...I happened to notice an unusual pattern of behaviour that was happening along the water’s edge while I was waiting for people to go by. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that many were adhering to regarding objects they came across on the sandy shores. If they stumbled upon a tiny seashell, they would rub the sand off of it, explore it in a state of wonderment, and then without hesitation toss it into a bucket or pocket, yet when people came across driftwood, they would toss or kick that wood back into the water from where it came from. I saw this repeated over and over. Odd I thought. Where and when did beachcombers get conditioned that shells were worth something and driftwood somehow wasn’t worth...
As you can see I couldn’t seem to place the right words to end the last sentence. Perhaps, it’s because I find little wooden treasures from the sea worthy enough to call them art. Hm, I used the words ‘sea worthy’? Freudian slip? Maybe, or maybe not, but look what happens when I combine those words into one—seaworthy. Now I think this could explain why I questioned other’s act of haughty disregard. Unlike them, I seem conditioned to believe that driftwood has value because it’s seaworthy. That’s right, seaworthy enough to ride on the endless, and sometimes torrent, currents that our ocean waters have to offer. If their travelogs carried any similarity to the records of "message in a bottle" stories, then its possible a driftwood’s journey could have been going on for decades before the fateful moment that it might happen it get heaped onto a beach that it could finally call home. No longer a floater, a vagrant, a drifter—well, that is, unless some beachcomber spots it and decides the driftwood needs to move on, for its own namesake.
That can’t be the wood’s only value—surviving the test of time on water. There has to be something more unique to driftwood than the fact it has endured nasty storms, blistering tropical heat, or cold Arctic ice flows. Aren’t there any souls out there that walk along, notice its charm, and want to give it a home for other reasons? Well, as it turns out, there are; the furniture makers. These are the artists with vision to see it more as a wood art sculpture, than that of debris abandoned by the sea. Good thing too, otherwise there wouldn’t be an end to their nomadic lifestyle for the poor little wood, plus there wouldn’t be any rustic log cabins and beach cottages decorated with gorgeous driftwood tables, lamp bases, mirrors, or boxes either. However, what about the wood that has landed on the shore and can’t so easily be tossed around or taken home? What defines its value? Some of those chunks can carry the dimensions of the original tree trunk and therefore carry some serious weight. Is this a factor that can give it more esteem? After all, it gets a permanent resting place back on solid land with the prestige of a monument. Prestige indeed, as this wood carries an air all elders carry, “Compared to you kid, I’ve experienced time and space in a way that you don’t even know exists!” And it’s this air that causes me, while in their presence, to come to a standstill on the shore and give these fallen giants a moment of silence. Stature is valuable, isn’t it? Maybe to some, but I believe its what I am about to explain next that makes this wood so amazing.
So, while mulling over this worthiness concept, I decided to reflect on an artistic experience I had had with one of these memorable fallen trees on the shores of Boundary Bay, BC. That’s the bay where one can stand on a shore in Canada, while at the same time enjoy the majestic landscape of Mount Baker, Washington State, USA in the background. It was a day like many in the Pacific northwest—overcast. Now for some this would keep them home curled around a fireplace, but for a photographer this lighting condition is perfect for getting out into the field, or I should say the beach in this case. When we arrived, the tide was out, which is also perfect because it gives one a good chance to explore the ocean’s floor. Besides kelp, one can often find interesting things lingering around until the tide returns, however on this particular day the main point of interest for me was to get close to a large piece of weather-beaten wood. And close I got. After the initial awestruck moment of admiring its size, it didn’t take long for my artistic nerve to start twitching. This was my cue to move in closer and get personal with the surface. No, not to start assessing whether I would be able to haul it home with a crane, then to carve or polish its surface into an abstract wood sculpture, if anything I wanted the surface to remain exactly as the weather intended—rough. No, I started analyzing it through my camera because I wanted to get lost in my imagination and drift beyond seeing a battered, lifeless piece of wood and start seeing the object’s real magic. Once my eye looked through the camera lens, I began seeing intricate strands of fibers that once gave the tree substance. I dwelled long enough to pick up on all the contradictions within the elements: Lines going from broken to straight; dark to light; solid to fragile... No wonder it was once seaworthy, it's perfectly balanced. Then I started to be drawn into what my logical mind often struggles with, the empty space between the matter. It’s here that I got that intuitive feeling I was looking at something beyond the obvious, but couldn’t put english words to it. It’s here that I immediately did what any photographer would have done, I seized the moment by activating my camera shutter, and in doing so I automatically captured what I feel lives in the nothingness, the wood’s inner essence—its spirit.
What’s that worth? Well, to me alot. It’s not everyday one looks at a piece of wood and discovers nature herself concealed between the lines. I believe it was artist, Anguste Rodin who stated, “There are unknown forces in nature; when we give ourselves wholly to her, without reserve, she lends them to us; she shows us these forms, which our watching eyes do not see, which our intelligence does not understand or suspect.” Another artist that I think who got this was Leonardo da Vinci, especially when he was creating his anatomical drawings centuries ago (see below for visual reference). Guess it’s the romantic in me, wanting to believe that this great artist was doing more than outlining the muscle fibers of arms or legs, but that he was actually searching deep past the surface for answers to the ongoing question about what makes life tick. Now, whether I can dare compare my talents and my abstract wood photography with those of a master from the Renaissance or not becomes irrelevant at this point, but what I can do is confirm that all artists fit equally under the same ethic—we see value in all things. We see beyond the fabric of matter and want to see what really matters—life. And for that, everything is valuable, whether it’s a human body or a fallen tree striped of almost all it’s dignity and left for dead. It still matters.
So, the next time you come across a piece of driftwood, or see some abstract wood art hanging on a wall, get in close, give your mind permission to become a drifter too, like the wood and get lost in your own sea of imagination. Who knows, you might just get a glimpse into the mystery of life and find out why you matter too.