We’re no longer searching just for kindling. Now we’re watching for suitable downed branches for bentwood furniture.
This part of the winter landscape is a come-and-go proposition, what with heavy squalls, then melting snow and, finally, treacherous ice. We don’t tend to think too much about what is salvage material while the trees are still deformed with snow.
Bent wood is about leftovers, cleanup, trees announcing how they want their remains disposed of or preserved: this one a trellis, that a footstool. Here’s the beginning form of a chair, a rocker, an end table. Up ahead, three birch saplings, bowed low if not snapped at their bases, still hidden by snow, look like they could be fashioned into an arbor if the proper support beams present themselves by spring.
This is a kind of beachcombing of the forest, the same type of disposition that won scavengers of the coastline the name “wreckers” by ship captains whose cargo disappeared when the human shore-rats – or seagulls, as a lobsterman friend called them – arrived on the scene.
All the cargo that washed into the shallows or ashore would vanish, and that “cargo” covered just about anything that could be used on its own or put to use in some combination of collected items. Wood, tin, sail cloth, nautical knots and lengths of rope, you name it.
But out here in the woods, there’s another whole arena of possibilities, and about the only way to figure them out is to snowshoe or ski far enough into the thickets and groves to get to the still-green branches slowly drying in the frost, or to patrol the roadsides for limbs or trunks knocked or plowed down inadvertently.
Working with bent wood is one of the most satisfying folk arts there is, as far as I can tell. And I’ve tried just about all of them. That the necessary tools are minimal – a saw, hammer and nails of various lengths – make this the ideal choice for the artisan without much of a workshop.
All it takes beyond the bare essentials is a little imagination.
I came to it naturally, my interest an outgrowth of whittling walking sticks and twig writing instruments as a child. Whittling and carving led me to fall in love with wood, which, it seems to me, is a passion you’re either born with or find you are unlikely to cultivate.
I’ve been picking up driftwood for as long as there were shores around, on Lake Michigan in Chicago first, and then on the other side of the lake in southwestern Michigan, then New Hampshire (where I was smitten anew, this time, too, by stone), Cape Cod and Maine.
I don’t altogether trust people who can’t see a face or a form – a bird, maybe, or seal – in a lump of rock. If you can’t instinctively decipher whether a branch is ready to work as a walking stick or table leg, or needs soaking and coaxing to create the curved neck of a solid cane, there is some arborial-psychological gene missing.
This prejudice is one of the reasons I’ve always felt a kinship with Inuit carvings in stone. You look at them – short on detail, long on heft – and you can see the sub-Arctic landscape there, gentle curves on hard surfaces, the way the frozen tundra and colliding sheets of ice must appear after you lived with them a long, long time.
Everything that calls to you in nature has a narrative and deserves regard, especially if you are going to take pieces of the landscape and recast them in your own image. For most people, that harmlessly rapacious tendency is evoked by wildflowers, weeds, shells, pine cones – easy picks, I think, and just as good as a slice of slate that takes a long time to unearth and transform into a tabletop.
If it awakens you and bonds you to the earth, it has done its job.
“As the furniture maker, I begin the ‘story’ but the day-to-day use of the object is its middle and end,” writes Daniel Mack in “The Rustic Furniture Companion.”
“A rustic table or chair can serve to soften the straight, sharp edges of an architect’s work, or offer consolation in an over-scaled house.
“Rustic furniture may just become part of the family memory … ‘that chair in the den.’ It also tends to function as the house jester, offering an unexpected, pleasant surprise and relief to the normal routine of daily life.”
Right now, before mud time, the urge to embrace landscape as furniture or household accessory becomes almost overpowering for me. How could it not, with storm debris scattered like finish-carpentry castoffs?
Besides, it’s been a long hard winter, and we’re barely halfway through the season. It’s about time for a jester to lighten the mood.
North Cairn can be reached at 207-274-0792 or at: