The world for centuries has wondered philosophically, "If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a noise?"
In the Lower Keys, however, woodworker, painter and shipwright Tommy Avery is confident he won't miss anything.
"If a tree falls in town, I'll hear [about] it," he said recently from his outdoor workshop on Geiger Key, while a black cat named .3 moved lithely among wooden planks, metal tools -- and wet paint.
"You know how they always say the average family has 2.3 kids? She's our .3," he said pointing to the kitty that recently took a nap atop a wet, green paint stirrer, which stuck to the cat's fur and tripped her up in frustration until a bemused Avery returned home to rectify the situation.
The stir stick, a recycled wooden slat from an accordion-style door, is one colorful example of Avery's recycling habit.
"I don't throw much away," he said, walking through the workshop and handling with expert hands the items he has created from pieces of wood that others would have tossed. One 6-inch length of oak or cedar was rounded on the top and then tapered toward the base, clearly in the shape of a banister, or railing. Someone was throwing it away, Avery said. He took the banister, divided it into smaller segments, hollowed out a long center and created a stunning wooden jewelry or keepsake box.
"Almost every week, someone drops off some chunk of wood from somewhere, and I'll recycle it into something else," Avery said.
Giant tree stumps and thick logs sit heavily in Avery's front yard, awaiting their next incarnation, be it an intricate tabletop or naturally shaped wooden bowl. The larger stumps may be sliced at their widest part so the resulting 3-inch thick slab become a highly polished tabletop that reveals every natural grain and every year of the tree's life.
Other felled trees from around the Florida Keys have become the free-form bowls that many people recognize as Avery's work. The bowls are now on sale at Guild Hall Gallery, Key West Art Center, JanGeorge interior designs and Artists in Paradise Gallery on Big Pine Key. Avery's paintings on wood, canvas and swordfish bills also are in many of the same galleries.
"I just started doing bowls five years ago, and have done 217 of them," he said, turning over one at least 2 feet wide borne of an old mahogany tree.
Avery signs, dates and numbers each bowl, and includes the species of wood and the street where the tree had grown. He also can include custom information for special occasions, such as a couple's name and wedding date, on a natural or pre-coated bowl.
All the bowls are from Keys trees, many of which ultimately perished from salt poisoning after Hurricane Wilma's storm surge surrounded and saturated mahoganies, tamarinds, tropical almond and other wooden giants.
"When people started cutting those trees down, the salt had already leached out a lot of the moisture, seasoning it perfectly," Avery said, referring to the time-consuming drying process for wood.
Saltwater dries wood perfectly, which is why Avery is happy to take early-morning calls from the city's beach-cleaning crews.
"Those guys will call me whenever they come across a big piece of driftwood," he said, pointing to a large chunk of teak that likely had been soaking in the ocean for 50 years.
"I know that's something good," he said, explaining that the outer layers of newer growth would already have been washed away, leaving only the purest "heart" of the wood. "And I let the shape of the tree determine the shape of the bowl."
He uses a chain saw to roughly hew the bowl into the desired depth by deciding how long of a log to cut from the trunk. If that log has wobbles and bumps, so will the edge of the bowl, Avery said. He uses the chain saw to size and roughly cut an indent for the bowl; the rest is carved and sanded by hand until it shines, even before the first drop of clear-coat is applied.
All the bowls are food-safe and can be cleaned with soap and water, he said, reaching for a 100-year-old piece of Dade County pine that had been a fascia on a home built in 1890. He turned it into a series of small, shallow bowls.
"That wood had already had 100 years of useful life, and now it has another 100 in its new life as a bowl," he said, surveying his workspace with a satisfied eye.
The Carolina native -- born in South, raised in North -- has helped build more than 100 vessels, both wooden and fiberglass, and helped sportfishing pioneer Buddy Davis create a faster sportfisher to get to the fishing grounds faster. He helped build an 85-foot replica of the Half Moon, the square-rigged sailboat that explorer Henry Hudson piloted in the 1600s when discovering Delaware Bay and other East Coast waterways.
Avery also has worked on Sebago's catamarans, the Schooner Wolf and other local vessels.
It was a 50-foot sailboat named My Way that brought the Southerner farther south in 1992.
"I was putting a new plank into a sailboat in North Carolina when a guy named Capt. Elmer Seaman poked me in the shoulder and said, 'You promised you'd go sailing with me,' " Avery recalled. "I agreed to go for a year."
A year became 14 months, and 14 months became six years. By then, Avery had logged five years, six months and 24 hours and he was still on the water, just not logging the hours.
"We sailed 24,000 nautical miles, saw 12 countries and crossed the Atlantic twice," he said.
Seaman had a house on Geiger Key at the time, and whenever the boat needed repairs, they'd pull it into Seaman's canal and spend a few weeks in Key West and the Lower Keys. It was during those brief stops that Avery met and ultimately fell in love with Seaman's neighbor, Mally Weaver, also a painter.
Today, their work, depicting water scenes, tropical species and animals, fills every inch of their colorful home and overflows into the yard and workshop.
"I feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be and doing what I'm supposed to be doing," Avery said, rubbing his palm along a smooth plank, planning its next life, because his is pretty much carved out.