Turning Trash Into Treasure

In early July, just as the summer heat has taken ahold of the Valley, the winds shift and monsoon season begins. Each afternoon, we look out to the east looking for clouds to come and give us respite from the blazing sun. The first few showers are welcome and the thunder and lightning are exciting, but by mid-July the washes fill fast, storms rage through the night, and the Valley wakes up to trees strewn across front yards and driveways. The storms bring much needed refreshment to the desert, but they also destroy large, proud trees in neighborhoods across the Valley. But in the hands of a craftsman, these fallen urban trees can be redeemed from being waste and made into something beautiful.

If you’ve ever woken up to a tree laying down in the front yard, you’ll know the sort of panic it brings. Most of us don’t own a chainsaw, much less the crane needed to lift tons of dead wood. It’s no wonder that when the trees we live around come down for one reason or another they end up in a landfill. They’re a resource we simply don’t seem to know how to use properly.

Across the Valley, and the country as a whole, there’s a group of people who see potential in these trees. Where many see a problem to be discarded as quickly as possible, they see a treasure to be stewarded. It’s a theme of redemption that seems to unite them, a celebration of new life saved from inevitable destruction. As many as three or four billion board feet of trees are put into landfills each year. As more and more people begin to take notice of these fallen trees, a new story has begun to emerge. A beloved neighborhood tree felled by a storm or disease can take on a whole new meaning for that community. People begin to ask “What are these trees worth?” and “What would it look like to give them a second chance?”

You might not have guessed, but near Sky Harbor Airport is a busy sawmill. When the Wine Glass Bar Saw Mill first started, they were taking wood from the forests near Flagstaff. But they soon realized that the city itself was teeming with unused logs, trees just waiting for their potential to be unlocked. Owners Rex Condie and LaVor Smith, both retired self-proclaimed farm boys from Idaho, are part of a growing movement to give life to fallen urban trees. From sturdy pine and native mesquite to beautiful hardwoods like black acacia and eucalyptus our neighborhoods are surprisingly full of wood that can be turned into furniture and art. All it takes is for someone to see the potential locked away inside these logs. Instead of a problem lying across your driveway, it’s an heirloom dinner table just waiting to happen.

In a society where we’re used to simply swinging by a store to fulfill whatever need we have, it’s countercultural to see a tree that everyone else sends to the chipper as a prized possession. We’re so used to next day, same day, two-hour shipping. We pick what we want from a list of thousands of options and expect it to show up on our doorstep. Urban lumber is a chance to reconnect with local craftsman. It’s a chance to own things of worth, items that could easily outlast you. It’s the sort of thing you’d be proud to own if your grandparents had commissioned it.

In July 2014, an Aleppo pine tree came down in the Maple-Ash Neighborhood in Tempe. Most of the tree was in pieces in the back of a truck when it was rescued by Silas Kyler and James Hamstra. That tree is the main character in Felled, a new documentary film that tells the story of taking that tree and turning it into a dinner table for a local foster family. Taking something that was destined to be trash and giving it new life and new meaning is a powerful statement. It pushes against our disposable society. It shows that craftsmen still have a role to play and that people can still seek out quality goods and employ generational thinking. When we look around us and search for potential rather than convenience, find beauty in the overlooked, and new purpose in what had no purpose, we find ourselves celebrating the universal story of redemption, changing our entire outlook on the world around us.

Felled, a documentary film about giving new life to fallen urban trees, is co-directed by Silas Kyler and David Hildreth. The film is slated to be completed in 2016. You can watch the trailer below and connect with the filmmakers at facebook.com/felledmovie.

David Hildreth is a digital colorist and the co-director of Felled. He lives in Tempe, AZ with his wife and daughter. He enjoys craft beer and making breakfast, but generally not at the same time.