A Deconstruction of the Partridge in a Pear Tree

Wooden spingerle cookie mold for the First Day of Christmas.


Christmastide, the twelve days from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night, is one of my favorite times of the winter season. The long rush to Christmas is over and, for me, it has always been a time to relax. I spend time out-of-doors bird watching and squirrel wrangling. All of our many oak trees have shed their leaves and the loblolly pines, the magnolias and other evergreens are easier to see and admire. This is the time of year I like to reread a favorite book and this year my selection is “The Outermost House” by Henry Beston. January 5, or Twelfth Night, calls for another read of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night or What You Will.”

The deconstruction of the partridge in a pear tree involves a dip into one of the origin stories of woodworking from the ancient world followed by an article by a very-much-missed modern-day woodworker.

The Partridge

This is a drama involving gifted inventors, ambition, jealousy, treachery, broken familial bonds and a goddess. It must be a three-hankie opera, you are probably thinking. No! That’s very close, but incorrect. It is a sordid episode from Greek and Roman mythology. The story has two possible endings, neither of which is of particular benefit to the victim. There will some confusion about the name of the victim but it will possibly be made clear for you.

First, we will hear from Book V of Diodorus of Siculus (Greek 60-30 BC): “Talus, a son of the sister of Daedalus, was receiving his education in the home of Daedalus, while he was still a lad in years. But being more gifted than his teacher he invented the potter’s wheel, and then when once he had come by chance upon the jawbone of a snake and with it had sawn through a small piece of wood, he tried to imitate the jaggedness of the serpent’s teeth. Consequently he fashioned a saw out of iron, by means of which he gained the reputation of having discovered a device which would be of great service to the art of building. He likewise discovered also the tool for describing a circle and certain other cunningly contrived devices whereby he gained for himself great fame. But Daedalus becoming jealous of the youth and feeling that his fame was going to rise far above that of his teacher, treacherously slew the youth.”

Fresco from Pompeii in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photo taken in 1895, Goodyear Archival Collection, Brooklyn Museum.

You might know this fresco as The Procession of the Carpenters. In the 19-century museum handbook the fresco is identified as the Death of Perdix (should be Talus) and is described: “This picture represents the murder in the workshop, with apprentices sawing and planing. It is painted on the plane of a catafalque carried by four bearers.” At the forefront of the catafalque we see the scene of the crime. To the left of the apprentice busy planing you will notice what appears to be a surfboard. It is Athena’s shield, however most of Athena herself, at least in this fresco, has disintegrated. Daedalus is one of her favorites and she knows what deed he has done.

Daedalus wrapped the body of Talus in cloth and rushed to bury him. A passerby was suspicious and asked Daedalus what he was burying. Daedalus said it was a snake and his murderous act was discovered. Diodorus provides this pithy conclusion: “Here a man may well wonder at the strange happening, that the same animal that led to the thought of devising the saw should also have been the means through which the murder came to be discovered.”

Next, Book VIII of Ovid’s Metamorphosis gives us a different ending: “Your sister, Perdix, oblivious to the fates, sent you her son, Talus, to be taught: twelve years old, his mind ready for knowledge. Indeed, the child, studying the spine of a fish, took it as a model and cut continuous teeth out of sharp metal, inventing the use of the saw. He was also the first to pivot two iron arms on a pin, so that, with the arms set at a distance, one part could be fixed, and the other sweep out a circle. Daedalus was jealous, and hurled the boy headlong from Minerva’s sacred citadel, claiming that he had fallen. But Pallas Minerva, who favors those with quick minds, caught him, and turned him into a partridge, masking him with feathers in mid-air.”

Neither of these two illustrations capture the drama of Talus transforming from human to partridge. We need a better example of, as Ovid put it, “His inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet, and he kept his mother’s name, Perdix, from before.”

This is much better. We see Daedalus and the force of the push. Athena (Minerva) is well-positioned on her cloud to save Talus by transforming his fall into the flight of the partridge, Perdix.

Perdix perdix, the gray partridge.

One last line from Ovid: “But the bird does not perch above the ground, and does not make its nest on branches or on high points, but flies low on whirring wings over the soil, and lays its eggs in a sheltered place.” Poor Talus/Perdix! Such a gifted inventor. Whether it was the jaw of a snake or the spine of a fish that served as his inspiration for the saw we will never know for sure (myth).

As for Daedalus, he escaped a more severe punishment and was banished from Athens. He eventually makes his way to Crete. His story comes full circle when his invention leads to the loss of his son Icarus as they try to escape Crete.

The Pear Tree

The following article by the late David Savage, founder of the Rowden Atelier & Woodworking School, first appeared in the July 2008 issue of British Woodworking Magazine. David posted it on his Fine Furniture Maker blog in August 2008. On his blog it is titled “An Article on Pearwood.” He grabs you with the first line and doesn’t let go.

“Pear wood is one of the most sensual and satisfying of hardwoods that a furniture maker can encounter. The structure of the wood is hard, so hard that the sharpest of tools are required to work it. This allows you to cut the finest of details and form the most delicate of shapes. pear wood is also, unlike almost any other hardwood, without figure. I say without figure meaning without the usual graphics of timber. Pear wood is a timber that hasn’t lines running through it, but instead has a colour shift. The general colour of pear wood is almost dark fleshy colour, pinky brown is a favorite description. That colour can shift orangey or purpley brown on either side of the main colour. On rare occasions you can get dark purple, blacky contrasting heartwood colour but that is rare. Generally the colour of pear wood is fleshy pink.

Unlike our other exotic timbers, pear wood is a wood that is sensitive to work. Hand tools will take silky shavings from pear wood. There’s no need to scrape and scratch around to take out interlocking grain for there almost never is interlocking grain on pear wood. It’s what I call a well mannered wood. Pleasant to be with. It doesn’t stink or make you feel itchy or scratchy, it doesn’t get up your nose, it’s a nice wood to be around. In fact one of the most pleasant things about it is the way it works. The way fine silky shavings will come off with a well sharpened bench plane. The way new hues and colours are exposed with each shaving. Working with pear wood is a genuine sensuous experience, and one that should be cherished.

I first came in touch with pear wood over 30 years ago when I read about it in books by James Kenov. I then found myself a dealer near Bristol who had recently felled a small log of English pear. If I was prepared to buy the whole lot he would mill it up for me to the sizes I wanted. At the time I’d never dried any timber before and my London workshop hadn’t much space for me, let alone stacks of half dry timber. But I did have a flat roof that I thought would be a suitable place to stack this wood out. I read up about how to do it, got the pear wood home, dragged it up three flights of stairs, stickered it out with 1” square sticks at 12” intervals between each of the boards so that air could get round and covered it with a corrugated iron sheet to keep the direct sun off the boards. I sat back and looked with satisfaction at my precious stack of soon to be exquisite furniture. About that time an old craftsman said something to me that has stayed with me. He said “In timber lad there’s as much joy as heartache” and I didn’t know that this was going to be one of those heartache moments. In the Handbook of English Hardwoods which was the reference book I used at the time it said “pear wood is timber that is inclined to twist on drying,” which is why I put concrete blocks on top of the drying stack. What I should have done was put two or three tons of timber on the top of the stack as well. As my precious pear wood boards dried during that summer they turned into unusual wooden propellers. Each board twisted approximately 1” to 2” in each direction. I think I got a few small pieces of furniture from that stack but nothing larger than a jewellery box. Needless to say that was the last time I’ve attempted to dry English pear wood. Most of my pear wood these days comes from Switzerland. The Swiss are wonderful people and they grow pear wood as a shade tree in many of their cities. The pear wood they grow is steamed as part of the drying process. The steaming slightly changes the colour of the timber from being fleshy pink to a slightly darker, redder fleshy pink. The steaming is done to remove and kill the huge borers that can munch their way through the entire tree. I found a few of those borers in my stack of pear wood propellers. They made gigantic holes, not just down the sweet sapwood but right in the middle of the heartwood, and you found them only by putting the board over the jointer, suddenly your immaculate board now had a great long hole in it and you’d shaved the top off this living creature, yeuch! Steamed pear wood suddenly had great attractions.

It’s not an enormous tree the pear tree, but I’ve found in my time boards coming from Switzerland can be 10’ long and 2’6” wide. The bark on the tree is coarse but the sapwood, like cherry wood, is almost indistinguishable from the heartwood, meaning you can use the timber almost edge to edge. 

You have to be careful what you use pear wood for. This is a timber that is in scarce supply and it is a relatively expensive timber. Also it’s not available in really big boards so it would be unusual to find a dining table being made in pear wood, certainly in solid form, though I have seen veneered pear wood boardroom tables occasionally. Over the years I have made small cabinets and small occasional tables and card tables in solid pear wood and wall hung cabinets and very occasionally chairs, and I can safely say it has been one of the most enjoyable timbers I’ve ever used. Now just ‘cos I say so don’t go out and cause a world shortage by buying it all.

“Swiss Pearwood Bench” by Ted Blachly.

Ted Blachly note for this bench says, “This bench was made from luscious Swiss pearwood from the Jere Osgood wood collection…A rare treat.”

The next time you hear the first verse of The Twelve Days of Christmas perhaps you will remember the story of the young inventor of the saw and compass and a bird that prefers to stay close to ground. And also pear wood that can become unusual wooden propellers or be well-mannered, produce silky shavings and exquisite furniture.

Suzanne Ellison

  Christmastide, the twelve days from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night, is one of my favorite times of the winter season. The long rush to Christmas is over and, for me, it has always been a time to relax. I spend time out-of-doors bird watching and squirrel wrangling. All of our many oak trees have…Read MorePersonal Favorites, The Intelligent HandLost Art PressRead More

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