The wood contains a feather pattern. Little whorls shimmy up against one another like two on a dance floor. The undulations are so pronounced that I expect to be able to feel the waves of energy as I run my hand across them. The surface of the board is all glide, perfectly soft and smooth as duckling down.
“Did you make this with the sander?” I ask my friend Todd who is bent over another piece of wood on his worktable, making quick marks on the cut board with a pencil. Todd is an artisan woodworker. He mines the wood from felled and fallen trees in the area and transforms them into beautiful serving and cutting boards, votive holders, and paddles for wine and beer flights to name just a few things Todd can do with his wood wizardry. His pieces are lush in their detail—the color of the wood, the eddies and streaks of grain brought to the surface to highlight the perpetual rhythm of the tree—that they double as art works, equally fit to hang over a mantle as they are to sit on someone’s kitchen counter.
Todd looks up from what he was doing to see the place on the board I’m asking him about. My hand continues to roam over the area, absentmindedly, the way you do when you stroke the back of a cat. It feels weirdly Zen because, you know, it’s just a piece of wood.
“That? No, that occurs naturally where the leads split.”
“Of the tree.” Todd answers without a hint of impatience. He’s become used to initiating the wood-illiterate like myself on details and facts that are like a second language to him.
“You mean the branches,” I say, trying to salvage something from my college Environmental Science class. He smiles shakes his head, explaining that the “leads” are any parts of the tree that diverge from the trunk. A tree can have two, three, or even more leads, making it look like a cluster of several trees, but really, he says, it’s one tree with many leads.
He glances his own hand over the curvy ribbons in the board that started this whole conversation.
“What you’re seeing here is what happens when the tree diverges. The grains interlock for strength and to help keep the tree stabilized. The leads grow their own way, but they stay connected, holding onto one another for support.”
Todd drops this pretty astounding piece of information on me in the same casual tone you might use if you were handing off your dry cleaning or explaining how to microwave a burrito. He plains and sands and cuts these pieces of wood to make these beautiful art pieces, and in the process he unlocks their simple, ancient wisdom.
We are one tree with many leads. It definitely doesn’t seem that way these days, but that’s only because we’re distracted by messages that want us to believe otherwise. Fear, pain, injustice, division, anger, and isolation are real things wrapped up in legitimate experiences, in terrible happenings, but they don’t tell the whole story and they don’t represent the organic make-up of our lived world, which pulses on connection, outreach, and support.
We hold each other. It’s what we do. It’s in the lines of our grain that gravitate toward one another. I see it in the photograph of a protester in Charlotte embracing a police officer in the midst of seering tragedy and profound outrage. I see it in the way people rally around survivors of abuse and assault to say, “I see you; you’re not alone; I am you.” I see it on the smallest, most easily overlooked interactions every day: letting someone go ahead of you in a check-out line, stopping on the sidewalk to chat with a neighbor, sending a text laden with goofy, sappy, silly emojis—the new lexicon of compassion–to make a friend laugh, smile, to make them feel less alone, to make you feel less alone.
We are one tree with many leads. We grow in our own directions because that we can, we stay connected because we must.