Wood speaks to me the most. Trees are the anthropomorphs of the plant kingdom. Like us, they break the plane of the horizon until they eventually fall and meet it, and then decompose into the same soil that we will also make of our lives. They reach and explore in every direction, seek sunlight and food and water, and express endless varieties of emotions within their forms.
Dead wood is not really dead; it carries a living memory and the alive potential to be transformed by a force of nature, be that the sea or the human hand. Sometimes wood tells us what it wants to be. Sometimes I think I know what it wants to be, only to realize that it's all in my head. With patience, misunderstood wood will be heard correctly at a later time. So yes, "seize the wood" when you find it, but also think on it. Give the wood time to speak to you.
I left Brooklyn needing time to decompress and get my head straight. My mother invited me to stay for awhile on her land South of Jefferson, NC. Several projects awaited my arrival, but I was most excited about a tree that had suffered complete erosion of the bark around its base. Having lost its connection with nurturing soil, this tree was now dead and ready to be transformed!
My mother noted that the tree was old, and described its location along the sloping pasture behind her house. With so many unknowns, my head swam in the potential of this mysterious tree now large and dead. I imagined a tall straight poplar, the common specimen on that corner of her property. I imagined razing it down to the height of a man and, centered upon that tall stump, forming the cuttings into a jungle gym with a secret room where my children would lay plans of mischief over visits to Oba's House.
I was a little disappointed to find that it was not a poplar but an apple tree, old indeed and large as they go with a 6 inch diameter, nine foot spread and a 13 foot crown. After the initial letdown, I decided it should be made into sculpture. I drew the apple in the twilight. I ran through a few ideas and sketched one out. To be honest, I was never wholly inspired. Also, I sensed that my mother wouldn't have the patience for me to play around with it when there were more important tasks at hand: barns to be mended, moldy palettes to be taken to the dump, new recycled palettes to be fetched and laid down, holes to be dug for soil testing, stones to be cleared from a field and hay to be unloaded, loaded, transported, unloaded and loaded again on three separate occasions.
In the end, I didn't make anything of the apple tree by November when I found work in Asheville. I left several projects unstarted or unfinished and I became a framing carpenter. Working my new grueling 9 to 5 (in bed by nine to wake at five) time passed quickly and Thanksgiving was fast approaching. Having borrowed the Ford Ranger for travel, I eventually heard what the wood should be - it wanted to be taken to Wortroot, for the Solstice bonfire. Wortroot is wonderful farmland with a holler and a storied past, laying across state lines just North of Blountville, not far from Bristol. It is now the site of a Winter Solstice tradition for our ever-expanding 'family,' a community that has been cultivated for decades in the foothills and mountains of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.
The day after Thanksgiving my son, seven, helped with the felling while my daughter, three, watched from a tiny yellow plastic chair. We started by taking down the dimensions of the tree and truck bed, deciding on acceptable overhangs, and trimming down reachable branches. For all cutting we used the Japanese-inspired Vaughan Bear Saw, which slices on the pull stroke for greater control and a very narrow kerf. This makes it a great learning saw for children. My son insisted that we wear safety goggles. He was thrilled to give the final push and shout, "Timber!"
I remembered previous Solstices with big sprawling burnpiles, mostly cleared brush with some large timbers crossing the middle. I envisioned planting the apple tree upright in the center of a pyre to deliver it's final performance and to fall to the earth one last time in spectacular fashion. Considerable effort was made to leave the tree as whole as possible while still safe enough for highway travel.
The burnpile this year was set closer to the house, more compact and vertical. It was nearly as tall as the largest section of the tree! Once again my vision was compromised but I was content knowing that the wood would be pleased to burn in the fire regardless of my silly ideas. I leaned the main sections up against one side of the pile and spread around the branch cuttings. That night, flames leapt high above the house and Solstice was, as always.