I became a fan of Triassic Industries when a houseguest brought a gift – a slightly off-kilter, foot-long wood cooking spoon that makes me think of Popeye’s Olive Oyl, her head curved to one side, her spine a tad misaligned.
The next year, the same friend arrived with a rectangular butcher block cutting board, one of its four edges rounded to send scraps straight to the garbage (or compost pail) with the flick of a knife.
When a two-toned hardwood spatula and diorite mortar-and-pestle arrived, my four-piece Triassic collection had a place of honor on the kitchen counter, the better to admire each item’s sui generis form.
This wasn’t a conscious decision; I just couldn’t bring myself to put the beautiful objects away.
I soon was visiting triassicstone.com on a regular basis, although in those early years, the website featured mostly pictures of wood and stone earrings and a few simple cooking implements interspersed with pictures and accounts of climbing trips and adventures in the tree-services trade.
Triassic’s website today is a slick design-shop display, with everything from slideshows of installations (for example, a black-granite two-person outdoor sink) to lively discussions about one particular sycamore slab’s escalating sprawl of spalting, a form of wood discoloration caused by fungi found mostly in dead trees, but also in trees experiencing stress.
Triassic’s Facebook page features games like “Guess That Tree!” and “Name These Woods!” and occasional preaching about why “each of our wood pieces is unique, and crafted from waste wood generated by our tree service.”
There are plugs for community projects like Wabi-sabi thrift- and recycled-material stores in downtown Moab, where Triassic is based, and the Youth Garden Project (“cultivating healthy children, families and communities through educational projects and the profound act of connecting people with food from seed to table”).
In Triassic’s Moab retail store, there’s a constantly shifting array of products, from stone jewelry, fountains and planters to bird and wasp nests to cooking utensils to cutting boards (including some with Hebrew characters on the side that sell faster than challah during Hanukah). There’s even a long sushi cutting board reincarnated as a swing that hangs from the ceiling with recycled climbing rope and carabiners.
ROOTED IN ACTIVISM
Triassic Industries was founded 11 years ago by Scott Anderson, a 40-something climber, arborist, conservationist, woodworker and designer with a long history of activism with organizations like Rainforest Action Network and Hoods in the Woods.
Anderson grew up in Illinois, making regular rock-hunting expeditions with his grandparents, and in North Carolina, where he worked in his attorney-turned-manufacturer father’s fiberglass factory. In college, he studied geology and anthropology and became a serious rock climber.
The climbing expertise translated readily to the equally high-wire tree-services business, where Anderson’s affinity for wood grew as he learned to trim, transplant, adopt and, worst-case scenario, dispose of trees. Triassic added entrepreneurship to Anderson’s resume, which began with a stint in the Peace Corps, followed by work as a Wilderness First Responder, adjudicated youth counselor and industrial climber.
Anderson deployed his climbing skills in a 2002 Greenpeace incident that went viral after he was arrested in the Port of Miami for clandestinely boarding a merchant vessel, its cargo including ill-gotten Brazilian mahogany being smuggled into the U.S. Anderson and a co-conspirator were planning to fly a protest banner over the ship, but were intercepted before they could complete the mission.
A few months after Anderson’s arrest and successful defense by a phalanx of American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, “The U.S. banned all mahogany trade,” Anderson now recalls proudly. Anderson takes something of a Buddhist perspective on wood in today’s marketplace, endorsing the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi, an aesthetic worldview focusing on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, in which a flaw contains the kernel of beauty.
“Customers are trained to want all this perfect stuff,” Anderson says, leading furniture-makers to want only “perfect wood pieces that are top-grade” and stonemasons to aim for “the perfect polished marble countertop” and losing stone’s essential “rockness” in the process.
He suggests the key to Triassic’s aesthetic is simply “seeing the value in something other people throw away.”
‘YOU TAKE YOUR RAW MATERIALS?’
In Triassic’s early days, Anderson began recycling waste-wood headed for landfill into wood spoons and earrings, selling them at the Moab Farmers Market “for beer money.”
As a counselor with the Wilderness Therapy Institute, he’d used fallen wood “to make spoons with the kids” that became their sole eating utensils for the duration of the expedition.
Customer enthusiasm for his “recycled wood” spoons led to Anderson’s Eureka Moment – in a city where “13 percent of our landfill was tree waste,” he recalls. Instead of waste, he realized, he had the raw materials for a great business model, whereby “you can do the right thing and you can make money at it and you can change the world” in the process.
His Moab bankers agreed on the potential profitability front, but approved his loan only after investigating a “fraud alert” on his application, Anderson says, placed there “because the profit margin was too high for the tree-service industry,” which, because liability insurance is so expensive, hovers at 1-to-2 percent.
“You mean people pay you to take their wood, and you use it to make stuff – and then you sell it?” Anderson says one banker asked him, incredulously. “You take your raw materials? It’s like being an undertaker!”
Anderson sums up his business model more elegantly. “We take a tree from removal to processing,” he says.
FROM DOGBANE TO WONDERSTONE
What can be done with wood waste is on display in the Triassic Store, on Moab’s main street, that opened nearly two years ago. There are tree root-balls on display, one as an outdoor table, another sliced and hung up on the wall; $5 bundles of campfire wood; and wood scraps shaped into blocks displayed on a tree stump, just inviting children (and adults) to play. There are dogbane and glass necklaces, polished rock earrings, Utah wonderstone (like a miniature encapsulation of the red-rock desert sunset), bowls, platters, cutting boards, spatulas, and a constantly shifting array of wood spoons and earrings – all made from “scrap.”
“That’s the only one; sorry,” Anderson’s very-pregnant wife, Jenni, tells the rare customer who asks for a second piece of some favorite product, or for perfectly matching earrings. “Please try to enjoy our uniqueness.”
THE QUEST FOR IMPERFECTION
Anderson has a soft spot for the generally reviled tamarisk, a major contributor to desertification in the western U.S., which is “beautiful, and highly prized in the Mideast,” where soil conditions keep the plant’s invasive properties at bay. His favorite wood, catalpa, is also non-native, and he describes it like the salesman that he is: “It’s got great big leaves and long seed pods, with little white flowers. It cuts well, dries well, smells nice and is easy to work with – it’s just a friendly wood,” unlike, say, woods like walnut, “that want to fight.”
Catalpa, on the other hand, “is happy to oblige,” making it easier for the woodworker “to see something, and then figure out how we can bring out the natural beauty of the piece.” (Anderson was paraphrasing Michelangelo, who famously said he looked for “the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.”)
Last year, Triassic Industries recycled 750,000 pounds of trash waste into useable commodities that were sold online and through the store.
At Triassic’s headquarters, a few miles south of Moab, Anderson’s small office is filled with the sounds of drills and saws. A window looks out on the cottonwood stumps lining the property where tree-trimming waste is sorted and assigned to its next phase in the cycle of life. He scribbles on a legal pad. That 750,000 pounds translates to “12 yards a day at $8 a yard for 250 days a year,” he calculates.
“So we save $24,000 a year in county landfill operating costs.”
The Triassic store, on a main street dominated by tourist shops, draws in visitors from “Germany, France, England, Japan” – citizens of countries that still value “things that are made to last” over knickknacks.
“They say we’re the nicest store they’ve seen here in America,” Anderson says.
He’s proud that Triassic accounts for ten percent of Moab’s industrial base, and is offering skill-building jobs in a local economy where “McDonald’s pays pretty well, but I wouldn’t call McDonald’s a fulfilling job.”
“We’re not charging anything extra; we don’t have a ‘green tax,’” he says, seizing the chance to proselytize. “We don’t have to ask for money; we don’t have to ask permission; we don’t have to ask government for anything, or sway public opinion. The customer doesn’t have to care about side benefits. We’re the solution – that’s what I’m most excited about.
“We figured out what fits with the community.”