I remember as a child reading The Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton. It was about a magical chair that could fly. Together with the owners of the Wishing Chair I flew on so many enthralling adventures. I now know how The Wishing Chair came into existence. It grew magically on a branch of one of Gavin Munro’s trees.
Smile. Let me tell you about Gavin Munro’s ‘enchanted’ forest!
As a child, playing hide and seek in his garden, he wished there were tall trees. He was good at climbing trees. They made great hiding places. He looked at the small Bonsai tree on the verandah table. That tree was pathetic. It didn’t even look like a tree. It actually looked like a chair. The chairs! He ran to the table that was surrounded by chairs and a table cloth. Quick as a flash, he was under the table cloth with the chairs pulled neatly after him. They would never find him here. Good thing the Bonsai tree had bought a chair to mind. The image of the ‘Bonsai-chair’ remained with Gavin.
The seed of his furniture growing project sprouted twenty years later on a beach in San Fransisco. Gavin had finished at Art College getting a degree in Furniture Design. He had worked as an apprentice to a cabinet-maker and done a long stint building with natural materials in Scotland and California. Working on the beach was a sheer delight, seeing what new materials each tide would bring. It was then a case of stitching the wood back together – each ‘stitch’ fitting into carefully cut-out mortices. It was at this moment that Gavin realised that, rather than going through all these processes, he could grow trees directly into beautiful and useful shapes.
At present, in a field on the side of a hill 22 kilometres north of Derby in England, are row after row of perfectly maintained willow, oak, ash and sycamore trees. What clearly marks this field out from a regular forest, are the blue-and-black plastic moulds that surround the trees. These ‘steer’ the trees in pre-defined routes. They are gently and expertly manipulated into the exact shape of a chair, a table, a lamp or a mirror frame.
The process starts by shaping the young trees around the moulds. The growing tips are bent and coaxed in the direction they need to go with small plastic clasps. When the different strands of the tree need to be brought together to form one solid piece of wood, parts of the bark are shaved off and they are aligned, eventually growing together again. Once the final shape has been formed, the trees are left to mature and thicken, leaving a solid piece of wood without any joins. The method is described as being more about persuasion than manipulation.
“The trees are growing and all we are doing is shaping the tips as it grows along,” said Munro. “The trick is to let the tree grow and just tweak it as it grows. That is the beauty of it. It is so simple.”
The first harvest is expected in October. The trees will have been growing for four years. They will be cut, stored and dried. In 2017 they will be exhibited and then delivered to those people that pre-ordered them. It has taken longer than Gavin expected. He remarked: “We thought we would have a harvest by now. But trees, well … they grow slowly.”
However, while growing up, Gavin went through several operations to straighten his spine.
“It’s where I learnt patience. There were long periods of staying still, plenty of time to observe what was going on and reflect. It was only after working on this furniture-growing project for a few years, that a friend pointed out that I must know exactly what it’s like to be shaped and grafted on a similar time scale.” He laughed. “I’ve had practice. It requires patience.
Think about how furniture is usually made. First, you have to grow the trees, so allow about 30 years. Then you’ve got to chop them down, leaving a cleared area that can cause problems like erosion or desertification. Next you transport the logs to a sawmill. That means you need to build roads and use polluting logging trucks. Then you need to build a large facility to store the planks. The wood is then transported somewhere else, chopped up and stuck together, creating joints that might eventually come loose and fall apart.
Growing furniture on trees is an incredible ideal. Amazing! Mind blowing! So, why do I find it so difficult to accept? I think of the beautiful, majestic Oak studded with lots of wooden chairs. And something in me cries out: No! Imagine our beautiful Weeping Willow impregnated with small wooden tables!
Chinese women had their feet bound up so that they were unable to grow. Little feet were considered beautiful. I feel that this is doing the same thing to trees. We are binding and restricting them for our benefit.
Although I realise that this is a far healthier way of producing furniture, a part of me pulls up short at the idea. I would rather leave the trees alone. I think Thoreau sums up my feelings when he says:
“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
Henry David Thoreau
You can find out more about Gavin Munro and his company ‘Full Grown’ here!
or why not watch this short video?