The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees: The Ash in Human Culture and History (Paperback)
The story of how one man cut down a single tree to see how many things could be made from it.
Out of all the trees in the world, the ash is most closely bound up with who we are: the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history. One frigid winter morning, Robert Penn lovingly selected an ash tree and cut it down. He wanted to see how many beautiful, handmade objects could be made from it.
Thus begins an adventure of craftsmanship and discovery. Penn visits the shops of modern-day woodworkers—whose expertise has been handed down through generations—and finds that ancient woodworking techniques are far from dead. He introduces artisans who create a flawless axe handle, a rugged and true wagon wheel, a deadly bow and arrow, an Olympic-grade toboggan, and many other handmade objects using their knowledge of ash’s unique properties. Penn connects our daily lives back to the natural woodlands that once dominated our landscapes.
Throughout his travels—from his home in Wales, across Europe, and America—Penn makes a case for the continued and better use of the ash tree as a sustainable resource and reveals some of the dire threats to our ash trees. The emerald ash borer, a voracious and destructive beetle, has killed tens of millions of ash trees across North America since 2002. Unless we are prepared to act now and better value our trees, Penn argues, the ash tree and its many magnificent contributions to mankind will become a thing of the past. This exuberant tale of nature, human ingenuity, and the pleasure of making things by hand chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood.
About the Author
Robert Penn is the author of the best-selling celebration of craftsmanship, It’s All About the Bike. A writer and journalist, Penn wrote and presented Tales from the Wild Wood, a television series about British woodlands. He lives in a wooded valley in South Wales with his family.
A beautifully figured and multicolored ode to our love affair with the invaluable ash tree. I swooned. Penn’s paean to the many uses of the ash is so well-wrought that I am compelled to take up hurling.
— Nick Offerman
There is no greater debt than that which mankind owes to trees, and Robert Penn proves this brilliantly—a highly readable account of the multitude of uses one single ash tree can provide.
— Lars Mytting, author of Norwegian Wood
The appeal of Robert Penn’s enchanting narrative extends far beyond tree enthusiasts, woodworkers, and fanatic loggers like me. It is a book-lover’s feast. Penn’s wonderful prose and compelling research put The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees right up there in the league with such classics as John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe.
— Rinker Buck, New York Times best-selling author of The Oregon Trail
[Ranges] freely over intellectual territory—masculinity, nostalgia, identity. . . .
— Books of the Year 2015 - The Times (UK)
A well-crafted tribute to the ash. . . . Penn has made a lovely book: part elegant
history, part anxious lament.