By Elizabeth Speth
“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
So said Ram Dass, and I love the quote. I love the way we accept — and love — a tree for what it is, and the elements and factors — some of which are harsh — that made it.
Sometimes, alas, a tree is harvested. Often, unfortunately, though many of us love them best when they are stretching between an earthy tangle of roots and the clouds. We love them in the silent cathedral forests, in parks crawling with happy children, or sheltering a favorite spot in our yards, shading our cups of tea and our books.
But a tree gets harvested. Say, oh, a redwood, and it begins a different sort of life, and it is shaped again by the elements to which it is exposed. It is formed to look like something else, and scarred, and marked.
Say the redwood is dragged from its fragrant forest, from the dappled, wild light, and it is first cut and planed and raised to form the foundation of a house and a barn, somewhere in California. Farmington, for instance, on a rural homestead, sometime in the 1930s.
Say the house turns a weathered color, and shelters a generation or two of children. Say it is cared for lovingly, or not, but that it eventually falls into disrepair, an abandoned structure.
Say that young lovers stumble upon it, out there in the lonely open. Maybe they shelter there for an hour or two, and they surely carve upon it with a knife, initials joined together for the life of the wood, if not the life of the carvers.
Say the old redwood structure is a silent witness to some drunken firelight revelry, overhearing hunting stories and bar-room brawl tales, and late in the night guns are fired by the beer-soaked story-tellers, and say a few bullets lodge in the old redwood, which absorbs them stoically. Another part of a visible history.
And then say some day my artist friend, Kermit McCourt, comes to look at this wood, with an eye toward turning it into something else. He sees the square nail holes, where someone has hammered wallpaper. He sees the knife slashes, the bullet holes. He sees the original grain of the wood, the beautiful whorls. He rests his hands on the wood, and feels all of its lives, the derelict, the sheltering, the forest. And Kermit takes a hammer and gently begins to harvest this wood yet another time.
He stores it in his shop. It watches him work for a year or two, until I write to Kermit and I ask him to make me a table, a big table, for my kitchen, where all my family can be together and have conversations and meals to remember. I ask him to find some scarred, old wood. Kermit recycles everything — he uses nothing new to make his paintings, furniture, jewelry, metal sculptures, so he is the guy to ask about scarred and old. He is not the guy to ask if you want to separate a freshly-harvested tree from its venerable kin in the forest. Kermit doesn’t operate that way.
Kermit says to me: “I have this wonderful wood… I will do it.”
And, because Kermit is a conduit for beauty that remains unknowable and unseeable to the rest of us, until it passes through his eye and his hand, he does.
He uses that beautiful old redwood, re-births it into a fine, big, strong table, held together with bolts reclaimed from a flatbed truck. He does not stain it. He knows the wood’s own face is beautiful, and it’s what he allows the world to still see. He rubs it with teak oil, and layer after layer of wood wax, until it glows in candlelight and in sunlight.
He leaves the bullet holes, and the scars, the nail holes. He runs his fine, talented, work-roughened fingers over them, to show me, and I could weep with the beauty of it. I do, a little, because the entire life of this wood is laid open before me. The entire history, lovingly polished and, well, published. Kermit has just put forth the redwood’s autobiography.
We load the table into my horse trailer, so carefully, and I can’t believe I will take this wondrous thing home, memorize its topography, touch it every day.
As we are closing the trailer door, Kermit tells me to put my hands, from time to time, on the wood. On one level, I think he means to point out that the wood is a beautiful thing to feel, with its deep, smooth gloss, its soft, thick strength.
On another level, he is reminding me to seek those things which cannot be derived via our mere senses. Because beauty has a feel, and so does history. He is reminding me to step away from my judging mind. To turn people into trees.
And we put the table in the kitchen, and it begins its next life. A life of holding candles and fresh fruit, hot plates and soft napkins. Bearing up under sad conversations, and serious, and silly. Our gratitude will change the shape of it here and there, a little, maybe. Maybe my someday grandchildren will accidentally scar it with a pair of scissors, or stain it with a marker, or glitter will become permanently stuck in some of the cracks.
That will be life, and the redwood will allow it.