California valley oak finds new home at Methow Arts

Fall 2019

by Ashley Lodato

A striking new reception desk at the Methow Arts office on Glover Street is more than just an eye-catching piece of office equipment; it’s also an artisan functional furnishing with a notable history. The live-edge oak slab comes from a California valley oak (Quercus lobata) that was damaged in a 2015 wildfire in northern California. The owners wanted “something more meaningful than firewood” to come from their beloved 300+-year-old tree and now, like the Phoenix from the ashes, the felled oak has a new incarnation at the Methow Valley’s flagship arts organization. A series of serendipitous connections brought the oak slab—and several other pieces from the same tree—to the Methow Valley, thanks to the aesthetic vision and creative collaboration of wood aficionado Jacques Peschon, woodworker Rick Swanson, and Methow Arts board president Don Ashford.

Part-time Methow Valley resident Jacques Peschon salvaged the valley oak from his family home in Middletown, a tiny town in Lake County with underpinnings in the 19th century quicksilver mining industry.  On September 12, 2015, the Valley Fire decimated half the town and 75,000 acres. Peschon’s parents’ home was one of 1300 residences lost to the fire. At the time, it was the most destructive wildfire in California history.

Peschon’s parents’ property, on which they had built a house in the 1970s, was home to the largest of the North American oaks:  the valley oak, or Quercus lobata. Three of these majestic trees, estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old, surrounded the Peschons’ home, and all were damaged in the fire.  

When Peschon went to the family home to view the damage, he looked at the charred trees and immediately thought, “Something good has to come out of these trees, something more meaningful than firewood.” He didn’t know what that would be, but he had the trees slabbed into 4” thick pieces 13-15’ long and 3-5’ wide, beginning with the two most damaged trees in 2015, followed by the third tree—which eventually would make its way to the Methow Valley— in 2017. “Twenty thousand pounds of wood,” Peschon notes, putting the scale of the destruction in perspective.

“My plan at that point was to get the wood slabbed and then figure out the next steps,” Peschon says. Peschon knew that each member of his family would appreciate having a piece of furniture made from the oak in memory of the family home, so he arranged for a woodworker to build his mother a dining table and a bench, as well as a table for his sister. Peschon and his wife, Tracey, have a coffee table. “Eventually,” says Peschon, “everyone in the family will get a piece of the tree to remember the family home.”

The remainder of the wood sat drying in the Napa Valley, awaiting its future use. And then two years ago, Peschon and Tracey were at their vacation home in the Rendezvous, when they came upon a man whose car was stuck in a snowbank. The Peschons stopped to help the man, as did Methow Valley woodworker Rick Swanson. The car could not be freed, but Swanson and the Peschons waited for the tow truck with the car’s owner.

“While we waited, we got to talking,” says Peschon. “I learned that Rick was a woodworker, and I said ‘This wood might interest you,’ and showed him my photos of the slabbed wood.”  Peschon told Swanson of his desire to create something meaningful out of the wood, perhaps to donate it to a non-profit organization to be used in a significant way.

Even on the tiny screen of a smart phone, Swanson knew a treasure when he saw one. “You need to get that up here!” Swanson said. Like Peschon, Swanson didn’t have a concrete plan for the wood, but recognized it as uniquely gorgeous. Swanson also knew well the Methow Valley’s preponderance of non-profit organizations, and figured that someone would eventually devise a use worthy of the wood. Peschon sums up the collective attitude as “Do now, think later.”

Arranging for transportation from CA to the Methow Valley was trickier than Peschon would have thought, given 21st century widespread use of trucking. “I kept hitting roadblocks with the trucking,” Peschon says, with no pun intended. “The big trucking companies I tried wouldn’t touch it. One guy referred to Middletown and Winthrop as ‘goat roads.’” Peschon finally found a trucker in Middletown who did hauling for vineyards. “It was right before the harvest,” Peschon says, “and people had time on their hands. He did the drive from Napa  and back in three days.”

Larry Walsh of Methow Valley Lumber offered the lumberyard as a staging area for the giant slabs and Roger Rowatt helped with additional milling, as well as providing advice on length of drying time. “It was more wood than we knew what to do with,” says Peschon, “but we knew we could do something good with it.” Do now, think later.

The wood eventually found its purpose through what Swanson refers to as “a confluence of magical events,” beginning with the Rendezvous snowbank encounter and furthered by a chance conversation between Swanson and Methow Arts board president Don Ashford. “I was chatting with Don one day,” says Swanson, “and he started talking about a reception desk he envisioned for the new Methow Arts office on Glover Street. He wanted something dramatic, something functional but extraordinary, unique.”

Swanson pulled out his phone and scrolled to some photos. Showing Ashford the pictures of the slabbed oak, he said “This wood might interest you.” Indeed, it did.

Of the oak slabs, Swanson says almost reverentially, “This is some of the most beautiful wood I’ve ever seen.” Swanson finds working with the oak fascinating. “I haven’t done a lot of work with recently-dried, live edge lumber,” he says. “It’s really freeing. You start hacking away and see what you uncover, start to envision what you can do with it.”

Swanson took Ashford and his son Clay to look at the slabs and cut off a 5’ length to make into the Methow Arts desk. “It took three of us to get it into the truck and then into my shop,” he says. “I started hand-planing it immediately.”

As with any reception desk in an office space, the oak piece serves a functional purpose at Methow Arts. It holds mailing list sign-ups, fliers, and promotional information. Staff and visitors use it as a writing surface; people lean against it to talk.

Jacques & Tracey Peschon

But it is also a conversation piece—an entry into a story. It gives the Peschon family satisfaction to know that at least part of their beloved wood is used and appreciated by a non-profit organization that has been serving the Methow Valley since 1987. And, either by sheer coincidence or through some divine artistic force, a piece of wood that comes from a place devastated by fire has a new home in a valley that is itself still in the process of fire recovery. As Peschon says, “That’s what we meant by meaningful.”

The public is invited to drop in to the Methow Arts office at 204 North Glover Street in Twisp between 10am-2pm on Tue-Sat to see the beautiful old valley oak slab repurposed into a reception desk.