“Tree Rings: a Time-Line” by T. Hugh Crawford appears in ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction
This essay grew out of a series of seminars where we attempted to understand temporality through materiality, through an encounter with living trees and the practice of working with wood. Dava Sobel’s Longitude, a history of the development of John Harrison’s clocks was an important touchstone, as were texts by naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau (“Succession of Forests,” and Walden) and Bernd Heinrich (The Trees of My Forest), among many others. Books and essays on forestry helped us think about planning for futures that we as individual humans would not live. In one seminar, we framed Thoreau’s house using only the tools he could have used—axes, broad axes, hand saws, and chisels. We went to the woods and chopped down some “arrowy pines” then worked them into timbers. Our direct encounter with trees and wood-labor led to a different understanding of human time (the work extended beyond the end of the semester though our enthusiasm was unabated). This and other projects led each of us to a fuller understanding of the materiality of time, of how our senses of temporal rhythms are embedded in widely varying human and non-human practices, and often, in the lives of trees.
Hugh Crawford is an Associate Professor who teaches environmental literature at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Author of Modernism, Medicine, and William Carlos Williams and former editor of Configurations, he is currently writing a book on the Appalachian Trail and long distance hiking.