Monckton Walk Farm near North Newbald in Yorkshire is run by my Grandfather. Throughout my childhood I spent most summer and winter holidays at the farm helping my Grandfather with all sorts of farming duties and general maintenance jobs. One such job turned out to be a four- year project; a disused cattle shed, with the combined hands of an 80 year old farmer, one bricklayer, one farm labourer and myself, was painstakingly converted into a beautiful two-bedroom cottage. Everything was designed and built by my Grandfather, who now happily resides there, while students of the local agricultural college live in the original farmhouse.
Next to the cottage stood an enormous ash tree; a proud tree so large it overlooked the 200 acres of farmland, and from where, on a clear day, York Minster could be seen 25 miles away. Alas, the age of the tree began to show, its largest branch had died and begun to rot. For the safety of my Grandfather and the cottage it became necessary to fell the great ash.
My friend John Turnbull is a tree surgeon, master with a rope and chainsaw and three times European Tree Climbing Champion. According to John, the typical afterlife of a felled tree is very sad indeed. Disposal and transportation is so expensive that in most cases the tree is cut into logs, stacked into a pile, then once dry enough, burnt. Not entirely useless, but a quick and sad ending for these incredible structures of nature and a waste of such a wonderful material containing so much potential.
I decided I wanted my Grandfather’s tree to survive beyond its rooted life, to offer the tree an afterlife and celebrate the inherent potential of the material within. But how does one best utilise an entire ash tree? Little should be done to each section of tree so that its identity remains. When you see a perfectly square cut piece of wood in a sawmill, builders’ merchant or used for tables and chairs across the world, the age of the tree can no longer be read; the history of the tree has disappeared, along with it the true value of the material. The beauty of the wood grain might remain, but it is now just a piece of wood and not a piece of tree. The wood has lost its origin.
The idea of what to do with my Grandfather’s ash tree quickly evolved. I wanted the tree to remain integral to the wood. Together with my friend John Turnbull, we dissected the tree from the top downwards, cutting it into sections at regular intervals, respecting natural divisions within the structure such as knots, branches and crotches. I wanted to process each piece of the tree as little as possible, other than to make the top and base level in order to give function to the material. I cut the sections into logs of average ‘furniture’ height suitable for use as stools, tables and chairs. Each log becomes a surface for what my Grandfather would call ‘general purpose’ use. Divided into 130 logs laid out in order of diameter, with the 187 annual growth rings clearly visible, the ash tree continues to exist as an ash tree, but with a new life, a new function and the start of a new history.
Text by Max Lamb