I carve wood. That's not all I do, but it's what I return to when I'm between jobs or when under stress or when I wonder if I've forgotten how. Although my training was in working wood in the European tradition of gouge and chisel, working off the top of my hand, knuckles up, I now carve in the American tradition, with adze and crooked knife, working out of the bottom of my hand, palm up, producing woodware in the Formline style of the Northwest Coast. My work has been in galleries throughout Alaska, and has been purchased by visitors from all over: I know of one bird bowl that went to Scotland. So I sculpt in wood without first drawing designs or making clay models. I start adzing. Chips fly, and I let the wood tell me what it wants to be. And it does talk. Not in words or in language, but in how its grain grew, in how it cuts, in how it effects me.
In times past I hiked coastal hillsides, peeling patches of bark from leaning maples, searching for deep grain compression, which translated into pronounced fiddleback. When I found such a maple, I marked the tree for felling—I haven't always heard what trees were telling me …
I built muzzleloading rifles, lock, stock and barrel. I ripped maples and apples into planking, which I then cut into my long stock blanks. And I didn't listen to anything a tree said other than if it intended to split as a barberchair. I couldn't hear much over the roar of my Homelite.
I could hear neither tree nor the surf when after coastal storms, I beach combed windrowed drift looking for the turtleshell-like bark of myrtle logs, which I would then plank where they lay, turning them into gunstocks and coffee tables. I couldn't hear the fall of apples or the whispers of children when I searched abandoned homesteads where, after State Forestry burned houses and barns, little remained except the orchards: almost every orchard had a Baldwin apple, a variety noted for the largeness of its tree, and almost every Baldwin I found became gunstock blanks. I couldn't hear the robins and jays in the cherries I fell, or bandtail pigeons in the chittims.
But I did hear the smalls groans and soft creaks of fir and hemlock timber I fell in Oregon, and of pine in Idaho and spruce in Alaska. I listened as I glanced at the lean of a tree, looked at where I wanted to bed it, then in the pull of sawchain, felt its decades of growing severed in seconds as I made sure I could escape a kickback or a miscue on my part. I listened as stumps wept, but I never felt guilt as I cut a face in the next tree. I listened, but with my eyes.
My hearing dulled more when I repaired chainsaws for all of those years. It was already bad from working among mountains of woodchips in Georgia-Pacific's pulp mill.
But when, in UAF's Native Arts studio, I heard a half block of birch speak through my hands, I listened, and I listened carefully. It became a halibut; its mate, a whale. Its brothers became other halibut. One became an otter. Another a salmon. And I joked with other carvers about what the wood was telling me. Some few of them listened, but they didn't hear anything as they sketched lines for where they would cut as if their lines were scared. Both the carver and the wood had to obey those lines, which acquired the rigidity of iron bars.
But I was then as I am now, free to listen to what the wood tells me about itself. And why shouldn't I listen? We are partners in a joint venture, one in which I stand to profit most. So I have come to respect trees as living entities—I wasn't surprised to learn that young Douglas firs communicate with one another within a stand in ways we don't yet fully understand. When an insect species attack a fir, the tree begins emitting a sequence of esters until it finds one that repels those particular insects. Then every fir within the stand emits that effective ester without going through the sequence, even though the other trees aren't under attack. So if firs can talk to one another, why shouldn't they talk to me? Perhaps, it isn't as silly to apologize to a tree for cutting it as my grandfather would've thought.
I will keep on cutting trees for they are the continuation of life for me. I will continue to listen to them. But what the trees say isn't nearly as interesting as what I say they say as we talk about their resurrection.