Chapter Eight

The Unfathomable

The idea of making a mask – or a series of masks, if all goes well – came about as the result of a weekend trip that Elizabeth and I took to Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s west coast. It’s a rugged, pristine area, out on the threshold between far-flung land and endless water, infused with a long history of cultural complexity. We spent time in the town’s galleries and craft shops, all of which displayed masks and totems carved in the tradition of aboriginal artists. There were stylized and elaborate mythological motifs, emblazoned clan crests, ancient faces shaped by vanished hands. Tools passed down through numberless generations had worked the oldest pieces by firelight. Spirit voices spoke through precise mouths ringed with polished grain. I glimpsed ancestors, shapes of the invisible, smoke.

Prior to European contact, the cultures of the northwest coast embodied a highly developed consciousness of the heart. Dance and dream and the rhythm of time were threads of continuous, shining connection. Such an orientation inveighs against tinkering with a world of manifest sacredness, and as a result the complex technology required for the refinement of iron – to make hunting or carving tools – tends not to develop. When there is no scission from the source, from nature – when still we abide in the primordial garden – agriculture and metallurgy are less pressing aims. It is only when we leave the garden that technology flourishes.

Most peoples of the old world did not possess the technology to smelt iron or to harden it by heat treatment. Yet iron was known to them, and was sought out as a sacred metal particularly for the carving of ritual objects. In the far north, the Inuit made pilgrimages to Greenland, where, ten thousand years ago, meteoric iron fragments from the Cape York meteor impact spread out across the snow like dark splashes of ink on a pristine page. The Cape York debris is all that remains of a small planet that exploded in the formative stages of the solar system. Its iron is more than four billion years old – as old as the sun.

The Inuit used basalt, a hard volcanic stone, to chip off shards of the meteor, scrape them smooth and sharpen them. The resulting blades display the distinctive pattern of iron and nickel fused by galactic forces: they reflect light more softly, and in a wider spectrum, than does forged iron. It is the shimmering light of the most remote age.

The location of the three largest Cape York meteor fragments – nicknamed The Woman, The Dog, and The Tent (Ahnighito) by the Inuit – was kept secret for millennia, known only to shamans. Then, in 1894, the site was hesitantly shown to Robert Peary, the Arctic explorer, who subsequently retrieved all three fragments – almost forty tons, with Ahnighito the size of a station wagon – and transported them to New York. They now reside in the Museum of Natural History (Ahnighito is supported by pillars that run through two floors of the museum and into the bedrock beneath the building). In the absence of a direct source of iron, the Inuit began trading for it, and many ritual tools were subsequently crafted from modified weaponry.

Tools cannot be separated from that which is made: they are twined, like means and ends. The essential spirit of creative work – elegant or indolent or visionary – not only derives from the craftsman’s touch but is a legacy of the tool’s character. In the case of the most ancient ritual masks and totems that I encountered in Tofino, that legacy is unfathomable. It is a benefaction of the Other, a remarkable gift of the invisible source.

Wrought iron, as opposed to that granted as a meteoric gift of the sky, has been used by seafaring nations for thousands of years. Masts and rigging from ships lost in storms would occasionally drift into the waters surrounding Tofino and be reclaimed. Cleats, turnbuckles, deck plates, knives – all were reshaped into ritual tools. Some are still in use today by the oldest aboriginal craftsmen. The works of those craftsmen are gifts of return, of thankfulness for a world so replete with mystery.

A week after our trip to Tofino, I stand in the great hall of the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, head bent back, gazing up forty feet to where precise images have been carved into cedar totem poles by craftsmen whose art has been almost entirely erased by time. This museum possesses one of the finest collections of carved wood artifacts in the world, and I feel quite at home here. Near the bottom of a nearby pole, a smooth-shouldered wolf rests in the shadow of a killer whale. The eye of the whale is a shadowed well. This wood, these bones, trace the nature and purpose of a vast awareness, a living spirit in the grain, each knot and every growth ring a secret hieroglyph worked carefully into many layers of meaning. The echo of leaves is here, the resonance of damp fields half submerged in twilight, of dark soil and tales of night. And long, interwoven strands of time knitted together by wood and human hands. The wood has been coaxed into shape – whittled, chiseled, sculpted with broad, incising strokes – by tools of utmost antiquity, by weapons, by stones, by meteors, by fragments of ships: countless forms oiled by luminous skin.

Although the focus of the collections is northwestern – hundreds of examples – I also find works from Indonesia and Greenland and China, specimens of all kinds and of diverse ages: an eagle with a five-foot, intricately carved beak, a tenebrous skull shape, moons and ravens and wild spirits of the forest. There are objects of great power here, and I am daunted by the virtuosity of craftsmanship displayed in so many of them. Working toward this level of refinement in carving will take me to the edge of my skill. But the spirit of creative work calls to whomever will listen, and as I gaze at these ethereal faces staring back from a lost age, their muted colors hiding a secret flame, once again I hear that whisper spiraling out from the primordial source of things.

In the instant I reach my hand to the wood and sense a silent energy thrumming inside, I become aware that many things will intrude to push and prod me out of this elemental state – mishaps and details and a pervasive lack of courage to do my absolutely best work – but an equal number will draw me back to the lucent and creative source. The stillness of that source lies behind the dream of an ancient, verdant grove that wakes me in the night, momentarily; it is the reason for my sudden pause, as I put the key in the lock, my knowledge that something fleetingly caught my eye – a shape I almost recognize – before stumbling into the house. Birds before morning and sand buried deep in the cold desert will together speak, reminding me that despite my umbrage and anticipation and indifference, behind my uncertain footfalls in the night’s shadow, quiet, undeniable hands usher me onward.

Dark sky, cold rain, and a ground made bright by the sinuous shapes of wood sawn fresh from the tree: ivory of birch, faded porcelain of maple, linen of alder. There is some cypress, too, its scent of lemons reaching up from the wet soil to sting me with exhilaration. A black, rough flitch of walnut rests alongside the opened bole of a Douglas fir, its orange grain glowing from a sunrise heart. A woodpecker knocks once on the trunk of a cedar, then falls silent. I reach down to touch the alder, and in the moment of reaching, of touching the silent wood with its living core of mystery, it becomes clear what I must next do.

I’ve come again to Karl’s ramshackle wood yard to find some pieces for carving. Nothing is clear yet, nothing except this first step, which is to make peace with the fallen, restless wood so newly taken from the forest: to retrieve it and begin the long process of drying slabs for carving. I’ve returned, as I so often do, to a careful beginning, these first few crucial steps in which I try to coax the wood into new life by listening and feeling for the prevailing needs of the old. This cannot be done lightly or casually; trees thwarted from their nature by ill use will inevitably turn on the craftsman, splitting and checking. The character of the work is revealed in these first moments.

Wind flaps the corner of a tarp. A small branch clatters to the ground. I choose four round alder sections, bark intact, checks not yet formed in the core. And I take the cypress, too, sawn into rough boards but still thick enough for carving work. The wood is heavy and wet. I hoist the pieces through the tailgate of my station wagon and head home, listening for that discourse I know will come; the gentle opening of suggestions and demands and imprecations through which the work will slowly begin to grow. It is always thus, listening and waiting and reaching for an inscrutable source that guides my hand as a valley guides the river, shaping and being shaped as it wends toward the sea.

On top of the stack of Douglas fir beside my house a niche has been left by the boards I used to make the keel and seats for the dinghy. I place the alder and cypress in this niche. The wood lies neatly cocooned, taken in by the fir like a guest from the rain. It will rest here, somnolent through winter and fragrant in summer, until I can bring it into the shop for final drying.

As I cover the stack, my thoughts turning to the work ahead, I acknowledge that the wood’s redemption – its escape from dissolution – is also my own. We are bound now, fragments of becoming. We share the journey of the totem; the faces of the figures are hidden in my hand.

The totem is a spiritual heraldry. It describes, through a vast shorthand, the indications of the unfathomable. It is a finger pointing to the beginning, a wind blowing from a pristine field of possibility. It relates the tale of meteoric iron birthed as companion to the sun. Totems, like tools and the quiet in my shop, are reminders to remember, and to act.

I step into the landscape of my own totem. I see my grandmother, the falcon, her brow etched like the grain of rough cedar, weathered by war, made bright with family. I hear the voice of my mother, the wolf: first a clear call, then a tremor, and finally a wail. I feel the hands of my father, the porpoise: bashed thumb, strong fingers, palm enough like my own that I sometimes watch, looking for myself.

The territory brightens with faces. I find the eagle, Elizabeth, she who carries and sustains, whose touch is redolent with solace. Rowan, the deer, blackberry stains on her chin, shouts with joy as she runs through the golden field. And Avery, the seal, cradled by wonder, darts into the light.

In my own hands I study the small whittling scars, the insignia left by a mishap with bleached coral, the numb place where I almost sliced off my finger cutting firewood in the rain. I wonder what indelible traces will be left by this next endeavor – teeth marks from carved mouths. I reach toward a horizon of prophecy, to mentors and unknown guides, to an unbroken cord of lineage secured at the source by invisible hands.

This is where I begin: with everything.

Other Chapters

Shallows

Chapter Seven

Fire

Ross Laird