Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
Well-Being and Making Things
I recently finished 14 days of teaching in a high school equipment repair class. No writing, no poems, no magical objects. We made two Adirondack Chairs. It’s part of my field research in the “poetic capabilities of just making things.”
So from the stones we sometimes talk about the possible feelings of trees. My intention is to introduce the notion of animism, that there might be spirit in all the world. As a teacher, I try to resonate with experiences people have had of that animism… those moments when they felt akin. It is usually non-verbal and my field research interest is to learn more about this phenomenon.
By “making”, I mean making things with simple, available, found, natural materials; just some sticks, just some rocks, just some leaves. “Just some” is crucial to the success of speaking in things. If the materials are “just some”, they remain just out of reach of the critic, the expert and those other voices from within which organize, restrict, judge, shape and belittle. If you are working with “just some branches”, it’s not even worth the time for your inner critic to pipe up with some statement about how expensive or precious this all is and how you better be careful and do it right and that it seems that everybody else is more adept at this…“ Ephemeral natural materials are a natural sedative for the inner critic. They also level a playing field. Students, of all ages and abilities, already have a rich history with natural materials. I have often seen the pyramid of achievements and aptitudes stood on its head when just sticks and stones are introduced. Learning disabilities become imaginal assets.
That “vocabulary” of natural materials includes trees, branches, clippings, logs, saplings, roots, leaves, vines, pods, bark, stones, bones, nuts, shells, driftwood, feathers, nests, soil, mud, sand, rusted, corroded and decayed objects. Notice how common all of these are. Acquiring them usually circumvents the marketplace. They are all just found and collected. There’s “just” again. Just anybody can get them. This is the exasperation of the commonplace. Just anybody can collect shells on the beach, or pick-up sticks or rocks. It is momentary relief from certification, licensing, permits, degrees and gate keeping. It is a reminder of the ways we are all the same. It fractures the hold of the academy on art and craft. It sidelines “mastery” in favor of the right to self-expression, which might be called “play”.
I see four clusters of needs that can get addressed and met in the act of making with natural materials. Those are the Need for Wonder, the Need for Stories, the Need for the Organic and the Need for Dexterity.
This Need for Wonder has several aspects. Wonder is most simply the opportunity to admire the world for its vitality, complexity and relentlessness. It’s the chance to feel WOW! for no one reason. It’s also called numina. This kind of Wonder can happen looking out a window at the sky, the park, the garden, the birdfeeder. It’s that momentary---we could hardly stand much more---amazement at being here. So working consciously with natural materials can stimulate and address this need. Of particular value is the hunt. This is delight at finding something wonderful: colorful leaves in the fall, tiny new leaves in the spring, acorns, acorn caps, eucalyptus nuts, beach bricks. There is something primal happening in the hunting and gathering of surf-tumbled shell pieces, milkweed pods, all-white pebbles.
Play is an aspect of Wonder. It’s a little more active and directed that the awe of seeing and the simple pleasure of hunting and gathering. Play is the capacity to look behind, under, to the side of what seems to be a self-evident truth. Playing is affirming that when it’s one thing, it’s another, and another. Play is first an attitude and then maybe an activity. Gwen Gordon writes about this:
The Buddha described how the noblest qualities have "near enemies," qualities that are often mistaken for the noble ones, but which lack deep care and connection. In the Buddha’s teachings, the near enemy of equanimity is disinterest. I propose that the near enemy of play is entertainment and recreation. Competitive sports, video games, luxury cruises, and high stakes gambling on the stock market are not play. Neither is drug use, or shopping sprees. They are attempts to get relief from the gray backdrop of our play-deprived lives through forms of near-play that lack intimacy with the world. That is why near-play quickly becomes compulsive. It can never satisfy our deepest urges for true play as intimate participation in the cosmos. The free-spirited true play that is our birthright has become so dangerously distorted by a play-deprived culture that we confuse it for war.
On one level, this play is another re-organization of the seeming chaos and endless material of life organized into a series of changing patterns. When I teach rustic work, one of my encouragements is to “Just take these natural forms and put them in some pattern, adding some geometry onto the organic order of nature.” There are so many geometries to use, some linear, some non-linear. There is the order of utility, the natural materials become a “useful” daily objects: a stool, trellis, chair, table or bed. There is the order of just play… limitless combinations of material into pattern. Sand castles are an example. So are stone cairns, labyrinths, gardens. Patterning and ordering seem to be a very basic human need and it is one fundamentally independent from utility. Just watch young children play.
This exercise illuminates another aspect of Wonder. Things have and often retain the capacity to move us. The sight of a thing, touching a thing, smelling a thing can spin us back out and around. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida calls this power punctum, a Latin word for “piercing”. He refers to a simple photograph of himself and his mother as having this inordinate power in his emotional life. Seeing it pierces him. This is a core part of the need for Wonder: to be shaken. It’s called the numinous, to be awake, alive…
2) The second cluster of need, The Need for Stories, is related to the Need for Wonder. It’s often the story or stories that lead to the wondrous response of awe, shock amazement: We are always trying to tell stories, figure out the story line. Kurt Vonnegut describes the proto story as “man in hole; man gets out of hole” All daily lives are greater and lesser stories, often being told as they happen on the cell phone: Yeah, I’m in the parking lot now. Whew, what traffic! A minor heroic epic? Stories, even mundane ones, are all threads in the vital myth-making needed to live. Joseph Campbell’s lifetime of work is clear on this. We must have the stories to know who we are and who we can become, what’s expected of us, what the prevailing notions of reality are and finally stories to stay in touch with the mystical around us.
Of more interest than just stories are the Deep Stories we are searching for. By choice or not, we hunt the daimon, that other self, the true self that eclipsed during the first part of life as the bright sun of socialization, mores, expectations cooked us. The daimon waited, along with many other lesser “s’elves” for the cue to step back on stage. That often happens after a certain age, or by accident or initiatory event. So stories that reflect danger, risk often hold the kernel of the daimonic. Most authentic activities in life involve the search for the angelic, or original self. It may be as simply named as Fate and the task is an old one: amor fati, the coming to know and love our own destiny. Things help.
3) The Need for Dexterities is perhaps ill-named. It’s just the thirst to learn to do something more, new and different. We are embodied and as such have sets of moves and movements which get us through life. There is a need to develop these, modify these as we go along. We need to refine them and add new ones, share them with others. As a teacher of making, it is my primary job to first make the act of making inviting and a likely success. If the need for dexterities is satisfied well enough, the other needs are enlivened and responsive.
4) The last cluster of needs is The Need for The Organic. This includes sensuality, awakened and emphasized sense experiences. (This has been recently underlined by Richard Louv and his wry clinical notion of “nature deficit disorder.”) This also includes encounters with Organic Time. Unlike technological time, in organic time, things are not always available when you want them. There are seasons. There is waiting and planning. There is accommodation to using what is available here and now. Humans are hard-wired with the organic and experience distress in the relentless presence of the technological. Making with natural materials explores this and relieves this. By keeping exercises focused on the here and now of found materials, a whole new, always-present environment is revealed. The renovated image of Green Man, that vegetal being who at once is eating and spitting out leaves, who is dismembered in the winter only to re-appear every Spring; Green Man is the guide to understanding more about organic need.
Is there a nicer thing in the world to know about? Everything may not be as it appears.
Things Speak #6
Gifting in this way keeps the grammar of things from getting too mundane. There is an exciting “unknown” to this kind of giving. It’s kind of a spiritual lottery. “You can’t win, if you don’t play”. It recognizes a largeness of community that often eludes regular daily life. The Tsunami relief and 9-11 are significant versions of gifting to a larger community, but they are, obviously, based in tragedy and compassion. This more modest kind of gifting addresses a delicate, less graphic sense of community-building. It’s in the spirit of that 1980’s bumper sticker Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. There’s still something to it. Clichés don’t come from nowhere.
I’ve found that there is a capacity for the poetic in the use of common found natural materials when relieved of the burdens of utility and “projects”. The alert teacher of the language of things creates clearings, moments, portals for the hunting, sharing, arranging, patterning and making of things and then helps some of those things move on to others. Teachers --of young children, adolescents and life-long learners-- create opportunities for play, storytelling, new skills and the experience of wonder. The teacher is a conjurer, an enchanter, but most simply, just a guide. That process expands the traditional forms of creative expression and exploration and brings new constituencies back into the realms of creative and emotional education.
Daniel Mack describes himself as a working imaginalist. He has been making furniture and things from sticks and natural materials for thirty years. His stick furniture is in many museum collections and he now works on large-scale architectural projects using trees as columns and beams.
His personal work has turned from furniture to what he calls “anima” carvings from small hand-sized pieces of river driftwood and a growing collection of Imaginal Tools “for tasks yet to be discovered.” He is part of growing community of makers who experiment with how spirit becomes matter.
He has always been teaching about such work. Each summer he teaches at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY , at his studio in Warwick, NY and sometimes on-line. He has also been a journalist and has written seven books, mostly about working with sticks. He has begun freely publishing on-line a creative workbook, Hair on the Shower Wall and Other Creative Opportunities.
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