Illumination and Discovery in Creativity
This page is part of the creativity series, based on my book Grain of Truth. Each of these pages explores one aspect of the creative process: opening, grounding, inspiration, stillness, difficulty, joy, illumination, and the journey. View the introductory page for some context, or access any of the pages via the main Creativity category listing. Additionally, related pages are shown at the bottom of every page in the series.
Light, and fire. This is how it begins, far out on the horizon, beyond the threshold of shadows and the deep well of the land’s erasure. A vermilion hue like the grain of purpleheart climbs into the eastern sky, slowly transforms itself – to saffron, to coral, to the hue of steel beneath a tempering flame – and comes to rest as a cerulean expanse out of which the sun’s great crest draws itself upward into the lucent day. It is a moment of unencumbered honesty, the sun so effortlessly, so implacably threading its way into every hidden corner and labyrinthine refuge of shadow. To see what may be seen: into and through the solidity of my hands, the light penetrating and rendering them as kites of rice paper borne aloft; through the deep and patient weight of my bones, tissues folded inside like moths’ wings with their hidden eyes.
By mid-morning the sun has stretched itself across the beam of our house and curled light round to the garden where strands of clematis meander along the fence above a bed of lantana and daylilies, the yellow and orange flowers like shards of flame. Above the shed a black squirrel perches head-down on the bark of an old cedar, clacking with dismissal as our cat Mowgli circles precisely on the grass below. At the rear of the yard a robust hydrangea marks the boundary beyond which a tangled forest slopes down toward the creek. The garden lantern I’m making will go here, between the hydrangea and a modest cedar shrub that reaches in sympathy back toward the trees.
Follow the trees far enough, down the canyon as it wends its way across the hillside toward the river and slopes into the bog with its acres of cranberry fields; just there, where the land levels itself out, you’ll see the cedar mill perched at the river shore. The smell of fresh-cut wood drifts up to the traffic on the bridge above, and it’s that smell, more than anything else, that tells me I’m home after a trip into the city: the scent of lemons roasted gently over a fire, of indigo flowers palm-crushed and dried on bluffs over the desert. Cedar is the most aromatic of woods. Many others surrender their scents only after patient inquiry – sometimes I stand quietly in my shop with a stick of maple or beech or cherry held to my nose, breathing in the subtle redolence of the wood hidden deep in the pores. But cedar is exhibitionistic. I can smell the mill from clear across the cranberry fields, and if the wind is right, racing through the bog and up the canyon behind our home, I’ve often thought I can smell it from our backyard.
It’s the fragrance of the wood, more than any other biological factor, that accounts for the designation of more than seventy species under the name of cedar. Only the so-called true cedars – Lebanon, Atlas and deodar (whose name means “god tree”) – are members of the genus Cedrus. The remaining species – eastern white, Alaska, Port-Orford, western red and a host of others – are unrelated to Cedrus and, generally, to each other. What they all share is a rich and textured scent, excellent resistance to decay, and a long heritage of association with magic, insight, and illuminated clarity. The beams of the temple of Solomon were made of cedar; totem poles are carved of it; an ancient ceremonial ship buried in the sands at Giza was planked with it. Like the trickster, cedar mediates between worlds.
It’s warm inside the dry shed at the cedar mill. I stand at the threshold, taking in the scents of the place: faint, dry, and pervasive. Scents of every kind, from every place. It feels as though an army has marched across the globe and left the dust of its passing here, motes that hang in the air like luminous talismans buoyed by the sun. Many of those motes, released from the wood by the sawyer’s hand, are aeons old, drifting in the air, inconsequential and annoying if I’m in a hurry. Yet if I slow down, they become gateways to astonishment, the way the smell of sea salt is a gateway to adventure. I smell honey and earth and rainy mornings as I pass the stacks near the entrance. Farther down, the aroma of dried fruit – figs, or perhaps apricots – drifts up from a ream of seasoned wood.
I amble over to a stack of western red and begin to choose pieces for the lantern legs. They range in color from salmon orange to almond brown, drawing these hues from differences between the lighter sapwood and the more dense heartwood. It’s the heartwood pieces I’m particularly interested in, those with richly diverse grain and patterns of cross-grain figure that speckle the boards with rays and tiny, mottled flecks.
I select a dozen heartwood boards and check them for grain orientation, looking for pieces with internal growth rings that run roughly perpendicular to the surface of the board. Such quarter-sawn stock is more dimensionally stable, and more attractive, than flat-sawn wood cut with the growth rings parallel to the surface. I locate four candidates, tight-grained pieces dark enough to pass for walnut. The wood is smooth and soft, with fine undulations in the grain. It feels warm to the touch, a textured and resonant warmth.
The frames for the lantern glass will be made of yellow cedar, and there’s quite a good collection of it here. It’s more uniform in color than the red cedar but brighter, like candles glowing through amber. It doesn’t take long to find several fine, clear pieces. I heft them onto my shoulder, pick up the red cedar boards (they’re so light), pay the cashier and head for home, eager to start building my pillar of fire.
I have an image of what the lantern should look like but no measured drawing. It’s a phantom I’m trying to coax into form. I sketch out a few ideas at the kitchen table, do a little research, begin playing with forms in the shop. I settle on a structure resembling a box kite with supports that curve down and outward to meet the ground and a shaped roof to keep out the rain. It’s a simple design visually, but the actual construction joinery is more complex: there are bevels and splines and tight frames with interlocking grooves. I want to avoid traditional mortise-and-tenon joints, as my experience shaping them from cedar has been disappointing. Unlike maple or cherry, which can hold sharp and precise joint edges, cedar is quite soft and tends to crumble in the end grain of joints shaped by hand. Along the grain cedar is wonderfully clear and can be worked to a fine luster, which is one reason it is prized for carving. But in fine joinery it can be tricky, so instead of the traditional approach of mortise-and-tenon, I’ll use biscuits instead. A woodworking biscuit is a small, flat wafer of beechwood in the shape of a football that’s been stamped from a machine under tremendous pressure. When inserted with a little glue into crescent-shaped slots in the workpiece that match its contours – one slot on each face of the joint – the biscuit absorbs moisture from the glue and swells inside the joint, locking the pieces together. The resulting connection is quite strong. Still, biscuits are a newfangled invention and among traditionalists there has been a spirited debate about whether they provide as durable a solution as the mortise-and-tenon, intact examples of which date back to ancient Egypt. In the tests I’ve seen – a patient woodworker makes a bunch of mortise-and-tenon joints, a matched set of biscuited joints, and then breaks the whole works apart, measuring the force required for the joints to fail – biscuits do very well.
But there will always be, should always be, fierce debates in craft work about the hinge between the old and the new. That hinge should be rusty, squeaking in protest every time it’s opened to usher change across the turbulent threshold. Walking that threshold entails the cultivation of a particular awareness – of frontiers and hidden passages. The Taoists called this deliberate cultivation “advancing the fire,” or “planting lotuses in fire.” For them, the manifest world is a fire that can both purify and consume. The lotus is individual awareness nurtured on that difficult ground. The Taoist orientation promotes a keen awareness of the edges where things meet; hanging out at the borders, watching the restless fringe for a glimpse of Wu Chi, the great primordial energy. One version of the oldest Taoist story, that of Fu Xi and his discovery of the eight trigrams, begins with Fu Xi sitting around a fire at night, out on the cold plain, studying the shifting pattern of flames above the wood. As the stacked logs burn, cracking into segments, they take the shapes of the trigram lines, one after the other, until Fu Xi sees all eight symbols in the fire. It’s often this way: an awakening fire, far out on the frontier, offering an illuminated clarity of the true shape of things.
The only parts of this project I can’t make myself are the glass panels, so I purchase them from a local glass artist and frame them in an afternoon. The biscuited joints go together tight and true. The sandblasted glass has a smoothed roughness that I find appealing, a translucence like contained fog, bright and clear, the way fog looks when the sun shines through it. And I notice, just now, that each yellow cedar frame – two long, vertical stiles enclosing two shorter rails – has the same number of segments and proportions as the trigram fire depicted at the beginning of this chapter. Two yangs enclose yin, the strength of cedar enclosing fluid and receptive glass. Or, as the I Ching says, “illumination with inner openness.”
The Cherokee story of first days tells how humans were at one time ambivalent about illumination. They negotiated back and forth with Ouga, the creator, first desiring eternal sunlight and then, when it became unbearably hot, campaigning for constant night. Eventually the people asked Ouga to balance night and day, but not before many had died during the endless night with its hardships of cold and darkness. Ouga shaped a new tree in compassion and remembrance for the deceased, the a-tsi-na tlu-gv, or cedar, in which the departed spirits were invited to reside. The oldest cedars are thus ancestor trees; working with the wood of those trees is a sacrament, a communion of craftsmanship in which ancient bones step into the human world as witness to the centuries.
The curved lantern legs take shape on the bandsaw. I stand behind the blade, sighting down its length, holding the end of the workpiece in my left hand to guide it through. If the wood begins to meander from the line, I bring it back by swiveling my hand in the same direction – if it swings to the right of the line, I swivel it to the right. It’s the same counterintuitive maneuvering as on a dinghy – if the boat swings downwind, point the tiller downwind. I position my right hand adjacent to the blade, nudging the wood slightly with my thumb and forefinger to maintain an accurate line of travel.
I try to follow the grain lines as much as possible, fitting the curved cuts on the saw to the natural direction of the wood’s growth with its sweeps and turns always twisting toward the light. These are the palm lines of the tree – heart, head, sun, and fate – and like human palms, from which palmists take the meaning of breaks, branches, and forks, the grain lines of a tree illuminate its hidden life. In the work of craft, one must always search for that hidden life.
The aroma of cedar, first yellow and now red, infuses the shop. A natural fungicide in the wood makes that aroma and is the main reason why cedar is the wood of choice for outdoor projects. Fallen cedar logs in the forest will not rot away for centuries; properly cared for, cedar siding on a house can last 150 years. The longevity of the wood is astounding. The Egyptians, a culture singularly devoted to longevity in its many forms, often used cedar for the coffins inside sarcophagi. Working with it awakens me once again to the persistent and unfathomable spirit of craft. “The cedar does not decay,” observed Origen almost two thousand years ago. “To use cedar for the beams of our house is to protect our soul from corruption.”
At just over two feet in length, the lantern legs are a good stretch longer than any of the marimba keys, but since cedar is closely akin to redwood, I wonder if these legs might ring with their own sonorous notes. I locate the electronic tuner, now grimed with a carapace of sawdust after sitting idle so long, and whack one of the lantern legs with a marimba mallet. F-sharp, says the tuner. But what I hear is much more complex. A rich and sustained tone (the fundamental) is quickly followed by a deeper thrumming that seems to migrate slowly through the leg – I can see its vibration tracking back and forth across the surface. And I hear a third sound, more faint, that whispers out and is gone. Taken together, the sounds jostling and reaching and escaping, the notes make a rich music indeed. I begin to wonder about making another marimba, this time with larger keys, perhaps two or three feet long. How long would they have to be for me to hear the first and deepest sounds of the tree?
I cut biscuit slots on the inside faces of each leg to accept the panel frames. This requires careful measurement and alignment, which, as usual, I don’t get quite right. It’s one of those things, like spraying, that I don’t ever expect to master. Funny thing: I can judge the thickness of a board to within a sixteenth of an inch by eye but can’t seem to measure as accurately with a ruler. I’ve purchased a great many rulers over the years, instruments with all kinds of convenient innovations (including one involving the esoteric functions of the Fibonacci sequence) designed to make measuring easier and more precise. But these tools have not helped me a great deal, and I’ve made enough serious mistakes by way of faulty measuring – more than once ruining an entire project – that I now approach it with an obsessive dread. I will make the same measurement ten or fifteen times, straying to work on something else and coming back to it, rethinking my calculations, repeating my work with the ruler. And I experience the dread of knowing that my pickiness, my caution, my thoughtfulness will not always prevent me from cutting in the wrong place.
I try to avoid measuring if I can, choosing instead to size pieces against each other or in relation to story sticks, lengths of wood upon which I mark the dimensions of project parts – from this line to the end is the leg length, that mark there is where the biscuit goes. Story sticks with their myriad marks, penciled comments and pointing arrows are the totem poles of woodworking. And yet, despite my accurate story stick for the lantern, its marks precisely inscribed by careful measuring, I miscut two of the biscuit slots, one of which requires a repair that luckily, very luckily, will be covered by a panel frame.
An important illumination of my craft work has been that no matter how careful I am, things will go wrong. This insight in turn leads, if I watch closely enough, to one of the great secrets craft work reveals: I must accept my fate.
It helps to know first what that fate entails. Whether or not life will be messy, for example, glue spilling out of the joints as the clamps go together, hidden twists in the assemblies pulling everything out of true until I bang it all back into place, the insistence of my adjustments made more forceful by my knowledge that even now the biscuits are swelling in their tight spaces, almost granting me enough time to knock everything into its perfect place – straight and true – but setting up before I’m quite done. Fate is held and shaped by such moments, by the fire in them.
After gluing up the legs and panels, I apply two coats of finish. Of all the woodworking procedures and traditions, finishing gets the most attention in those fiery debates about old and new. It’s usually the last stage in a project, the point where clouded and dusty surfaces are slowly transformed into fields of deep and textured illumination. This is a process of infusing the wood with light and fire, making clear what was once veiled, coaxing elusive shapes to emerge from a background of chiaroscuro. Modern finishes are chemical soups composed of materials like phenolic resins, ultraviolet light inhibitors, and foam reducers. The new, waterborne finishes in particular are impressively complex. The older, more traditional finishes are simpler: solvent, linseed oil, and varnish (with its own blend of plant-based or manufactured resins). On balance, the older finishes still provide the best way to achieve a lustrous finish. The difficulty with these finishes, and the reason waterborne finishes were developed, is that the solvents in traditional finish are volatile. When exposed to oxygen they can generate enough heat, especially in finish-soaked rags, to burst into flames. Traditional finishes are creatures of fire, seraphim, and if there is danger in them it is only the fire of illumination burning off the dross to reveal a lissome spirit within.
The proportions of linseed oil, solvent, and varnish in traditional finish have been a matter of alchemical devotion in the history of woodworking even though the proportions don’t really matter. The method of application varies slightly depending on how much varnish is in the mixture, but almost any combination of ingredients will do: more solvent, and the oil penetrates easily but builds up slowly; more varnish, and it builds up quickly but doesn’t penetrate as well. Varnish and solvent may be removed from the mixture entirely, leaving only linseed or tung oil that imparts a clear, if not very protective, glow.
Because the volatility of a traditional finish derives from the proportion of solvent in the mixture, reducing that volatility is simply a matter of adding more oil – typically linseed oil, which is also known as flaxseed oil and is sold under that name in my local health food store as a veritable panacea for modern ills. In Chinese medicine flax oil is sometimes used as a remedy for ailments generated by “excess fire” in the body.
The blend of ingredients I’m using here imparts to the finish a light and penetrating quality. The relatively high proportion of mineral spirits (the seraphim) helps deliver the oil into the wood pores. Most woodworkers choose a heftier proportion of varnish for outdoor projects, refinishing the piece every few years as the film wears down. I prefer to dress up the wood as little as possible, give it enough finish to highlight the grain but not so much that a barrier grows between the wood and its environment. After all, I’m delivering this wood back to the threshold of the forest, back to the frontier where the worked soil of our yard meets the tangled forest. The lantern will be a flame joining two worlds, and as the finish wears away, the cedar will begin to turn silver, over many long years molting into a silver exactly the color of ash from a hot fire.
I shape and join two wide boards to make the lantern’s roof, beveling the edges so rain will run off, fashioning the joint between the roof and legs with unglued dowel pins to make the roof removable, noticing as I work that streaks of yellow and russet have begun to appear in the trees outside. Fall rain brings the season’s first chill.
I apply one final coat of finish to the roof, secure the glass platform for the lighting source, and settle into the project’s concluding steps. The rhythm slows. Avery helps me collect the many small offcuts that litter the shop floor, pieces too small for any useful woodworking purpose but which we use to build the first fire of the season. The wood burns hot and fast, the crackle of the flames lighting my son’s face with a glow that seems also to come from within, as though the fire’s ancient warmth calls forth his own hidden light.
During the week before Halloween I purchase a small gas lamp, the kind used for camping. I remove the lantern top and place the lamp on the glass platform inside. I take the lantern out to the back of the yard where summer trees are now shot through with amber and orange and a yellow bright as ripe papayas. The air is warm, though with a crisp undercurrent. The scent of fir and of damp soil, of dark and secret beginnings, drifts from the forest. In the week to come all the lights will be lit against the face of oncoming dark, jack-o’-lanterns and the spirit of ritual illuminating the bright threads of connection between our diversities. The nourishing fires of community will come to life and string themselves across the landscape, individual watchfires in the shadow of long winter.
In anticipation of these changes, of the turning, of the sustenance and illumination of fire, I light the lantern.