Tag Archives: sycamore


17 May


I have just finished and delivered an unusual little cabinet to a client today. I made it from a truly spectacular piece of locally sourced sycamore.

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Polite people have said “Wow, tadpoles!” when they have seen the unique figuring in the top and second shelf. What created this beautiful pattern is a mystery, but I purchased the board (and several others from the same tree) some time ago hoping that one day I would find a special client with an adventurous and humorous imagination. The reaction of pure delight when I delivered the piece to her today, was brilliant.

This amazing timber makes me think about fertility and metamorphosis.

Remember the first time you found a great dollop of frogspawn in a pond in early Spring? Taking some magical jelly home in a jam jar and watching tadpoles hatch in a fish tank? Eventually the  many tiny froglets undergo a spectacular transformation from egg to tadpole to adult frog. Metamorphosing from a swimming, fish-like body plan suitable for chasing plankton and algae, into an amphibious, four legged, air breathing adult with a sticky projectile tongue suitable for catching dragon flies. Two careers in one life so to speak.

Not many tadpoles survive to adulthood. Most die of disease, starvation, predation, some even cannibalised by their pond mates. Fertility is Life’s answer to Nature’s harsh selection pressures.

“The Sea of Fertility” was Yukio Mishima’s final epic four part novel, finished in 1970. He is recognised as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th Century, and this beautiful novel charts the life of one Shigekuni Honda, who follows successive reincarnations following the untimely death of an old school friend. In four successive books Honda recognises the soul of his friend, and in each story he tries to save the central character. Each time Honda fails in his quest, and each time the soul has metamorphosed in a new and very different character. It is a lovely metaphor for the struggle for life we are all bound by.

Yukio Mishima was nominated for the Nobel Prize on numerous occasions, but never achieved the accolade. He had his critics: “The outstanding weakness of this, the final novelistic effort of Mishima Yukio—and indeed the major failing of the bulk of his work—is its striking inability to rise above the emotional and intellectual limitations of its author.” Marleigh Ryan, “The Mishima Tetralogy,” Journal of Japanese Studies 1.1 (Autumn 1974): 165–173.

To my mind this is like criticising a frog for not remaining true to it’s tadpole origins. Mishima would have quite literally have had to have changed into an entirely different person to have answered the critic’s barb. After submitting the final manuscript Mishima infamously committed ritual suicide or ‘seppuku’ – the final metamorphosis of a tortured soul who, in the end was prepared to put his life on the line.

Our own true nature springs from a fertile inner sea of emotions and dreams – those powerful engines of creativity, and when we find a tadpole in a sycamore tree we glimpse an eternal truth in the heartwood of reality. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours only the prepared mind”, or to quote my mother; “Let’s look for treasure”.



26 Apr


Timber from the Sycamore tree has a pale delicate hue with a fine close grain ideally suited for carving and cabinetry. It especially suited the terms of this commission – to support an octagonal alabaster tile inlaid with semi precious stones and abalone shell – which deserves to be displayed in all its finery. The design of the table came about as an attempt to reflect the cursive designs of the lotus flowers on the tile without in any way detracting from the star piece, the tile itself.

Sycamore is an invading tree species, thought to have been introduced over 400 years ago from central Europe, unless it is managed properly it can come to dominate our native broadleaf woodlands and parks because of its ability to come in to leaf quickly and hog the light. Large palmate leaves produce a dense canopy through which little light penetrates, making life difficult for our native woodland plants like bluebell, wood anemone and lesser celandine. This same property makes the tree a welcome guest in farms – their luxuriant summer foliage provides livestock and dairies with a welcome and cooling shade.

The sycamore is a survivor. A hardy immigrant to the British Isles, it can withstand salty sea spray, cold winters, shady conditions, almost any type of soil and usually flourishes wherever it grows. I too am an immigrant.

I was born under a tropic sun in Kano, NIgeria, near the southern tip of the Sahara I emigrated to Britain, never having seen snow before. The first thing anyone said to me when I went to school in Matlock was “Why aren’t you black?” I did not understand the question at all, as I had hitherto grown up as an African.

Accra 1963


I am second left from the back, and no, the lady on the back row is not the class teacher, the lady at the front is. I consider myself a pale man with a dark heart, contrariwise the sycamore is a tree, dark externally but revealing a pale heart.


It is not known when Acer pseudoplatanus was introduced to Britain but suggestions range from Roman times until as late at the 17th century. I was introduced here in 1964. I quite liked snow.

There was certainly a Sycamore in Dorset in 1834 when a group of labourers met under a sycamore and formed a society to protest against their falling wages. While trade unions were legal by this point, swearing oaths in a society were not, and the members were arrested and found guilty. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they were to become known, were subsequently transported to Australia, although they were released within two years. The Tolpuddle Tree has recently been dated and was found to have been around 150 years old when the meeting took place. This puts the tree, which still stands today, at around 320 years, far exceeding the common estimate of 200 years for the tree’s lifespan.

The tree which yielded the timber for this table was about 180 years old, it would have been a sapling around the time Samuel Holberry was a young man. Born 1816, he was a member of the Chartist Movement in Sheffield – an organisation set up to bring democracy, safe working conditions and fair wages to the working classes – he died, broken on the wheel in York prison in 1842 aged 26 after being involved in a plot for armed resistance against the ruling classes – betrayed by a co-worker. Visit his grave in Sheffield’s glorious General Cemetery and read the magnificent epitaph on the expensive headstone made from Brincliffe Blue stone paid for by the workers of Sheffield and chosen by his widow. He lies under the shade of many sycamore trees.

The sycamore, or Acer pseudoplatanus, is a resilient and adaptable tree, which grows quickly and seems impervious to harsh weather and pollution. It is an immigrant, like me. Perhaps being a common immigrant is not so bad, if the core of such a being produces shade for cows, materials suitable for violin backs, or a celebration table for an Indian tile?