When an old apricot tree fell in front of the house Barry Peckham was renting, he didn't regard it as a nuisance but an opportunity.
"I thought that's interesting; let's save that."
Peckham started hunting down unusual sources of lumber after breaking ground last fall for his house on Oak Street in Ashland. He wanted to incorporate natural materials, including lots of wood, inside.
"But that didn't necessarily mean cutting down a bunch of trees," he says. Instead, he began looking for alternatives. Word of mouth led Peckham to arborists, small mill owners and managers of private woodlands. Consequently, the wood in Peckham's house tells a kind of story, not just of the trees but of the individuals behind them.
The pine that panels several rooms in Peckham's house hails from Kurt Stark's acreage adjacent to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Stark manages his property for larger "saw logs" by thinning small-diameter trees and selling them as firewood, but he also mills modest quantities of lumber. The so-called "blue pine" he harvested for Peckham was infected by a fungus often carried by the beetles that infest conifers.
"If those pines hadn't been taken down, it would have spread to other trees," says Peckham. Milling revealed blond, red and blue streaks running through the planks, which Peckham carefully arranged to complement each other. Lumber for the closets came from two ailing cedar trees on property Peckham owned. After felling those trees, Keith Wangle of Beaver Tree Service started calling Peckham when he came across something "interesting," like the black walnut that eventually became kitchen cabinets.
But what do you do with raw material if you don't have the expertise or equipment to transform it into usable lumber?
"You just have to start asking questions and talk to people," says Peckham, who is a carpenter himself.
One of those people was Darryll Starr of Northwest Pole Company in Medford. His company specializes in rustic furniture crafted from raw, peeled logs, but Starr also will mill just about anything a customer brings him.
"I never know what people are going to ask me for," says Starr, who has filled requests for everything from a wooden headstone to lumber for a barn.
Tree services usually don't have milling equipment; consequently, even large trees often end up at Biomass One or fed through a chipper. People call Starr about trees that are dead, dying or falling down, but he has carved his niche largely by adding value to small-diameter trees that most people would consider fit only for kindling.
"Once you discover you can use the wood for something better, you start looking at trees differently," he says. Starr sources most of his wood by providing thinning services on privately managed lands, and he uses a range of species — from Douglas fir and incense cedar to hardwoods such as oak, madrone, alder and maple — to craft dressers, bed frames, rocking chairs and other custom pieces.
"I've worked in the woods since junior high," says Starr, who began his career thinning trees on federal land near Bend. He shares his expertise through Oregon State University Extension classes, presentations to government workers and working with people who want to build their own furniture.
Peckham envisions including people like Starr in a valleywide network that connects local sources of lumber and craftsmen with builders and hobbyists. He's looking to mentor a high-school student, one who might create such a network for his or her senior-service project.
"The expertise and equipment already exist," says Peckham. "It's just a matter of connecting the dots."
Mark Stella already has organized a network of craftsmen around Green Mountain Woodworks in Talent. His company specializes in flooring but also sells furniture, butcher-block counters and fireplace mantels. Like Starr, Stella values "underappreciated" trees like Pacific madrone. But unlike Starr, Stella doesn't spend much time in the woods; instead he focuses on his strengths — marketing and design — and recruits experienced "sister companies" such as J and B Wood Products near Roseburg to do the harvesting and milling.
Stella helped establish wilderness areas and an environmental-education center in the northern part of the state, all while living near a community that depended on timber. He moved to Southern Oregon determined to grow a business that was both environmentally and economically sustainable.
"We try to bring in logs from where they grow abundantly," he says.
A commitment to local sourcing brings in madrone and California black oak from the Rogue Valley and walnut from orchards along Interstate 5 in California. Stella's successful formula depends on maximizing trees' value; he likens the approach to a butcher yielding several grades and cuts of meat from a single animal.
"To be respectful of the tree means using as much of it as possible," he says. Respect also is what motivates Peckham to salvage trees from city lots.
"These trees have a lot of value just by the fact they've been growing so long."
Part of the fallen apricot tree lives on as a small table in Peckham's kitchen. A striking knot runs the length of one of the legs, and over time, exposure to the sun will turn the blond wood a blushing, pale orange. It's more than a table; it's a story, one that reflects the rich resources — natural and human — of this region.