Pine knotters unite! You have nothing to lose but your anxieties, and everything to gain.

For those of you who cut wood, you know what a pine knot is because you have a hard time sawing through it. It is the toughest part. I’ve tried to saw through a pine knot and after much cursing, gave up and cut around it.

Dead branches drop off healthy trees and wood knots appear where they died. Knots are the imperfections that cause living wood grain to grow around them.

So why am I writing about pine knots in wood?

Well, first because I moved to this area from Northumberland, a small Pennsylvania town on the banks of the Susquehanna River, one envisioned as a refuge for those seeking freedom to believe and think as they wished.

Its most famous early settler was Dr. Joseph Priestley, the “discover of oxygen” (as if anyone could discover something we use all the time), considered the parent of American chemistry.

For his free thinking, Priestley’s home in England had been burnt down by a mob.

It’s almost a place where every year they celebrate Pineknotter Day with games and food in the center of an idyllic town, with a band shell and many trees lined the street.

Walking there, I could well imagine running into Dr. Priestley himself, it was such a quaint place.

I find much in nature from which to learn. Sometimes the best teachers are those who ask us to stop, look, and listen to the world around us, especially the natural world.

One can learn as much if not more from a river than a textbook. I have understood more from tending a garden than attending a class.

Indeed, the first words of many wisdom teachers is: “Wake up!” They ask us to witness the miracle of life in and around us, to spend a moment acknowledging its beauty and brevity. As one of my favorite writers, Annie Dilliard, has written: the universe doesn’t like playing to an empty house (or mind). We are here to bear witness to all of it.

So, what have I learned from pine knots?

First, they are tough. And their toughness comes from their imperfections. Strength comes from weakness, in other words. And that is an important lesson for living.

Rather than denying our imperfections, we should learn and grow from them.

Second, pine knots are dead wood before being renewed. They are literally dead wood around which has grown living wood. Out of death, comes new life. That’s another thought coming from many world wisdom traditions. Out of what appears to be loss, comes new life.

Think of a time in your life when you thought you had lost something or someone and how difficult that felt at the time. Then, reflect on what came out of that loss, a new beginning. I know I have learned more from any losses than gains.

There is a wonderful book by a Catholic priest and teacher, Henri J.W. Nouwen, called Wounded Healer. In it, Nouwen suggests that it is out of wounds we are capable of healing ourselves and others, because the wounds, like pine knots in wood, are our teachers. They teach us to learn our imperfections to relate to others because no one is perfect.

And they teach us to let go in order to live.

The next time you cut wood, remember the noble pine knot, life out of death, strength out of weakness and imperfection.

John C. Morgan is a teacher and writer. He can be reached at

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