For the last few weeks my wife and I have been un-apologetically re-watching the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation series on Netflix and I have been unduly captivated by the giant sweeping arc of wood that makes up the upper control console of the main bridge.
Every time I see it I can’t help but think, “I wonder if that’s mahogany. It looks like mahogany,” or “maybe it’s some sort of Klingon rosewood.” It’s honestly somewhat distracting. There might be a Romulan Warbird on the view screen and yet I can’t help thinking that underneath all of that polyurethane someone chose to use actual, honest to goodness wood on the bridge of a starship. Apparently, despite all the advances of the twenty-fourth century, people still need to feel wood every once in a while to feel human, (or humanoid).
And yes, I know it’s a TV show. No, I don’t think that matters because whatever starships look like in 300 years, I bet they’ll have some burlwood on the dashboard, and here’s why:
Last week I went to visit someone in the hospital and found that nearly every surface in their room had a wood grain pattern laminated onto it. It wasn’t wood, of course, but it was made to look as wood-like as possible. The intent of the designer was to create an inviting atmosphere conducive to healing, and yet running my hand over the wood-like plastic left me confused and cold. It was a mixed message.
For me, all of this reinforces the belief that there is something deep in our psyche that thrills at the natural and dramatic variation in wood, and connects to the tactile warmth under the fingers. Consequently, there is something that comes un-moored when these touch-points are absent. This connection is so powerful that even fake wood is better than no wood for some people. For the rest of us, this is why we work with wood. This is why we surround ourselves with it. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that our interaction with wood makes us human, but I would say that at the very least it helps us to understand what it means to be human in the world. It gives us context and connection to the natural world of which we are a part. It is a powerful narrative.
My four year old started a conversation with the Cable repair guy this week about how humans are made of chemicals, and how everything else is made of chemicals too; chairs, tables, stars, glass… (imagine a four year old listing things ad-nauseum with a slight Southern accent). Even at this age she has some sense that we’re all just waves and particles dancing around each other until our atoms disperse into the universe and become something else. And yet, it so often feels like there is more. This mysterious connection between atoms – as if they remember one another from time to time along their journey – reminds us that we are not so far above the rest of the natural world as we sometimes think we are.
Even on a starship en route to the Beta Quadrant.