This week I finished the wooden pendants I was creating for the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League’s annual Silent Auction. In the past I have always created larger pieces of wood art for the Auction. I should say “driftwood art,” because I make my creations out of driftwood. Many driftwood artists simply sand and shellac unique pieces found on the beach or shore, letting the natural design present itself as abstract art; I have seen some exquisitely beautiful pieces of this type of driftwood art.
However, for me, that takes the fun out of “creating” wood art, -- I won’t say “sculpture,” because I am a whittler more than a sculptor. Most driftwood is hard to cut, some, like Malaysian driftwood harder than others. Apparently higher tannins in the wood are responsible for its hardness, and water, sun, sea creatures and bacteria do not seem to soften it up. Even with a good set of wood-carving knives and my grandfather-in-law’s “they-don’t-make-it-like-that-pocket knife, simple whittling on the wood is not easy.
And I really don’t want to change the often intriguing shapes of these pieces of wood washed up on the ocean beaches and river banks. So I ask each piece of driftwood what it is, or what it wants to be, and it “tells” me (if it doesn’t, I put it aside). Several years ago, when my daughter gave me some beautiful pieces of ocean driftwood about four, five, and six inches long, I was able to wood-glue four pieces together to form an American wigeon duck. Because of the natural shapes and textures of each piece of wood, I did not have to do much whittling to create a masterpiece, lol.
This year’s wood pendants include a little fat bird, a long tear drop, an abstract heart, and a bullfrog doing facial contortions. My small hand drill worked very well on these smaller, harder pieces of driftwood from a Pacific Ocean beach (also given to me by my daughter), but etching a Chi Rho and a cross symbol on the heart and the teardrop was very difficult even with my best wood knife.
Why is driftwood so hard? In researching this question, I found that most driftwood on ocean beaches, lake shores, and river banks comes from trees or the roots of trees, especially true of the Pacific Ocean because of the large nearby hardwood tree forests. While Pacific Ocean driftwood may be exotic, driftwood from our local rivers and the Gulf can be easier to carve. However, I like to work with interestingly shaped pieces of wood, and don’t mind if it’s so hard I have to work overtime on it.
The amount of driftwood found on beaches has declined since the 1800’s. when 19th Century writers described huge driftwood piles on the Pacific Ocean beaches as high as fifty or sixty feet. Not sure why this is true, but I suspect it has to do with the loss of forest land and changes in the logging business. Some wood artists prefer the driftwood found on river banks; I remember the absolutely fascinating root work of exposed root systems of trees growing partly in the Blanco River in Wimberley. Over the years, uniquely beautiful pieces of those roots wash up on the riverbank. I guess you could call it “washed up art,” lol.
As art, driftwood can be very beautiful. But there is an ugly side to it, too. In the many years my parents heated our home in Dime Box with a wood heater, we never used driftwood, even to kindle the fire. Very wise, as a driftwood fire is very toxic, producing dioxin, a bioaccumulating toxin unsafe for humans. Regular wood produces yellow and orange flames, yellow from the sodium chloride and orange from the calcium chloride in the wood, whereas driftwood causes a blue and lavender flame, from the copper chloride within it.
Probably the most interesting fact in the long history of driftwood is the way it was viewed in very ancient mythology. In Nordic (Scandinavian) and German mythology, Odin, the chief Nordic god called “Woden” in the Germanic version, created the first human beings, Ask and Embla, out of two pieces of driftwood. Apparently Ask was created out of a piece of ash driftwood, and Embla, out of a piece of elm driftwood. This very strange way of viewing the origin of humankind gave washed up pieces of wood a lot of prestige. Did ancient Vikings and Saxons consider every piece of driftwood to be their brother or sister? Just trying to be funny!
Such a myth makes driftwood seem even more intriguing to me, and I continue to prefer driftwood over “normal” wood in the much enjoyed craft of producing wood art. I guess you could call it “washed up art.”
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.