TREES HAVE SOULS
I Samuel 16:1-7
Mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Anton gave me a beautiful coffee-table book for Christmas entitled The Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima. Nakashima was the foremost woodworker and cabinet-maker in North America in the twentieth century. A Japanese American by birth, he studied architecture in Japan and Paris, and then followed his passion in designing and building beautiful furniture. In The Soul of a Tree, he tells his life's story. He also describes his way of making furniture -- from the selection of the wood through to the finishing touches. There is so much in the book that I found inspiring as well as challenging as a woodworker, but I also found spiritual insight and wisdom in its pages. Nakashima had a deep love and respect for trees. He often walked in the forests near where he lived on the West Coast of the United States, and had an intimate knowledge of trees from all parts of the world. He saw beyond their outward appearance to their inner beauty, and this enabled him to select the wood he needed in order to make beautiful furniture. His furniture was not ostentatious as though he was in competition with the wood, trying to make it more beautiful. His aim was to allow the inner beauty of the tree reveal itself in what he made. For me, the most memorable comment he made was that a tree can have two lives. First as a tree growing to maturity and then, at the right time and not before, when it is harvested and transformed into something beautiful at the hands of a craftsman. Nakashima describes his experience:
There is a drama in the opening of a log -- to uncover for the first time the beauty ,,, of a tree hidden for centuries, waiting to be given this second life. (95)
The genius of a master craftsman like Nakashima is that he can give new birth to a tree. Through his skills, the beauty locked in a tree is brought to life again as a table, or chair, or cabinet to bring joy to many.
I am in a very junior league to the likes of Nakashima, but I am also excited when, on working with wood, I discover a beautiful grain that I had not expected to find beneath the bark. This does not happen when I buy wood already planed and cut at Penny Pinchers. It might be fine pine or meranti and some has good character for making something functional -- an artist's easel, a work table or what have you. But when I obtain some mahogany or red oak, some camphor or olive, some walnut or kiaat that is still rough, and maybe still enclosed in bark, and begin to work with it on the lathe, or open it up with the saw and plane, I can't wait to discover the secrets beneath the surface which, in many ways, will determine what I make. It is this inner beauty, this secret beneath appearances, that is the soul of a tree, a soul that has developed over years, even centuries, the source of its nurture and growth. Without this inner life, the heart wood enclosed by sap wood, the tree would die. The inner life might be very simple and plain in colour as in the maple tree or ash, or it might be complex and exotic as in wild olive, but it is beautiful whichever way you look at it. The external beauty of the tree, majestic as it might be, is dependent on its hidden beauty which, when revealed may be as wondrous to the eye.
When Samuel was sent by God to find a king to replace Saul he was commanded to go to Jesse in Bethlehem. Jesse had several sons to choose from, and Samuel thought they were all pretty good candidates for the post, especially Eliab the eldest. But God rejected them all, except David. It is not how they appear, God told Samuel, that is important, "for the Lord does not see as mortals see'; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." That is, what lies hidden beneath the surface, for it is what lies at the heart of the person that will determine how that person lives.
The heart is a metaphor for that which lies hidden deep within us, the real me, the soul, who I am, and therefore the person God sees behind the rough bark that encloses us. What God sees may have already become beautiful, but whether that is so or not, God always sees the potential for beauty even in plain pine or the drift wood that the waves of life cast on the shore. Like a master craftsman God can visualise the beauty we can become in his hands like an old tree reborn. -- just as Bill Davis could see in the fallen branch of the camphor tree here on Volmoed the beauty of the risen Christ who stands before us in the sanctuary. It is this inner beauty, whether in a tree or a person, that makes an outer beauty possible. Only good trees bring forth good fruit, as Jesus taught.
We don't actually know much about Jesus' outward appearance. Every great painting of Jesus like Bill's sculpture is different from the next. But each is an attempt to bring to the surface the beauty that lies hidden in the mystery of his being the one through whom we see the face of God. And that is the clue to understanding the beauty of Jesus as well as our own. There was nothing false about him. He lived the truth because he was the truth. What you saw, you got; his deeds and words were one. It was who he was in himself, the secret of being who he was, that made possible what he said and did. That was what was beautiful about him! And that is what true beauty is always about; it arises out of a beauty within. So in the end there is a correspondence between the heart wood hidden behind the bark and the beauty that begins to emerge as God gets to work on our lives and brings it to birth. It may be hard work with some of us, for there is much to prune before any beauty appears. But it doesn't matter whether you are an alien tree, a grand old gnarled oak, a hardy acacia, or a guava tree, you have a God-given potential for beauty waiting to be brought to the surface and revealed to all.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 6 February 2014