Long before he became famous as a foodie, Michael Pollan wrote A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, detailing the construction of his “writing hut” in the woods near his New England home. In the section in which Pollan selects the lumber for his writing desk, he considers and rejects several common types of wood.
He describes yellow pine as a “harder, less desirable Southern species.” He continues, “Knotty and prone to twisting, yellow pine is difficult to work and notoriously hard on tools. Jim [Pollan’s carpenter] mentioned in passing that he still occasionally hears an old-timer call the wood by it’s old nickname: ‘nigger pine.’”
Is Pollan just talking about wood here, or is he snobbishly evoking a mouthfeel of the South in general? The flavor of his analysis bothered me a bit.
I read Pollan’s book during the rebuilding of my own derelict 1920s working-class cottage in East Knoxville. Talking to people who had restored historic homes in the area, I learned that Southern yellow pine was considered inferior, even contemptible.
My parents built the house I grew up in with the help of friends and family, mostly out of Southern yellow pine. It was inexpensive wood, and it had the natural look they wanted. The ceiling is made of pine tongue-in-groove boards nailed together by hand. My parents fondly remember cursing every day during the construction of the ceiling. Part of the mythology of my family involves the image of my mother up on a ladder, swinging a hammer over her head at that hard, knotty wood, pregnant with my little brother. An old wives’ tale says that raising your arms above your head while pregnant loops the umbilical cord around the baby’s neck. In an eerie coincidence, my brother did have some trouble being born, the cord wound several times around his neck.
I spent lot of my childhood looking up at the lovely, spooky fox faces in that ceiling. Any three knot-holes arranged in a triangle resemble the shape of a fox face—two for the eyes, one for the nose, and the ceiling was full of them. I remember lying on the couch in the throws of a fever with a canopy of dark, shining eyes observing me—not sympathetic, not evil, not making any decisions yet, waiting to see what might happen. This is how the forest really is, I thought, though I was young enough to still long for a Disney-like world.
According to “Tennessee Timber Trees,” a 1962 pamphlet I found at Central Street Bookshop, yellow pine grows in every county in the state. The five species of yellow pine found in Tennessee—Shortleaf, Table Mountain, Virginia, Pitch, and Loblolly—can be identified by counting their needles, which grow in bundles of two or three.
At Salvage Lumber on Western Avenue, you can buy locally felled and milled yellow pine. Southeastern Salvage had a brief sale last year on tongue-in-groove yellow pine for 25 cents a board foot, and, thanks to Knox Rail Salvage, almost every new 2x4 in my house is stamped “Reject.” It’s all-new lumber made from young wood, full of knots. Each knot is made by a limb. Older, taller trees have long, thick trunks with no limbs at all. We once salvaged some wood from a dumpster in the Old City—wide knotless boards from old growth pine, felled back when such timber was still readily available.
At times when I am feeling inferior about my building materials, I take heart at the ideas of Dan Phillips, founder of Phoenix Commotion, a Texas-based construction company that builds whimsical, ornate houses out of recycled/salvaged materials.
“I feature blemish,” says Phillips, “I feature organic process. I feature all those warped things...”
Now I lay in bed with my own children and we pick out the fox faces in the ceiling of our resuscitated home. They remind me of that hard lesson of nature—for something to live, something else has to die. For my own happiness and well-being, the interiors of my buildings must feel alive with stories and motifs. Yellow pine, with its warm honey-colored veins and bright peering faces, is the liveliest building material I could find in the salvage yards of Knoxville, Tenn.