The Soul of a Tree

The Soul of a Tree

The Soul of a Tree is an autobiography of the late George Nakashima (1905-1990). As such, he explains his early influences, education as an architect (including travels around the world), and finally his journey to becoming a master craftsman.

I appreciated the historical background of George Nakashima. Following his journey toward woodworking was a fascinating read. He certainly lived an interesting life. I also appreciated his life philosophy. While very different than my own Judeo/Christian background, I found it interesting that I share similar ideas about work in general.

Perhaps the one thing that struck me the most about the work was George’s feelings that craftsmanship had been lost to the past (he mentioned in several places his frustration with the architecture of the time and the destruction that the Industrial Revolution caused toward quality and craftsmanship). It struck a certain chord that I could resonate with.

However, the irony of all the talk about the rise of the machine coupled with George’s own use of machines in woodworking, certainly wasn’t lost on me. Yet he does say;

“The reality of the age, however, brings up the question of machinery. As much as man controls the end product, there is no disadvantage in the use of modern machinery and there is no need for embarrassment…In a creative craft, it becomes a question of responsibility, whether it is a man or the machine that controls the work’s progress.”

Another disappointment I found with the book was that even though he explains the differences between Eastern woodworking tools (pull vs. push, etc.) he doesn’t explain how to use them. Nor does he offer any suggestions for making any of the complicated joinery typical of Japanese work even though he argues that it is of the highest quality. Maybe this is in another book and was certainly not the focus of this book which is understandable.

Overall, the book was a quick read that provided insight into the life of a contemporary woodworking master. He offers ways to think about wood that certainly puts you into relationship with the material. And he does point you toward aspects of the craft that are seldom approached by modern magazines. The book had a number of inspiring pictures of great quality that were probably worth the price of the book. If you lean toward the philosophical/spiritual side of woodworking this just might be a book that would interest you.

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