The natural world is an endless source of inspiration and sustenance. The materials I use in my creative practice tell stories of resilience, strength, and a necessary faith in time.
Lichens are incredible entities, and much is still being learned about them. Lichens are composite organisms resulting from an algae or cyanobacteria living in a symbiotic relationship with two or more distinct fungi. There are an estimated 13,500 to 17,000 species of lichen, which speaks to the incredibly diverse ecosystems in which they can survive. Lichens make their homes on the bark of trees, attached to rocks, or even growing in the soil in moist climates. They grow incredibly slowly - often less than a millimeter a year - and can withstand extreme conditional changes. Lichens are believed to be among the oldest living things on earth, with map lichen species in Greenland dated at over 5,000 years. Much current research is being done on lichens' ability to record climate change, as their age and ability to absorb even trace elements offer a window into historic atmospheric conditions. (In fact, following the Chernobyl disaster, the lichens of the area accumulated so much radiation that the reindeer who ate them were deemed unfit for human consumption.)
I love working with lichen. They are under appreciated and understudied. So much is still to be learned about their natural histories and symbiotic complexity. Searching for them has made every hike more interesting, for they are everywhere and in such variety. They possess an adaptive strength that is easy to admire in this ever-changing world.
Driftwood is an endlessly amazing material with which to create, as each piece is vastly different from the next. As wood is battered by the power of currents and tides, the bark is worn in unique patterns - thus making it difficult to identify the species and origin of the wood. Driftwood provides an important ecosystem service, acting as shelter to birds, fish, plants and other aquatic species both in the open water and on land. Logs washed ashore are broken down by bacteria and worms, returning their nutrients to the ecosystem. Some logs can even become the foundation for sand dunes, drastically changing the character of their surroundings.
Working with driftwood always makes me consider the many directions we can take with our lives, and how the choices we make continually shape and polish us into unique and vibrant beings.
Tamarisk, or Salt Cedar, is an invasive species that has been wreaking havoc on the Colorado River Corridor for decades. These deciduous shrubs thrive in alkaline soils, offer little nutritional benefit to wildlife, and can individually release upwards of 500,000 seeds annually, making them a tricky plant to control. In addition to choking out native plant species, tamarisk are drastically narrowing riverbeds and absorbing incredible amounts of water, further exacerbating water security in the west. While devastating, these trees are also providing prime habitat for native bird and rodent populations. Research is still being done by the Forest Service on the impact of tamarisk on desert ecosystems and the effects of eradication programs throughout the west.
While devastating to the ecosystem, it is undeniable that these trees possess a beautiful grain!
Bristlecone Pine is perhaps my favorite material to use, if only for its symbolism. Bristlecones are among the world's longest-lived organisms, with the species in Nevada and Northern California reaching nearly 5,000 years of age (as recorded so far). The type found in my native state of Colorado, while not nearly as aged, can live to an impressive 1,500 years. Perhaps most impressive of all, these trees have such longevity because they are able to shut down systems and branches unnecessary to their function. Thus, any given tree may be mostly dead, save for a single living branch of heartwood. This adaptation allows bristlecones to live in the most adverse environments; the most extreme, like those pictured above, grow at the tops of mountain ridges battered by year-long winds and 5 months of winter. It truly is a sight to see such trees - many of which lie horizontally to the land - and ponder the wisdom they impart. They are a good reminder that there is strength in adversity, patience and adaptation.
There is perhaps no more iconic tree to Colorado than the aspen. Groves of these trees are beautiful year-round, but nothing compares to them in multicolored splendor during the autumn months. Not only are they brilliant on the outside, their grain is magnificent and so different from tree to tree. You'll notice the variety by viewing aspen products in my shop - some have many multicolored rings, while some have one dark ring of bark and are nearly pure white on the interior. I never know what to expect when I cut into an aspen branch, and they never disappoint!
Aspens also have the potential to reach incredible longevity, as evidenced by the Pando colony in Fishlake National Forest, UT. The 106-acre grove of aspen makes up a clonal colony, meaning that all trees share the same genetic markers and root system. This genetic makeup has been in existence for 80,000 years, carried on by its predecessors in the Pando grove. Pando means "I spread" in Latin.
Lodgepole pine make up the majority of the forest in my most recent home of Summit County, CO. These tall, slender trees are hardy pioneers, often resulting in lodgepole forests of uniform age. This tendency does not bode well for the forest's overall health, as an aging population of trees is susceptible to disease and infestation. This, coupled with above-average temperatures during the past decade, led to the decimation of Colorado's high alpine forests due to the mountain pine beetle. Evidence of this epidemic is blatant when traveling in Summit County - everywhere you look, you can see stands of rust-colored trees, or, in management areas, burn piles consisting of dead lodgepole.
What actually kills such a large number of trees lies not in the pine beetles alone, but in their symbiotic relationship with the blue stain fungus. This fungus has evolved to hitch a ride on structures within a mountain pine beetle's mouth. The beetle then bores into a tree, effectively spreading the fungus throughout the forest and inhibiting trees' ability to conduct water. The fungus repays the favor by preventing the tree from producing defensive resin to evict the beetle from its new home. This combination of destruction by beetle and by fungus is a recipe for disaster.
The blue stain fungus, while devastating, leaves lodgepoles with a blue stain in their grain. The production of goods made with beetlekill pine has saturated the market in Colorado, where you can find beetlekill furniture, siding, turned wood, and more. There is no short supply of this wood in my workshop, so please don't hesitate to contact me with a custom order!