That expression seems rather fanciful as a name for something which is not actually alive, something that might be more literally described as natural, so that’s the term I generally use. The phrase “natural edge” seems clear; it denotes a surface that nature produced as the tree grew, in contrast to the geometric shapes we give to wood when we work it with our tools. Everyone knows that a carpenter or an engineer likes a straight or uniformly curved line, while nature seems to prefer a wiggly one, and the tension between the two lends drama to even the simplest wood project.
The distinction between nature and artifice is important to us. George Nakashima, writing in The Soul of a Tree, spoke of a reverence for nature, a familiar idea which assumes we know pretty well what’s natural and what is not. But the distinction between what nature does and what we do, seemingly so simple, doesn’t hold up in a world where everything is interconnected. Timothy Morton has called the very idea of nature into question: it will have to wither away in an ecological state of human society, he says in his book Ecology without Nature (Harvard 2007).
So what happens if we try to do without the idea of nature?
If there is no nature, we still have a material environment and there are still trees, which can be harvested more or less sustainably and can enter into a cycle of use and reuse by humans, as more trees grow. The difference is that the trees no longer seem eternal, as they must have to George Nakashima. That is certainly a tough thing to give up, but we may have to.
In an ecological world, our aesthetic feeling for wood will be different too, reflecting our relationship to it, not its separateness. This makes me think of the ribbon slab table I am finishing up in the workshop this week. The base of this table features a brace with the irregular shape of a ribbon, actively embracing the randomness of the slab rather than standing by mutely.
So I find Morton’s ideas about ecology and nature to be quite suggestive. However, I confess that I’m still going to talk about natural edges on wooden furniture: can we agree that “natural” (with a small n) simply refers to the way a particular tree grew, without any romantic underpinnings?