As windbreaks, macrocarpa trees are part of our landscape, the gnarled border to many paddocks, their outstretched limbs providing shelter to sheep. But the timber of these trees is valuable too. It is even-textured and stable, and strong enough for most jobs. It responds well to a sharp saw or chisel, leaving a firm cut edge. When planed the grain glows, reveals whorls and ripples like the surface of a golden pool. For these reasons, my grandfather, who’d once worked as a joiner, was a big believer in macrocarpa. He told me he knew of a man who had used it to build a boat, although it must have been the framing only; macrocarpa doesn’t readily bend. He used it himself to make furniture, as well as to turn bowls and tool handles. Often a long silken shaving could be found clinging to the front of his jersey.
When I was young I used some pieces of macrocarpa to make a chest. I planned for it to be a panelled box that I could use to store tools. It would give me practice in cutting a mortise and tenon, a traditional carpentry joint where one piece of wood slots into another. Because I didn’t have enough macrocarpa, I alternated it with radiata pine, which showed itself as an insipid yellow against that golden timber. This wasn’t my only mistake: my tenons were crude, they made an awkward fit with the mortise. And so, I went to my grandfather for help, and together we spent hours in his workshop building this chest. That is to say he built it and I watched, occasionally jumping in to do the most basic tasks: drilling holes, sanding edges smooth.
This was our routine. He knew anything more was beyond me, and rather than let me try and fail, he would explain each job by doing it himself. My skills are still rudimentary as a result, but I never minded this. I loved his company. The world was a hostile place. I worried what might happen to me once I no longer had school to tell me how to spend my days. After all I was shy and awkward, and hated to compete. His presence was a reassurance. Somehow he’d made it through with gentleness and patience, working methodically without fuss or noise. He lifted a plane from a drawer as if it were a Stradivarius. He stopped each morning for a cup of tea. When we finished that chest, I carved both our initials and the year into the bottom. ‘I don’t know why you bothered putting that HD there,’ he said of his initials, pretending that I had made it myself, that he had only been there to watch.
Macrocarpa timber is naturally durable. The building code considers it the equivalent to radiata pine that has been chemically treated, and it can survive outside, exposed to the sun and rain for years. Recently I bought over a dozen lengths to build a raised garden bed, and these were sold to me in great buttery slabs, described by Mitre 10 as half sleepers. I trailered them home and laid them out in my garage. Later, I used a saw and chisel to cut a half out of each end so they could be joined with what is called a lap joint. Each cut produced a fine spray of sawdust, and a scent that was at once crisp and mellow, and immediately I realised it was the smell of his workshop. It held that gentle presence, that quiet kindness. I felt the need to turn to make sure I was alone, to check he wasn’t watching on still.
The death of a grandparent is expected, always part of knowing them, but for ten years now I have struggled with the thought that he’s no longer here. I find myself wondering what it would be to visit his red brick home in Christchurch, and find him measuring out a piece of wood in his shed or pushing a hoe between the rows of his garden. Admittedly, the time between these thoughts has grown. I wondered it weekly after his death, and it has now faded to something that only occurs every other month. This brings its own grief too – the worry that when these thoughts go, I lose him altogether, that my world will have moved on so far that I can no longer imagine his place in it.
The lap joint isn’t particularly difficult, but I tend to start jobs in a hurry to finish them, and make basic mistakes in the process. This time though, I took my work slowly. I measured and measured again, marking out the section of timber I would remove. I adjusted my circular saw to the exact depth I wanted, holding a ruler to the blade, and then used it to cut half way through my piece of macrocarpa. I made a dozen more of these cuts, reducing the end of the timber to a series of thin fans, like a scalloped potato. That done, I cut them away with a chisel. In this way, I worked on only a couple of pieces at a time each weekend. I made this simple job stretch on. I stood and worked with the scent of that timber for several weeks
Like most New Zealanders, my grandfather pronounced macrocarpa with an extra a in place of the o. Elsewhere though, it’s known as Monterrey Cyprus. For whatever reason we’ve decided here to call it by one half of its botanical name, Cupressus macrocarpa, the half that means large fruit, a reference to its tidy seed pods. Cupressus is thought to come from the Greek kuo ‘to produce’ and pari ‘equal’, a reference to the symmetry of Mediterranean cypress trees. Although I’ve also read that it could come from a Latin word to describe a common use for that timber: a casket, a coffin, a box.