Driftwood from the Sky

The trees sometimes leave gifts for us at Olvar Wood: driftwood from the sky. Branches and fragments bleached pale grey and rubbed smooth not by the tumble of the ocean but by wind and sun and rain. They fall to earth, dry, hardened, sanded into otherworldly shapes: the bones of forest creatures.

They fall from the dead: tree-ghosts still standing guard on ridgelines, and big old trees carrying dead limbs and sections, the result of some accident or disease. Driftwood is wood half-dissolved, carved by the elements. In the sea, the process is aided by crustaceans and molluscs, in the forest canopy by ants, bugs and birds.

We had picked up an occasional piece over the years, when gardening or exploring: a pleasing shape or useful walking stick. It was only during winter this year, having vowed to source all our firewood from the property, that we really learned to see our driftwood. When the chainsaw failed, or was in the shop, we roamed Olvar Wood looking for timber to burn that didn’t require cutting: large sticks, old stumps and logs and branches that can be broken up under a steel-capped boot. The driftwood makes for the best burning; dry and dense, it does not seem to absorb moisture they way other, inexorably rotting timber does.

We developed an eye for driftwood from the air. After wind or storms we found there was often a scattered offering beneath the dead and dying trees. Each evening we would search these spots, as if for mushrooms after rain, and gather nature’s offerings up into our arms; a driftwood harvest.

We would have liked to keep many of the pieces, admiring them as we collected them, or holding them up for comment before throwing them into the flames. But we had to keep warm. And we knew more would fall. At the nearby Maroochydore Botanical Gardens, someone has made sculptures from their eucalypts’ driftwood. Long-limbed forest people walk the gardens, beneath the trees from which they fell. One day, we will make some wooden creatures for Olvar Wood. I have put away a long leg and an arm, with a few broader pieces that might be a face, or a shell.

Like driftwood washed up on a beach, there is something magical about ‘finding’ objects in nature. When we bend to collect a piece of wood that has journeyed across the seas, nibbled and tumbled and baked into the shape of a hand or a bird, it is a treasure; the random result of so many events and processes. Making furniture and works of art from these found objects adds another layer: human creative process. The flotsam and jetsam we gather from Olvar Wood tell its story, of seasons, of life, and of death. The creatures we make from these treasures will be born of the forest.

“Over time, water imparts an abstract quality to wood by sculpting away its inessential, softer parts, emphasizing the sinews of grain until the knots stand out like pebbles. Driftwood maps the movement of water about its own grain” (Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees).

Olvar Wood’s driftwood, then, maps the rain – 95 inches a year – the directions it came from and with how much force, and in what combinations with sun and wind: the atmosphere of the treetops.

Deakin’s passage always reminds me of the writing process. Sculpture, as has often been said, is as much about what is taken away as what is left behind. So it is with writing. Cutting out those soft and inessential parts – the passages we are fond of but serve no purpose – reveals the true shape beneath, the sinews and knots; the heart of the work. That heart is the product of a long process, a unique combination of conscious and unconscious variables.

When I write, I am looking for driftwood, opening myself up to the forests and oceans, hoping a piece will appear, then another.

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