Wooden Furniture: Appreciation or Appropriation?

Wooden Furniture: Appreciation or Appropriation?

By J.J. Fellows

Is our appreciation of forests an explanation for why we love wood furniture?

Forests and sustainabilityThe forest is dense, dark and intensely alive. And many of us love spending time there. We camp, fish, hunt, hike, trail-ride and explore the woods. In a recent article, I explored this love of the forests, trying to understand what is so appealing about a buggy, muddy, often cold and clammy environment. (The results of my research into the aesthetic appeal of forests can be found here.) But I also had another question in mind as I thought about our love of forests. Was it at all related to a love of wooden furniture?

At first, the answer to this seems pretty straight-forward. Wooden furniture is often prized because it is natural and rustic. So it seems quite clear that a love of wood and a love of forests might very well have something in common; a love of natural as opposed to artificial beauty. But not everyone would readily agree with this idea. Holmes Rolston III, an environmental ethicist, argues that our appreciation of nature cannot be compared to an appreciation of wooden artifacts. In fact, the very act of taking something from the forest, like a piece of driftwood, and putting it on display for appreciation undermines our ability to meet nature on its own terms, or to accept it for itself.

If we make the forest over into an object of our aesthetic fancy, as we might find a piece of driftwood and display it for its form and curve, then we project onto it our craft and criteria, yet fail to see what is there. (160)

Rolston's objection amounts to a claim of appropriation. If we take materials from nature and use them for our own purposes, we are not accepting nature for itself. Instead, we are projecting our own ideals onto the object. Because of this projection, we miss the opportunity to see the driftwood as it really is (perhaps as the remains of a once-living tree whose lifespan dwarfs our own, or as the result of a powerful body of water slowly petrifying and smoothing these remains, for example). Friends of mine display a piece of driftwood that looked a bit like a lounging man in their back yard. They have accentuated the resemblance by adding little eyes in what would be the man's face. Rolston would likely label this a stark example of our tendency to anthropomorphize nature.

Rolston condemns such acts as an inability to see nature for what it is. But this condemnation seems unfair to me. We have a tension with nature. We have tried to separate ourselves from nature as much as possible—yet humans are creatures of nature, just as other mammals are. Wooden sculptures and wooden furniture seem to exemplify this tension. They illustrate our efforts to both bend nature to our will and to appreciate it for itself. If this is the case, then a driftwood sculpture cannot simply be an anthropomorphizing of nature. It is, rather, a visual exploration of this tension.

When I look at a well-crafted piece of wood furniture I feel a sense of respect. I feel that some gifted artist has attempted to overcome this tension between nature and civilization, to unify opposites into something beautiful. I imagine that these artists want nature to speak for itself. But they also want it to speak for them. To spread their message that this tension can be overcome. I think that when we go out and spend time in nature, we are blurring the boundary between the forest and civilization. So, when we bring finely crafted wood pieces into our homes, we are doing the same. This is not appropriation, or at least not necessarily so. Wood furniture and sculptures can, themselves, be a way of appreciating nature, and of exploring this tension. What matters is our awareness and attitude towards them.

Wooden Furniture: Appreciation or Appropriation?

Robin Wade