Cloaked in blue tarps, the wood piles behind our house shrink daily as we burn the stuff to stay warm. There is one—our shelter-magazine centerfold stack—which we haven’t touched. Not because it’s so good-looking, but because the wood won’t be ready for another year or two. When you do it on the cheap, as we do, heating with wood calls for pre-planning, constant scrounging, constant cutting and splitting, stacking and moving and restacking. And constant cleaning up. The wood pile next to our sweet little Norwegian stove sheds dirt, dead leaves, wood dust and now and then, insects. The fire-brick hearth needs to be swept at least twice a day—no Carl Andre here—and soot finds its way into surprising places.
But I like the dirt: It has a soothing effect. And I and love to sweep. Plus, this year, I’ve begun calling myself a curator of wood. In the old-fashioned sense of being a keeper and a manager, but also in the new, abusively verbal sense of arranging and producing.
I’ve always loved wood as a medium. Over the past couple of years, though, love has morphed into primal awe. I’m guessing Brancusi felt something of that, too, when he confronted the energy and mystery that’s locked up inside of trees. It started when we began working with our neighbors, Keith and Linda, to split large sections of trunks from diseased trees that local crews took down and let us haul home.
We’re set up in the grassless patch behind our garage—a site I call our wood lot. Once or twice a year, another neighbor lets us use his hydraulic splitter—a battered old machine, gasoline-powered and in need of regular oiling. But it does amazing things to sections of tree trunk, some of which measure 20-or-so inches in diameter.
The drill is that John and I trundle the logs to the splitter while Keith maneuvers them underneath the lowering wedge that slowly shoves into the log until it breaks apart—all of which may sound violently sexual, but get over it. Keith’s absorption in that process is amazing to behold and, as soon as a section splits, he pushes the pieces aside so that Linda can toss them into evenly portioned piles.
Sometimes the wood just pops apart with a crack, not unlike a gun shot. Other times, it tears and shreds and sounds as though it’s shrieking. Its resistance to being pulled apart can be extraordinary. But, then, trees are extraordinary. They are just about the most important things around. Anyway, sometimes, when the wood won’t split, we set the piece (traumatized but relatively intact) aside until we can figure out how to use it. Respect the wood.
Often, when a section comes apart, it reveals something amazing—like a little sprout of a twig that grew for a few years, but then was enveloped by the tree. Perfectly present still, a bit like a fossil albeit not nearly as old.
And, sometimes, when I see such a thing, I can’t let it go into the pile. So I’ve curated a temporary sculpture installation that’s made in part by the tree and in part by the way the tree was dismantled. I’m not seeing the face of Jesus in a slice of burnt toast but it’s easy to imagine figures by Van Eyck and van der Weyden and Riemenschneider. I set them around the house, organized into little tableaux that may last for a few months before I photograph them, then put them in the stove. That said, if we have enough space, I might be on the cusp of another collection…