LOGAN -- George Hessenthaler likes trees better than people.
But who wouldn't, when you see in trees what he does?
Potential. Depth. Character. Each burl as distinctive as a Scottish burr.
But no money. The idea even makes him chuckle. "Laughingly, I say I'm making a living out of this."
Hessenthaler is president, poet-in-residence and broom pusher of Urban Forest Wood Works, the only mill in Utah that specializes in society's cast-offs and orphans -- the city trees that otherwise would be mulched or burned in a landfill. Meaning "trash" trees like locust, cottonwood or Russian olive.
"Everything here," he adds, "is made of discarded trees."
He's 72, white bearded and chatty, and the only time his hand doesn't quiver a bit with early Parkinson's disease is when he's gripping a piece of wood.
Oh, and he goes to bed at 7 every night because he works so hard every day -- redeeming souls, you might say.
He gives urban trees a life beyond their cut-down date -- like the six sycamores that were felled April 3 on Brigham City's Main Street.
Hessenthaler is one of the few people who can take the wood to its full potential. And he hopes to be able to, as he says, "resurrect these honorable old trees to a lasting life of service and remembrance" as furniture and more.
Brigham City fathers haven't decided on a final destination for the six trees, but they're leaning toward letting Hessenthaler turn the logs into boards.
His usual rate is "tree for tree," he says. That is, he "saws and dimensions" two logs into lumber to best show the wood's grain and personality, and then he keeps one.
He has the tools for it. A warehouse on Logan's farm-field-covered west side houses a large collection of specialized planing, sanding and joining equipment.
By milling lumber from the log, he's able to take advantage of the grain and highlight the burls. He points to, for instance, a striking piece of planed lumber as box elder with a large knotty growth. Tree-tall racks of wood crowd the warehouse -- drying stacks of honey locust, black walnut and Siberian elm (the real name for what we Utahns mistakenly call Chinese elm).
He says he's too old for the big and heavy outcomes like furniture -- but, oh, the little ones. Boxes of all kinds. Gun boxes, jewelry boxes, stretched, skinny and square boxes.
"I will show you treasures," he says, as he leads the way into his finishing room, where each buffed and hinged box is given a dressing of wax and an interior of leather.
Treasures, indeed. Little beauties in the dark hue of mountain mahogany or the yellowish curls of cottonwood. Hessenthaler has perfected a special resin, colored by metal shavings, that fills in the character-giving bark pockets and burls.
The creations reflect Hessenthaler's nearly lifelong quest to show us all the beauty in the discarded.
"Most trees are wasted," he says. They are chipped as mulch, sawed into firewood or buried in junkyards. "Why should we bury such a valuable resource?" He gestures around: "This stuff was literally rescued from the landfill."
Hessenthaler is also a spokesman for the living -- America's urban forests, which are in a state of decline, he says. He is invited around the country to speak about America's urban trees. Recently -- "and this will impress you," he says with a wink -- he was asked by the North Carolina Urban Forest Council to speak at the Biltmore Estate.
"As important as I think I am, I don't have the energy to have much of an impact," he says with a sigh. "I'll be dead before I see any impact from what I'm doing."
Finding his path
It initially took Hessenthaler a while to pin down his passion. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a journalism degree, and then worked in public relations for Mountain Bell and a trade association.
He opened his first mill in Salt Lake City in 1988, moving to his current location in 1993. Today, bumper stickers on his front door greet visitors with his basic philosophy of life: "Trees are the answer."
And the source. Hessenthaler goes right to the logs themselves to find each species's hidden personality. Any kind of blemish, a bark pocket or tumor or fungus, "gives me something to work with."
He understates when he explains, "The logs give you way more options than if you were to go buy wood at Home Depot."
A quarter-sawn sycamore log, like those removed in Brigham City, reveals something you'd never expect in the shaggy-barked, temperamental trees: a fawn-colored herringbone grain that is unlike any other wood.
In the business, it's called a ray fleck -- and it does look like flecks radiating out from a vein. "There's not a wood that has greater ray-fleck capabilities than sycamore," he said.
Sycamore wood can be "stunningly beautiful" if it's properly sawed and dried. "The trick with sycamore is, you have to know how to saw it," he says.
Sycamore is considered a lower-grade hardwood -- a distinction belied by its polished beauty. It's still used in cabinetry, most often as sides and bottoms of drawers.
But Hessenthaler sees the "fantastically fabulous" in all wood.
"I will die in this shop," he says. "My idea of a perfect passing is to create the perfect box, then fall down, dead before I hit the floor."
WARRIORS IN THE URBAN WOOD WARS
They do battle as urban wood warriors,
Sculpting trees as urban wood sawyers,
Wearing wounds as marks of wealth.
Earning strains and pains and bruises plenty,
Which number not few but many,
They scurry through tree tops with stealth.
And as to lofty tree tops they scale,
They fearlessly climb and never fail,
To reshape behemoths to a greater good.
There is no joy in felling a tree,
Rather in the muted, mantled majesty
Of creating works of art in living wood.
-- George Hessenthaler, April 5, 2012