Monday, November 22, 2010

Big Tree, an Allegory

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away from here but still visible on Google Maps there was an average man living in an average house built in an average street, just like yours. He was a man who loved to make furniture in his garage. Every evening, he’d take a cup of tea out to the garage and sit in the cool concrete enclosure with his collection of ancient tools and an assortment of wood.

The man was not always a skilled craftsman. He’d begun his hobby very young, his none-too-bright parents giving him a saw and a hammer for his fifth birthday. After the cuts healed a little, he began to realize that the tools with which he’d hacked and beaten had a purpose. One day, almost by accident, he made a spice rack. His parents hugged each other and congratulated themselves on producing such a fine boy. The boy learned from books he’d taken from the local Library how to make dovetail joints, smooth wood with the grain, and conceal the tiny brass screws with craftsmanlike precision. As he grew in his knowledge, so his physical strength grew, too, until he was able to heft heavy hardwood planks about the room, and make exquisite tables, boxes, chests, cupboards, beds and chairs in the sawdust-scented haven he’d created for himself.

Of course, his parents bragged of their son’s achievements to their neighbours, and those neighbours bragged to their neighbours, until the whole town knew of the boy’s skill with wood. His reputation didn’t stop there. As he reached manhood, he was disappearing into his room each evening and coming out with the most fabulous furniture that had ever been seen across the entire land.

Despite those in power often being the last to hear about what is happening with the common folk, the King eventually heard about the young man, who could make furniture the like of which had never been seen in the history of his land. The King resolved to give the man a Royal Commission to create the biggest table the world had ever seen, so that the King could sit at its head and command the biggest dinner party ever held. He sent his Royal Bugler to blow a summoning sort of tune, and the man came. He did not speak when he heard the King’s Commission, but, rather, bowed deeply and left the room, still bowing, backwards.

The man was astounded. Such a task had never been attempted. He packed a small bag with some chocolate and coffee, and headed for the forest. In order to make a table of such noble vastness, he would need to cut down the biggest tree he could find, and turn it into planks of wood.

For several months he sought such a tree, with no small amount of hunger. It was as he was trying to catch a squirrel so that he could follow him home to his nuts that he remembered the Library. With a stroke of luck, he found his card intact, and went and took out the biggest book he could find. It was called The Mammoth Book of Freakishly Huge Trees. He looked in the index, under “B” for “Biggest”, and soon found his quarry. The biggest tree. Ever.

And so it was that the man awoke the next morning, and, with the biggest saw ever, cut down the biggest tree ever, to cut into the biggest planks ever, to make the biggest table ever seen.

It didn’t take long. The ancient giant did make a sound as it toppled through the forest, but the sound was the deep exhale of an old man, as he falls into permanent sleep. Relief. It took even less time to strip the tree of gnarled branches, each as big as the second biggest tree ever seen, and an entire ecosystem escaped quietly into the forest from the fallen canopy.

Still less time did it take to slice the giant into vast wooden planks, smooth off the coarse splinters and fashion the wood into the biggest, most beautiful, table the world had ever seen.

The King was overjoyed. He summoned his favourite courtiers from across the land, and held a banquet the likes had never been seen before, and were never seen again. During the banquet, the King lifted his massive golden ceremonial goblet to propose a toast to the master craftsman who had created this magnificent piece of furniture, but the man was nowhere to be found.

In his average house, in his average street, the man was troubled. He struggled to sleep, and lay awake, instead, thinking of the biggest tree being turned into the biggest table. As he lay tossing and turning, he had an idea. What if, from this day on, he made tiny furniture? He could save the land from becoming a barren place, and still do what he loved to do.

The next evening, the man slipped into his garage. He rummaged through offcuts of wood until he found what he was looking for. He took the small pieces of wood, all that was left of a now-extinct species of mountain willow, and made a footstool. It was perfect in form and function. But it wasn’t good enough. The man worked all through the night, making miniature jewellery boxes, lampstands and writing desks, until finally, all his wood was gone.

The next evening, he lay in bed again, tossing and turning. Once again, he had an idea. He’d make perfect tiny furniture out of trees he’d grown himself, so that everything he did was sustainable and he’d be exercising total responsibility. And so the next morning, he created a forest. He took seedlings and grafts, pots and bowls, strung the roots with wire and began to landscape the entire garage with his bonsai garden. The trees began to grow.

After a few years of patient pruning and shaping, the first trees were ready. The man took a tiny axe, and felled them with swift blows. Not wanting to waste time, he stripped them of their miniscule branches and microscopic leaves, and worked through the night once more. He made staircases and wardrobes, bookshelves and hatstands, until; once again, all the wood was finished. He stood, towering over the furniture, more beautiful than any doll’s house had ever seen, and wept. He was not satisfied. He took the remaining seeds from the bonsai forest, and planted another, even tinier forest. He made bonsai trees from bonsai seeds, and grew trees that were almost invisible to the naked eye. He spent years almost blinding himself trying to tend to his garden, and finally, when he was old and bent, and much smaller than he’d been in his youth, the smallest trees ever grown were ready.

He gathered the pots and bowls in his aching arms, and took them to the palace. The old King had long since died, choking on a peach pit one evening at one of the many feasts he held at his favourite table. The man placed the pots and bowls on the table and walked away. As he did so, he walked backwards. It was a vast room, and so, as he reversed, his fading eyesight first lost track of the pots and bowls containing the smallest forest ever seen, then, as he continued to limp painfully out of the room, the giant table he’d once made with his gnarled hands also grew smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until finally, it disappeared.


  1. I read the whole thing, getting incredibly sad with each paragraph. Hmphh. I don't know what it means but it's depressing.

  2. Hey, it's just some thoughts getting ironed out. Sorry it depressed you- wanna hear a knock knock joke instead? :-)

  3. I think I get it! the tree of life, kinda like how people are always focusing on bigger is better (the biggest table) faster cars bigger houses etc and in the end when we grow old its all meaningless anyway.


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