Spirituality for me falls into the category of the surreal. Unless we are talking about quantum physics, the idea of “other worldliness” has little meaning to me except as a subject for exploration through fiction. Anyone would have a hard time explaining the nature of spirituality, but I think a common element would have to be opposed to things that mark our physical existence. That leaves the field of non-physical existence wide open for discovery, but no closer to a universal definition for what spirituality is, exactly.
Spirituality seems to go beyond the bounds of the physical. It is hearing that is beyond the limits of our physical ability; seeing more than what is physically evident, touching that exceeds normal sensation, smell and taste that is so heightened there is a disconnect between experience and reality.
Working with wood as a craftsman creates experiences that are often surreal. The sounds, sight and feel of wood; even the aromas and flavors, are all accentuated beyond common experience. You have walked past a table that has a hand-rubbed linseed oil finish. You may have touched it briefly by rubbing your fingertips across the smooth surface. When a woodworker touches such a surface, he lingers as if to search for something that is not quite there. The senses become attuned to the touching; the eyes peer into the finish, the faint hint of linseed lies on the tongue and in the nostrils, and the finish itself is seen as it first revealed itself in the shop where it was made.
A woodworker does not touch wood; he experiences it. Here is a sample of walnut in my hand. I explore the grain with my vision. The edge is hard, touch reveals. The surface is rough; the hand does not rub, it caresses. I breathe in. I can taste the walnut. I will now set it aside, with reverence.
Wielding wood into the product of a project is to witness birth itself. It is art. It is creation. It is the thing itself and all the things it is not which act upon it. Together these real and surreal qualities bond to become one. The object embodies its spirituality; its soul.
You might have seen a craftsman busy at his trade. You would see him. You would see the tools. You would hear the whirling sounds, smell the waft of sawdust or maybe screw your face at the smell of the toxicity from any number of chemicals, waxes and stains. The senses of the observer do nothing to reveal the spirituality that forms an aura within the shop, perceptible only to the one who is married to the processes. You see, and yet you do not see.
But if you were to pick up a piece of wood and focus every attention on each of its qualities; if you might shape it, sand it, stain it, or polish it, then you would be drawn into the other worldliness of wood, that ethereal place which captures woodworkers with a song no less sweet that the Sirens of Homer.
I give you this hint of discovery: wood is more than wood. A tree is more than a tree. The peculiarity of each piece of hand-made furniture you encounter has more to reveal to you if you would but linger and give it a chance to speak to you. Linger…enjoy…savor…search within for its spirituality.
Photo: A work of woodworker James Macdonald. “James Macdonald has been creating custom furniture featuring marquetry and inlay work at his studio in Burnham, Maine since 1989. Before setting out on his own, he spent time cabinetmaking, guitarmaking, and boat building in Connecticut.” Visit his webpage to see more examples of superior woodworking.