“Art is everywhere in the forest,” my dad says as we drive slowly along the logging roads. With our Forest Service permit, we are heading out to look for tree burls and photograph the muskeg as it blooms. Within the last few years, my father started making walking sticks from bull pine (shore pine) burls. A burl, sometimes called a bur, is a round growth covered in bark. Burls are caused by stress: injury, virus, fungus, mold, or insect infestation.
All this art-thinking is something new to my dad. He’s turning 78 this month and he has realized he’s an artist, or at least that he has artistic talent. But what is art? Art is something we transform from a physical thing, like a tree growth, or from something intangible, like ideas or emotion, into something new and different: a burl on a tree into a walking stick or a poem about skunk cabbage.
I had to convince my dad he was becoming an artist because he figured he didn’t have an artistic bone in his body. Despite the fact he claims he’s never looked at life as art, his artistic sense keeps appearing. He painted a salmon on an old canoe paddle, designed jewelry made from fishing gear, and sanded and stained a burl and attached it to the outside of our fishcamp. “That’s art!”
No one is too old to discover art. We never stop learning. Storytelling, painting, poetry, weaving, etc., increase the quality of life for our elders, especially when dealing with the challenges that aging brings. Eventually, my dad and I started to look for art in everything wherever we went, allowing our minds to come up with all kinds of ideas. Art adds a new element to our father-daughter relationship. We look at things as artists, see what we can imagine. There’s a face in the tree. That driftwood looks like a dragon.
As we drive up a steep spur off the main logging road, we pass a burl too high for us to reach. We imagine ladders, even shinning up the tree, and then decide against it. Once, we looped a rope around a large burl on a stump and pulled it out of the woods. It will make a good table, someday.
We’ve searched the forest for burls, but it didn’t occur to us to look at beach logs. Now, we stand on the porch of the fishcamp overlooking the ocean. My friend Kersten Christianson is visiting from Sitka. With binoculars we spot a large log floating out in front with numerous burls on it, but it’s way too far out to even consider it. I think about my ancestors, the Sámi, who had the ability to call whales to shore. Kersten, my dad, and I joke about wishing the log toward us.
In the morning I wake up and head out onto my porch. The tide is low and the birds are singing. Kersten and my dad are already outside on the porch overlooking the beach. As I approach my dad says, “Did you look down?” I look down over the railing expecting to see a dead seal, maybe. We’ve had one wash up before. I gasp. There, jammed against the seawall and our stone stairs, is the giant log with burls dotting the sides.
We get the chainsaw and start cutting it before the tide comes back in. How did that log decide to float up to our beach right up to the stairs? Hadn’t we seen it float southward past our fishcamp? Of the hundreds of places it could’ve washed up, it settled on our beach. Maybe my dad called it to shore? I smile at Kersten. She’s an artist and writer whose work is quite magical. Her wishes must’ve helped too.
Making art requires ingenuity and problem solving. A few weeks later, we are watching another burl-loaded log float by the fishcamp. Near sunset, the tide brings the log fairly close. My dad says, “I can get that.” He puts on his waders, grabs his fishing pole and heads down to the beach. He wades out into the ocean and casts again and again, trying to snag the log which seems just out of reach. It’s too deep to wade out any further. Finally, he snags it and starts to pull slowly bringing the log in shallower. The sun is setting and we need to get the log up the beach and tied it up before it gets dark. My dad starts to tire so we sit on the rocks waiting for the tide to move the huge log closer, while pulling the log toward us without breaking the fishing line.
Art activities that engage elders both socially and creatively, stem off loneliness and depression and improves moral and physical dexterity, and so does sitting on a seawall contemplating life. The sky darkens and the sunset is a brilliant orange and I say to my dad: “Well, did you ever imagine we’d be living at a fishcamp, fishing for logs while enjoying a beautiful sunset?”
We finally get the log close enough and my dad wades out and attaches one end of a tie-up line around the log, and wraps the other end of the line around a large boulder atop the seawall. Secured now, the log will wait for us until morning. In the morning, the log is still there and we work, cutting off the burls. One looks like a volcano; another, an old man’s face.
Participating in art events and activities improves mood and confidence in our elders and creates better family relationships. Art has made its way into our fishcamp and is a big part of our lives. People are living longer, meaning the elder population in the United States is growing. Maybe I’ll live longer because I trudge through forest, muskeg, and along beaches.
Encouraging creativity and skills in a social environment positively affects psychological, physical, and emotional health. And I would emphasize that creativity in an outdoor setting can boost those effects. We scan the muskeg for the gnarly burled limbs. “There,” I say. “I see one.” My dad pulls the truck over and with our boots on and armed with a small hand saw, we head out to inspect the tree. I’m not sure if searching for art projects benefits my dad more than me. Maybe, someday, I’ll be an elder taking a great-grandchild out into the forest to search for art. Maybe I’ll think of this moment, of my dad, of the perfect burl, the smell of moss, and the little white flowers on the muskeg tea blooming around us. I’m sure I’ll be walking in the muskeg or along the old logging road using a burled walking stick.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.