This squared up log came from the pin oak in our front yard. We have history with that pin oak. Soon after we moved in drought struck and that massive tree drew water from everywhere and the house sunk. That majestic force of nature, four times the height of the house and far older, is an ever-present living being rooted in soil and biosphere. After expensive foundation repairs, we arrived at an understanding: I water the tree and the tree doesn’t destroy the house.
One morning, years into our agreement, I woke to find a large limb lying on the ground. Its branches took up a third of the yard. Curiously, its leaves were still green. Yet there it lay minus the stub it left behind, six-foot long and twenty inches in diameter at the trunk. We cut it up the limb for firewood and hired someone to prune the stub. Severed from the massive tree, it hit the ground and the house shook. Struck by the tree’s offering I wondered what log turned lumber might become. I had our arborist cut it to manageable lengths.
Three logs sat in our garage-turned-workshop for months. At the edge of the workspace they beckoned to be brought to its center. I hesitated. Every piece of equipment relied on starting with a mostly squared up piece of lumber. No single tool would make easy work of turning log to lumber. Eventually I took a chain saw to the largest log. My attempt at creating a flat surface was crude–the fruit of the unpracticed wielding of a brute instrument. I broke a cog in my planer trying to flatten it out. Log and tool were not even close to being ready for each other. You might think the log was taunting me. That’s not how it felt.
The meeting of minds was a collision that brought a measure of clarity: How to hold it in all its organic form and encourage it to yield to geometric intentions? What follows is at the same time a technical and poetic procedure. I laid the log horizontally on the flat surface of a table saw. It wobbled unsteadily. I shimmed it to prevent rocking. I clamped two long straight boards to the table snug against either side of the log. These held it steady and created rails parallel to the table and slightly above the top of the log. I made a tray for a router to ride on the rails. Using a flat-bottom bit, I routed a little off the top, lowered the bit and routed a little more and so on until I had one serviceable flat surface. Sawdust flew and the wood revealed its striking beauty. I flipped it over and repeated the procedure to create a parallel flat surface. A couple of passes through the repaired planer smoothed them out. Perpendicular to these, irregular bark-covered edges remained so I stapled a flat piece of plywood to one edge as a guide and ran it through the table saw to create a straight edge on the other. That edge guided the cut for the fourth flat side.
Having negotiated the transformation this far, I paused to take in the result. The jagged, crooked ends left it feeling unfinished so I squared off the ends. I set it on end and contemplated its beauty. Opening to possibility, I wondered why I didn’t lay it horizontally as it grew, fell and landed. I tried this and knew immediately that this was wrong somehow. Its desire was embodied in the vertical.
The co-created work before me is and is becoming. It is complete and not done yet. While I intend to eventually make something else of it, for now it is making something of us. It is calling for a witness to the fruits born of the initiating gestures of a creative act wrought at the center of the workshop. I write as a witness giving testimony. It stands before me as a monolith–a monument to the unity of nature and thought, the organic and the abstract. Honoring both in the poesis of technique releases the organic beauty of the wood in a way utterly unique. Its call is less opaque.
Its history, articulated in every nuance of grain, insect activity, traces of bark and geometric fantasy, is immediate, visceral, complex and beautiful. I wonder at its story. If I did not know the tree it came from I would be hard pressed to classify it. So I stay with wonder until it opens to an ordinary miracle. Married in the poetics of technique, the abstract and the organic have birthed a living, speaking being.
The only way to convey its visceral impact is poetically for the viscera are the seat of poetic consciousness–our bodily resonance with the interiority of the world. The monolith’s mass is the substance of organic imagination accessible through the planar lenses of flat, parallel and perpendicular surfaces. As though peering into the eyes of the tree I gaze into its soul which radiates out and resonates with my own–a sympathetic vibration of the hearts of kin. When siblings sing, their voices blend in ways no other can. They sing as one and many.
Matter never stands alone as creative media. In the intimacy of the creative act the media is the relationship and all it embraces. We are the media. The thought, intention, imagination, substance and interiority of shop smith and limb intermingle. If I were foreign to nature my cuts would have maimed and the gaze of the tree would accuse me. Recalling our history, that fallen limb was no peace offering for we were never at war. It was no revenge on my behalf by the hand of fate, for destiny dwells in the drawing of water, in growth and decay and in making with what nature offers. Shaping the log according to the dreams of reason was no triumph over nature for she was a partner from the beginning. In our kinship the fallen limb was an invitation and it’s shaping a cooperative act. Shaped, it is a monolithic union of cooperative intent–an incarnate reciprocal gesture alive with mythic resonances. There is hope here for we who, by our alienation from nature, stand at the precipice.
This ode to matter as muse with me as its lover has been sung–a duet. The invitation present from its beginning (as its beginning), fulfilled in one passage, now lies in wait for the next.