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01.16.08

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Stories in Wood

Petaluma's Heritage Salvage rescues more than just old beams

By Gianna de Persiis Vona


S torytelling is said to be a dying art, a trajectory that Michael "Bug" Deakin, owner of Heritage Salvage in Petaluma, believes should be stopped. If there is one thing that Deakin understands besides the beauty of wood, it is the importance of preserving our history as a way of sustaining our future. To this end, Deakin makes it his personal obligation to pass on the stories, or "heritage," of each piece of salvaged material that passes through his hands. His Heritage Salvage aims to provide a vital environmental service by salvaging and reusing viable materials, but it is the commitment to preserving the stories within the materials that sets it apart.

Born into a family of storytellers, Deakin has succeeded in keeping the family tradition alive and thriving. He knows the story of virtually every piece of wood or harvested item that exists in both his extensive salvage yard and proportionately modest showroom. He can identify the origin of the materials used to build the custom-made furniture on display, and each piece comes with a certificate of heritage that re-tells the slice of history that has been passed on to Deakin during his salvaging adventures.

The showroom boasts baskets made from the discarded planks of wood that winemakers place in their vats to bestow that "barrel-aged" flavor upon their wines. Chicken feeders are made into exotic, intricately etched lanterns. Old wood from falling-down barns is refashioned into hope chests, tables, coat racks, wine consoles, mirrors and picture frames. Lamps are culled from industrial spools. Deakin tells me that he is forever trying to figure out new ways of transforming his diverse finds while valuing both form and function.

In the back of the showroom, I discover a bevy of recycled treasures: doors, stoves, massive pieces of hand-hewn teak from Bali and Indonesia (which Deakin came upon after someone else imported them and then was unable to put them to use) and a salvaged staircase from a church pew that leads to nowhere in particular. Out in the yard sits a hulking pile of old growth redwood beams, rescued from San Francisco's 1906 Levi Strauss building.

While profit is surely a factor, it takes a certain measure of love and obsession in order to justify the long, often grueling hours involved in salvaging and moving the inspiring specimens that litter the Heritage Salvage yard. I am reminded of the wood lovers of my Big Sur childhood who relished the coastal storms and who every winter could be counted on to be out in the dumping rain with their chainsaws, prepared to mark any fallen tree they could find as their own. But storms felling mammoth redwood trees are not the norm, and much of today's salvaged wood is being trucked in from faraway places, which makes me question the carbon foot-print involved.

Can using salvaged beams, most often shipped from another state, to add beauty to an opulent and quite likely palatial home really be considered a green practice? After all, antique, harvested wood does not come cheap. But I am encouraged by what Deakin calls his "organic pricing." Deakin says he has a commitment to making his salvaged materials available to those who need them and, I get the strong impression, to those who will truly value the story held within.

Heritage Salvage is not about dressing up our present with a little old-growth splinter stock; it is about salvaging the past to feed our future. Deakin's ultimate goal is to spread the methods of Heritage Salvage across the country. His aim is to show communities how to keep it indigenous, how to take down their own barns, chicken-coops and houses, and how to salvage the materials along with their stories.

Deakin says he gets calls from all over the country from those who want him to come out and take down their barn, preserving, as he does so, the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents. They want their family history to carry on, long after all traces of the structure, where it once sagged as if desperate to return to the earth, have been removed.

I write at an old school teacher's desk, very ugly but functional, that I bought years ago at a thrift store for five dollars. The desk is unattractive and ridiculously heavy, but if I had been given the written history of my desk, from creation to its eventual existence with me today, I gladly would have accepted. Instead, I look at the scuffs, scratches, dents and various modifications of time, and have no idea where any of them came from. Perhaps Deakin is on to something, and if we remain in touch with our stories, we will be better able to remain in touch with ourselves, and thereby, with the very planet we are so desperately failing.

For more information on Heritage Salvage, go to www.heritagesalvage.com or call 707.762.6277.


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