Last night I made a cosy sleepover den for Felix and his little friend by the fire. We were drowsing there, quieted by the flames, when we heard a squealing sound coming from the logs. If I hadn’t just laid out the wood, I would have feared that there was a mouse trapped in the fireplace.
Then I remembered something I heard long ago about the moisture inside the wood squeaking as it turns to steam and escapes through pores in the material: fresh wood squeals when you burn it.
It sounded so much like a cry of distress that I found myself wondering if it could possibly be that. Is that ridiculous?
Recently, I went to a lecture on phenomenology in which the speaker urged us to ‘participate in a thought experiment’ in which we were to try to speak about non-humans (that means everything around us) from now on as though they experienced things subjectively in their own ways.
I find it hard to do this for things like laptops and trainers, but I am convinced that trees have experiences. Radical plurality, he called it: a world full of experiencing beings, all different, all in relationship.
So: if a living tree is cut down, at what point does it die? Of course it is doomed from the moment the blade cuts across its girth – but is the trunk actually dead as it falls to the ground? When does the life leave? I remember finding a row of freshly-felled oaks along the route of the then-planned Newbury Bypass in January 1996. This is what I wrote:
“I feel as though I am in the presence of a person who has just been killed. Not actually even dead yet. It happens more slowly than that. Like the life is still there, still around the tree, haemorrhaging, almost pulsing, then ebbing or fading like a mist, like an exhaled breath. Gradually. I sit silently holding the tree in the warm sunshine for a long time. It is a blissfully beautiful morning, prematurely spring-like. Very quiet. The whole place is in shock, it seems to me.”
As I looked at the burning wood on the fire last night, I tried to imagine the log as a branch or a part of a trunk. What tree was it from? What state was it in when it was felled? Was it old and tired, diseased, ready to go? Or did it resist? Did it have another century of rings still to grow? Was it strong, pulsing with life, thrusting outwards?
I guess that wood dies slowly. I guess it dies as it dries, the moisture and the life leaving it as an expired sigh.
Green wood smokes, bitterly complaining when you try to burn it. Resisting. Hissing and squealing. Forcing tears from your eyes. Not ready to go. Yet once seasoned, when enough time has passed since the drama, the trauma of its felling, it is ready to burn, offering itself readily to the flames, ready to become dust again.