Blog: Ode to an Ash; or, the Pleasure of Creating - RSA

Blog: Ode to an Ash; or, the Pleasure of Creating


  • Making
  • Creativity
  • Social brain
  • Environment

Spending time in nature and creating things by hand are both deeply satisfying. One man’s mission of getting as many uses as possible from a single tree illustrates this point, and provides an interesting take on the RSA’s vision of a world in which people have the ‘power to create’.

Wood has sensual powers that cannot be quantified.” It’s a line I wasn’t expecting to read when I picked up a book by journalist Robert Penn, but it immediately had me hooked.  

“It may even be that these powers are the most important properties of wood today. Through odour, colour, resonance, and warmth, we develop a sentimental attachment to artefacts made of wood that often reaches beyond their practical uses. It is difficult to know exactly why we make these attachments, not least because our appreciation of such properties is so subjective. For some, touching wood engenders a feeling of safety; for others, it is a reminder of the proximity of nature; for yet others it is about connecting to the past. Perhaps, for all of us, it is some kind of biological response. After all, we came down from the trees and for 99.9 percent of our time on earth we have lived in natural environments: our physiological functions remain finely tuned to nature.” p.111

Penn goes on to note that while the research in this area is not yet conclusive, it points in the general direction of showing a very positive effect of spending time in natural environments:

The findings correspond with the increasingly impressive shelf of psychological research that says spending time in nature improves cognition, helps with anxiety and depression, and even enhances human empathy.” p.112

This echoes a recent article stating that gardening is correlated with greater life satisfaction, greater self-esteem, and lower depression and fatigue. At the RSA we have previously made reference to similar points. Our paper 'Everyone Starts with an A' cites studies which found that having a view of greenery reduced attentional fatigue and improved certain cognitive skills like memory. And a recent blog post about the supermoon lunar eclipse centred around research showing that when we feel we are part of something bigger – which is arguably the case when spending time in nature – levels of empathy improve.

But The Man Who Made Things out of Trees is certainly not a tome on environmental psychology; in fact, this topic is just a tiny sliver of the whole. Instead, the book reads like a well-researched love letter both to a species of tree and to the experience of handling it. One excerpt speaks about the meditative quality of chopping wood. The story is reminiscent of the way Matthew Crawford writes about the pleasure and satisfaction of physically creating and fixing objects.

Penn sets himself a brief to get the most uses out of a single felled Ash as he can, engaging artisans to create useful, beautiful things from his tree. A writing desk, nested bowls, spoons, chopping boards, a canoe paddle and a toboggan are among his wooden treasures. There must have been a great deal of satisfaction from the thrift and resourcefulness of the brief: creating as much as possible from a limited quantity of raw material, with minimal waste.    

Why talk about a book about trees? Not just because it is a delight to read (Penn’s writing is poetic and conveys his deep respect for this tree. If he were Pablo Neruda, the book would be called ‘Ode to an Ash’). Nor just for its nod to environmental psychology. But more so because it speaks to the quality of the human experience, of craftwork and making things by hand, of appreciating resourcefulness and natural beauty. And that is arguably a component of what we mean at the RSA when we talk about ‘the power to create’, which in other words is to have the capability, the opportunity, and the motivation to turn ideas and aspiration into reality. Along with having appropriate institutions to support us, and a fair distribution of resources such as time, money, and attention, we’ll need the cultural norms which permit and encourage us to make changes that improve the world, our communities, or even ‘just’ our daily routine. And for some, maybe that change is reconnecting with nature, using resources more efficiently, and creating objects of both utility and beauty.

More tangibly, the topics here seem to marry themes from current RSA project work on the maker movement to some of our heritage: in the late 1700s and early 1800s the RSA encouraged the planting of over 50 million trees across Britain (find out more about our archive here). More recently, to celebrate its 250th anniversary, the RSA worked with others to plant 250,000 trees in the UK.

For city dwellers like me, it can sometimes be easy to forget to work green space into the daily routine, even though London is among the top ranks for major cities with green space. And the pace of life can tempt us towards buying over making. But now, having been reminded of the benefits of spending time in nature and of the satisfaction of creating something from hand, perhaps it is worth making a conscious effort to do both more often. 

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