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Making Meaning not Mulch

Angel City Lumber is a progressive lumber yard in Los Angeles that takes trees being felled across the city, and repurposes them for flooring, furniture, tabletops and so on. Prior to ACL’s existence, urban Angeleno lumber was chipped down as mulch or compost, and so it fills a once regrettable void in the materials supply chain in a way that is both direct and meaningful.

Though unpacking their unique and inscrutable business model could make for a delightful little essay, it’s technically not the focus of the words that follow. Because, amid the cacophony of chainsaws, roaring trucks and tough labour that characterises the work that ACL does, there’s also a spiritual aspect to their work, as these urban lumbermen also find themselves the pallbearers to these divine, sentient conifers.

Jeffrey Perry, the founder of ACL and a dear friend of mine, oversees the transition from life to death for these trees, and there’s a psychic weight to that for him. I had him come by the office for a beer and a casual dude bro convo about the divinity of trees. And Kara Holekamp of Terremoto was also there for the ride.

David Godshall: Can you elaborate on the spiritual quality of ACL’s work?

Jeff Perry: Yeah yeah yeah! We’ve spoken before about the disconnect between trees and wood, like … chicken nuggets bear no resemblance to actual chickens, so there’s a gap in perception there which is problematic for all parties. Part of what we do at ACL is to acknowledge that all living things have a need to be connected, in communion, and of use. Which is much different from to be used. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s the subtext with which we approach trees and wood. There’s an honour element to utilising local building materials, to say to a tree, ‘We will put you to use in our community’. As opposed to having no connection to the materials you use.

DG: When you say ‘no connection’, do you mean the wood ends up in the wood chipper? 

JP: No, not exactly … and to clarify, I’m not a commercial lumber hater by any means. I think there’s a use for it, but I just don’t think there’s any intention or local stewardship behind it. When you go to the commercial lumber yard you’re not in communion with the wood as coming from a tree. At ACL, the trees are from your neighbourhood, so you’re interacting with materials that are from the same place as you.

DG: Fuck it, let’s do this. Do trees have souls? (laughter)

JP: Absolutely!

Jeff Perry. Photo: Taylor Gilmore

DG: I’m with you! It’s always irked me that in Christianity, dogs don’t go to heaven. No one gets to define my version of heaven! But then, how do you differentiate between living species and create a hierarchy? It’s easy to walk up to a 300-year-old oak tree and feel that energy, and acknowledge that this is a sentient, divine creature, but then, what about that crappy Podocarpus hedge I see just behind where you’re sitting? Does that invasive palm tree I see on the horizon exist in a meaningful cosmological capacity?

JP: I think it’s human nature to compartmentalise, which is why we can do so many cool things. I think both a redwood tree and a palm tree have a soul.

DG: Maybe soul isn’t the right word here?

 JP: Maybe it’s consciousness. Something that exists as a separate being from the physical being. I do believe this, and I believe this for all living things. Along the lines of the Gaia principle, that the Earth itself is a living thing … but I don’t know how to draw the line – it’s tough! (looks at the large boulder we have in the middle of the Terremoto office). Does a rock have a consciousness?

DG: I don’t think so, I’ve sat on that rock a lot and I’ve felt absolutely nothing. (laughs)

JP: It feels dead to you? (also laughing)

DG: No, it doesn’t, but there’s a deep eternalness to that boulder, like it’s unconcerned about life and death in the way a living thing might be.

Kara Holekamp: But a boulder doesn’t grow in the conventional sense! Which is why trees are so interesting because they communicate with each other, and make decisions together, and need food and all of these things.

DG: Yeah, in the way that organisms are living machines, and trees are these weird machines, but boulders are not.

JP: And there’s also behavioural patterns, like have you read Suzanne Simard … her work explains that there’s these really complex mycorrhizal systems at least in forest trees.

KH: What about in urban trees?

JP: I have the same question! I’ve tried so hard to get in touch with her to ask. Because they’re not as densely grouped together, and she’s talking about paper birch, fir and hemlock, specifically when they’re in a community together …

DG: And they start to act like a community and send resources to a damaged member.

JP: It’s not always that altruistic, it’s just a member of a tribe, and the tribe needs to survive.

DG: Perhaps I’m a fool in that I haven’t thought about this too much. The ecological and maybe spiritual difference between a tree planted by a human and a tree that exists in the wild … Tell me, how do you stay true to your cause? Because if ACL didn’t exist and these incredible trees were coming down and ended up getting thrown in the dump, we’d be disrespecting them at a blunt material level, but also simultaneously at a spiritual level? And yes, it’s organic material that will eventually decay and be digested back into the earth, but at least you’re ushering these trees into the next stage of their lives?

JP: Yes. But I’d like to add to that, because, I’m slightly obsessed in more deeply understanding how indigenous cultures interacted with nature – back to the Western belief systems in which our god was above nature, that religious subtext creates a whole trajectory of mostly flawed thinking and behaviour and action. In indigenous cultures it was more oriented towards participation and reciprocity. Trees weren’t honoured through a conservationist mentality, it was, ‘We need baskets’. There was a dialogue with trees. Interaction and respect. I’m not condemning modern behaviour, but it’s about uncovering what has been there, that we can reconnect with.

DG: My big final question! You’re going to die, right?! (laughs)

JP: Ha! Yes! Absolutely!

DG: What’s your plan? Cremation or burial or … ? This, of course, is just an extension to all our earlier questions.

JP: Oh man, I’ve gone through a whole thing … when I was a young dude, I thought I should get cremated. Then the more I learnt about soil, I thought, no, I want to get buried! And then I saw those weird corpse tree ball corpse things …

DG: I don’t know anything about this. (looks it up on the computer). Meh. This looks like a creepy scam. Just get buried and let maggots devour you. Keep it old school.