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Building Blocks

by Andrew L. McFarlane

The other day I had a chance to observe the mind of an environmentalist in action.

An individual I know was trying to buy some hardwood to make a set of blocks for his little girl. Walnut, maple, cherry, that sort of thing. At all the lumberyards in the area, all they had in stock was oak which isn't good for kids' blocks because of the tannic acid.

At all the places, the name of one local lumberyard, BRE, kept coming up again and again, so he went there. BRE shares quarters with Rare Earth Hardwoods, a company which stocks, it seems, quite a number of rare hardwoods from around the world. On one shelf there was an array of 2"x2"x11" hardwoods of all kinds. The salesman was busy with another customer so he couldn't ask to be pointed to a few lengths of walnut, a tree he remembered fondly from his backyard childhood, or maple which lined the road by his house, providing sap for syrup in spring and visual fire for his eyes in the fall.

He started to sort through the assortment, hefting various pieces and trying to discover through his senses what they were. Some pieces looked as if they had been stained red, purple, brown or black. Five o'clock, the posted closing time, came and went and still the salesman was busy. He gathered up four likely looking lengths; one reddish with a long and open hairlike grain, one light brown and very heavy, one almost black with a grain more reminiscent of polished agate than wood, and the final piece an unlikely light purple in hue. The salesman was free, and he laid them on the counter with the intention of finding out just what they were. The salesman told him as he wrote their names on the sales slip. Red Paduak, from South America. Ipe, from there as well. Wenge from Africa. Purpleheart, African as well and no, it was not stained, but its natural color. Almost in a dream the environmentalist paid his money and left the store.

When he got into his car, he took another long look at his purchases, and disquiet thoughts started to bubble in his mind. Still, he kept on. He hefted one as he drove, feeling its foreign weight with his hands as his mind measured the psychic weight of wood from Peruvian highlands, African plains, rainforest. Images of trees falling in far lands warred with those of his daughter happily playing for years on Northern Michigan floors with toys he had shaped with his own hands.

A great discord began to grow within his mind and he almost turned the car around to exchange the exotic wood for something familiar and comforting.


Then his mind began to perform the kind of feats which truly separate humanity from other animals. Not vaunted reason. No, nothing so grand. Simple rationalization.

It was too late to go back, they would be closed. The natural colors of the wood would stimulate his daughter's mind as she played with them as would their differing weights and grain. Terms from his work with children started to creep in. Seriation, the ability to sort different objects could only be enhanced by blocks that were the same in size yet not color or weight or pattern.

They all rang hollowly in his mind, sounding like exactly what they were, the attempts of a mind that knew it had done wrong to soothe itself. I, for by this time it must be clear that there are none other's inner thoughts I could know so clearly, was at a loss. Mentally I projected forward to a time five or ten years down the road when I would be called to account for my crime. "Daddy, what kind of wood is this?"

"Ipe," I would respond, having remembered and followed the wood through the years. "It used to come from Peru, but I don't think that it does anymore."

Then another term strode in, confidently, shouldering aside doubt and guilt.

Teachable moment. The teachable moment is one of the newer terms in education circles, referring to those times and situations which provide the opportunity for a lesson learned that have nothing to do with cirriculum.

Inadvertantly, I had provided my future self and daughter with one or many such moments. Through my own concious decision and her unconcious playing, we would both share culpability, if only a little, for what is being done to the diversity of our planet's ecosystem. Never mind the fact that nearly every other person does so in some hidden way: the hamburger from former rainforest, the disposable chopsticks from Japan made of 500 year old Northwestern trees, or merely the fact of living in a large country which demands things and offers money to people who have nothing to give but a piece of their homeland.

"Yes!" my brain cried, triumphantly seizing the thought. Another part of my mind sits back and knows what it knows and laughs and maybe cries a little bit. For trees I have never seen, tiny pieces of which I will no doubt trip over in the years to come, for an innocent child who will have her father's sins given to her as a gift of love, for the awesome powers of the human mind.

author's note: This article should not be taken to criticize Rare Earth Hardwoods in any way. Their selection is quite remarkable and salespeople knowledgable and helpful. You can visit them online as well at:
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