just not much old forest left. We’ve drawn a line to save the last of those trees, and I prefer that to having one more house covered with it—even though I could touch it and praise every day.

What IS available in wood is an immature parody of that dream—mixed grain boards from first growth sprouts. I just can’t bring myself to wrap the house and studio in boards that are a mere shadow of the lumber in my imagination. It’s just not the same thing. The real stuff is held in the old trees, in the old forests—trees that grew in the shade of massive elders, many generations deep. The lumber split out of those trees displayed that legacy. We err when we imagine the young trees can match that, no matter how big they get. It’s romance that keeps that game going. The wood I can find now might look reasonable from a distance, but I’ll be living close. It wouldn’t hold up, wouldn’t last. If I could find a truckload of that lumber from forty years ago, I’d go wood. Now, this is where we are. Let’s see what we can do with these durable, clever alternatives.