17 Jul

On the foggy maritime fringes of California there remain a few protected stands of the last of the magnificent coastal redwood trees. Muir Wood is one of these treasure chests – a tiny slice of primeval Wildwood. The trees here are so breathtaking in their majesty – at thousands of years old some preceding the birth of Christ in age – that they make one feel insignificant.

Interestingly, Muir Wood only received protection in the 19th century because the eponymous John Muir lobbied congress ceaselessly to give it the status of a ‘National Monument’. There was no such thing as a Conservation Area or National Park in the United States of America back then. The trees were such a valuable source of rot resistant building material that the majority of the primeval forest was simply cut down with no thought to preservation.

John Muir, a Scottish born American citizen and Naturalist, was born on April 21st 1838 in Dunbar, passing away after a long a fruitful life on 24th December 1914 in Los Angeles.



In the Redwood tree stand which bears his name, it is all but impossible to capture a tree in a single photographic frame – each stem is so big – some 300 foot high. The density of wood is overwhelming, you can almost feel the sap hurtling to the top of the trees, evaporating from tiny leaves to create their own weather system for the delicate microclimate hidden in the canopy high above. The experience does indeed wash the spirit clean as John Muir would have it, and it touches the fibre of one’s being.

Wood warms you when you touch it, it warms you when you cut it….. and in the end it warms you when you burn it on the fire (Roger Deakin ‘Wildwood’ 2007). Burning wood releases the energy of the sun locked up in carbohydrates by photosynthesis decades, centuries or, in the case of the coastal Redwoods millennia ago – bathing us in the energy of history.

So it is a historically rooted connection that I feel through my Littlewood heritage:


me (woodworker), Dad (Master Carpenter), Nathan (Geologist), Simon (Joiner and Builder), Tim (Zoologist).

Strong genes in all of us, connected by the skill our hands – from the old Norse word ‘Skil’ which means wisdom and discernment. Our name, Littlewood reflecting our affinity with what the Chinese Taoist philosophers called the fifth element:

Wood Element Symbol 2

(Wood coming after fire, water, air and metal)

Wood according to the Taoist philosophy has positive attributes including strength, idealism, growth and expansion – my Dad certainly contributed to propagating the Littlewood line! Negative attributes are listed as – aggression, anger, temper, impatience and impulsiveness. A pretty fair summary of the darker side of a Littlewood.

Speaking of temper, wood can bite you hard when you are working with it, especially if you don’t concentrate. Back in the 1980’s I rented a small corner of a furniture maker’s workshop, and was ripping a 2 inch thick board of seasoned yew. All of a sudden the board cracked apart along the saw line and literally flew from the saw bed, two halves just missing my head by a gnat’s whisker! No wonder medieval carpenters believed the wood was cursed. Folklore has long associated Yew with witchcraft and many woodsmen have been injured or killed when ripping yew logs – particularly in the old style where two men prepare planks from a saw log with a double handled saw. One poor soul – the ‘under dog’ – has to stand in a pit beneath the log getting covered in sawdust and muck, whilst the other – the gaffer – stands above as the ‘top dog’.



My brother Simon told me recently that he had acquired a piece of redwood from a bloke who had been squirrelling it away for years. The timber has the most delicious gold and bloody amber colour when polished – the jammy git (luck, or jammyness is another Littlewood trait I enjoy).

So whilst I meditate amongst the trees and the wood they provide, I am hoping that some Littlewood wisdom and discernment will continue on into the next generation:

Either in the minute explorations and investigations of my progeny (Polly, my daughter – aged 6, looking for sand hoppers on the Isle of Cumbrae in 1988)


or in the intrepid wanderings of a nephew (Luke with his Dad, Tim)

Luke n Tim


Because I would like to bequeath my tools to someone who will use them, as I use my Dad’s, to connect with a little wood.

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