Alders

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Another gray day on the moraine but one spiced up with two inches of pure white snow. A good day to reflect on the humble Sitka Alder and the drab willow. They were the first plants of size to gain a foothold on the moraine, tough witnesses to the the glacier’s retreat. Normally something to cut out of a photograph, with today’s topcoats of fresh snow providing counterpoint to dark bark they make excellent frames for greater beauty.

These pioneers laid the groundwork for Aki’s Troll Woods—building soil for the poplars and spruce even though the big trees would eventually rob them of light and nutrients; force them to carry out a holding action on soggy lake edges and bogs; make them dependent on the bowels of birds to carry their seeds to newly disturbed ground.

P1100408On the edge of beaver flooded land we find an alder displaying signs of spring, summer and fall under a coating of winter snow. On one supple twig cling a well formed leaf from last fall, spent cones, and spring bright pollen pods. Almost hidden by snow are this year’s tightly wrapped leaf buds.

Red Alder, the largest of the clan, provides excellent material for carving. I learned to work with it from master carvers at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan. They helped me make the tools—alder handled adzes with blades fashioned from re-tempered car springs, crooked and not-so-crooked knives ground from cross cut saw blades. They taught me to work with wood from a tree freshly fallen and how the adze could be used to quickly transform a piece of firewood into an abstract figure. They encouraged me to cradle the new form in my lap while using crooked knives to mimic my model.

With the help of another master carver, an Italian American from New York City, I used adze, crooked knives, and not-so-crooked knives to carve a mask of my recently deceased father. The intimacy of the experience helped me grieve. Here is the result.

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