Seeking Enlightenment

“To seek enlightenment – Chop Wood…..
…. when you have attained enlightenment – Chop Wood”

For 30 years now I have been visiting the clear-felled coupes of the Tasmanian Forestry Logging regime to maintain a silent vigil, my personal politic, in a unique and reimagined use of forest industry waste material.

The 500 year eucalyptus trees are mown down along with everything underneath them, in 100 Ha amounts. The coupe measurement used to quantify this process is the 2 dimensional land area, without regard for the 3rd dimension of living, breathing, organic space… It strikes me that there is a major flaw in the language used to comprehend this drive, and I will talk further on the limitations of language in valuing non human entities.

In fact the forestry process is more designed around land grabbing in competition between humans than it is about creating products for human advancement… As Buckminster Fuller was saying in the 1950s and 60s, we are creating full time jobs for people to keep ourselves busy when there are already enough resources available to us all for healthy living. The various political forces of the last 30 years in Tasmania have continued to sanction the clearing of giant tracts of forest and to windrow the broken remains of canopies, sub-canopies and microcosms into heaps for the process known as hot burning.

Hot burning is where the clear-felled ground and forest remnants are monitored scientifically to attain perfect burning humidity, so that the ash from the hotburn will provide the essential seedbed for the next mono crop of eucalyptus that (we are told) would otherwise not grow….  The helicopter armed with incendiary balls begins circling in the centre of the coupe and spirals outward enlightening the ping pong balls of napalm as they leave the machine.  Slowly the fire builds in the centre of the 100 Ha area drawing the air into a central plume that can only be described as those images of doom and disaster we have each grown up with….

However this is not before I have infiltrated the system to take time amongst the forest remains to seek my own form of enlightenment.  I spend days camping and making artworks in these seemingly destroyed environments. Artworks grow and develop through the time that I spend, contemplating the wreckage in a language more similar to a Carrara marble quarry than that of a Tasmanian political war zone.

I have created furniture, percussion instruments, photography, graphics, sculpture, poetry, installations and architecture whilst revaluing the industrial remains of these coupes.

But early in my career I was disappointed by audience responses to my interior sculpture, crafted lovingly using the revalued clearfell wood, “the American Collectors who jumped on my work in the 1990s were seeking beautiful objects with which to adorn their homes, and to remind them of the beauty (in the absence) of nature…” “it would reinforce the duality of political stances; to me it was quite counter-productive…”
Through this development as a clearfell artist I attempted to present forest valuing as a personal politic rather than as a ‘them and us’ equation.  I began carving the giant Eucalypt log sections into chainsaw textured symbols using the whole girth sections intact, showing the sheer monumental scale of these forest giants – up close. I would meet up with forestry tree fallers and discuss the shape of their chainsaw teeth, and who had been killed most recently from falling branches as they sawed through the 90 meter tall giants.  From one of the logs left lying in the coupes I spent 3 weeks shaping and hollowing out a giant eucalyptus ewer or amphora in the ancient civilisations’ tradition of creating commemorative vessels, documenting ultimate cultural attainment.  This piece entitled ‘Trophy’ was shaped over 3 weeks, taken to the studio and kiln dried for 4 months, reinforced with concealed stainless steel bands and set on a monolithic rock in Sydney.

Then I would carve a mythical megafauna beast for a public art commission, this time to be placed on the walk from the Meander River to Split Rock Falls in Central Tasmania….or a set of binary code strewn across a landscape, as measures of our culture, but in the context of ancient eucalyptus forests with tree sections showing 500 annular rings or more….  Several times during these carving projects I would need to camp right next to the log continuously to deter the incursions by firewood cutters, who would sometimes begin cutting firewood from the other end of the selected giant carving specimen!

All the while the needs of family living were building.  With Maree and 3 small children, living on 28 acres just south of Hobart, the woodstove became the central focus.  Collecting wood and keeping it up off the ground has always been a Tasmanian tradition, but as a sculptor spending increasing time with my young children, I needed to make a living with less time in the forests with my chainsaws, keep the children happy and keep the wood supply for the woodstove up off the ground…… I created hollow play huts with my children, the birds were following us to get the grubs from the newly split wood.  We made bird hides and the children got up close to firetails, honeyeaters, fairy wrens…  Reinforcing these bird hide doorways with steel fencing pickets developed in to layering fencing wire between courses of firewood, until whole architectural forms were being created, with safety and for public display.

I began showing the woodstacks publically as a further way to revalue natural material and to continue the conversation about renewable resources and the ultimate carbon equation that we all live within. The premise that small is still beautiful and that we can all live simply with meaning and hope if we use our resources with more time and more creative and physical effort, bodes well in Southern Tasmania. It was my statement about not setting fire to great edifices of tree stacks, and rather to take each piece with some respect and use it wisely, perhaps for cooking, or warmth…  If you do decide to visit me in my studio, you need to give me at least 40 minutes notice to allow me to crank up the woodstove and get the billy boiling by the time you arrive!

As the creations have developed over extended years spent in clearfell, my format has become more conceptual and experiential where I take installations to city audiences, inviting city dwellers to wander and play amongst artwork….  “I’m finding it very difficult to create work for a gallery setting nowadays, without the context of land and space, and photosynthesis, my messages cannot connect…” I’m a rural guy but I attain great heart from visiting galleries around the world. One piece that inspired me by Tasmanian sculptor Lucy Bleach was entitled ‘Nature is a Language – Can’t you Read?’

Now in 2018 I still visit the clearfell coupes several times a year, often to cut my own firewood from the continued huge stockpiles of ancient tree sections.  The woodchipping industry has been in recession for the last 6 years initially due to low export market demand, and then with the purchase of the dinosaur woodchip process facility at Triabunna on Tasmania’s mid East Coast, by conservationists when Forestry Tasmania was losing too much money and had to liquidate assets…  Tourism tours are very popular throughout regional Tasmania but still the Forestry industry continues to cut old growth areas and to set huge hotburn fires off in autumn, when settled weather conditions lower the chance of uncontrolled wildfire.  

Through my on site observations of forestry practices over 30 years I continue to wish for value added silviculture practices such as the pruning of lower branches to create clear wood for veneer and high grade structural timber, instead of the short term pulp industry that degenerates the soil and biodiversity much faster than it needs to be. Where there has been harvesting and soil disturbances there are always young eucalyptus saplings growing, which means that massive fire is not the only way to begin a new forest.

So I believe that there has been enough land cleared of the majestic and giant eucalypts in Tasmania, and that now there can be added value incorporated into the regenerated forest areas to make them work like European forests, where programs are developed for 200 + year cycles. Tasmanian land management has come of age.  In forestry there is no further justification for the volume based bulk Tasmanian pioneer mindset, now we are in a global carbon culture and the few natural, non human manipulated areas still in Tasmania have suddenly graduated to incredible cultural significance and value.

 It is about the propensity for language to roll off the tongue and to be reduced to pure concept without experience of place and time.  The quicker we each communicate amongst our fellow humans, the less connected we become with the time weathered spaces and ecologies of the non human world. I was heartened to hear recently, that facebook, youtube and twitter are at last bound for amalgamation, at last the entity will be known as ‘You Twit Face’…   

Seriously though, language to me inherently holds great limitation. I call it 2 dimensional.  I only feel complete when engaging with things in silence, well, maybe with a chainsaw or angle grinder perhaps…(!)   Crowded in human chatter,  without silence and time taken in vast open country (preferably covered with giant trees),  I sense I cannot possibly appreciate (value) the gravity of a living place, of the scale of biodiversity, of the entities that human senses cannot know, even in a hundred years.  For example; as a budding 17 year old carver I remember slicing a large lump of wood off the side of a growing kamahi tree in the native rainforest I had grown up with in NZ.  The colour of the fresh cut wood was mesmerising, beautiful and I carved it green, with sap rolling forward from the cuts of my gouge.  Before dark it had become a bowl with the bark still on the outside and I sat it next to my pillow that night, enjoying the sappy smells as I slept.  But it was in the dark of night that I was awoken by a glow, so bright I had to sit up…  There within the hollowed out bowl was a powerful phosphorescence glowing along the grain lines, swirling around strongly in some lines more than in other sections, but cumulatively covering perhaps 70% of the interior surface.  I was mesmerised again, it was bright!

I couldn’t find anything about this in the library.  I sat it by my pillow again, and again I awoke amazed to see the glow in the middle of the night.  It was mysterious, silent and seemingly fragile.  No one I talked to believed me.

But then the third night I noticed the glow was not so bright. It became less and less in the following nights and within a week there was no further phosphorescence at all..  I became awed by these sorts of intimate experience the more I spent time in the forests. I could sense that there is a whole spectrum of ‘other occurrences’ living there while I would crash around in my big boots and earmuffs. I began to slow down and sit silently there, sometimes in the dark of night.

It is this form of enlightenment that we can be privy to in this privileged 21st century Australia.  It is the form of enlightenment where we lose our inherited arrogance as a dominant species, and begin to observe deeply, roundly, spending much time and in solitude.  As Peter Dombrovskis said ‘we can get back to it all’. Whenever I do this, it makes me want to tread ever more lightly.

Perhaps with our chosen sculptors’ tools we begin to manifest the deep wonder of this life experience, the total wonder of consciousness within a seemingly non self-conscious living system.  In sculpture there is a revaluing; an openness that human chatter and indeed human knowledge is not a whole measure of this planet.  With a revaluing of knowledge as lame and even inappropriate, there can be space amongst humans that is undefined, undecipherable, and the openness that there exists many more developed systems of communication, mysterious and layered within our daily midst….  The solitary days spent in the forest wasteland have impacted deeply on this sculptor’s practice; in a sense this industrial wasteland is the studio, this is where the soul searching for contemporary humanity is happening.

For me it is this multi dimensional language of sculpture that hints at the breadth of what we experience in 21st Century Earth. It is heartening to feel heard by ever widening circles of travelling, cultured audiences.  The kind of folk who take time to observe and wonder in silence, to explore happenings and objects without forming hurried opinions, allowing themselves to be transported.

It seems our contemporary globe travelling civilisation is ready for sculpture to create new interpretations of who we are on this Earth. It is so enlightening to be speaking sculpture with you all! 

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