In the Presence of Wood: Denis Johnson’s Enduring Passion
"I grew up in cities of asphalt and glass, and now I live among thousands of evergreens and several tons of cedar logs."
This week, the award-winning author, playwright, and poet Denis Johnson died at age 67. In 2007—the same year he won the National Book Award for his novel Tree of Smoke—he wrote this article, “In the Presence of Wood,” for Best Life. It was published in the September 2007 issue.
This summer, at our place in northern Idaho, I’ll build a cedar hot tub from a kit that arrives on a truck. The manufacturers claim they’ve cut each board to within “tolerances of less than 3/1,000 of an inch,” and I have no reason to doubt it and no means of checking up on them anyhow. I’d need a microscope. As long as it fits together and holds water, I’ll be a hero in the eyes of my gentle wife, who likes a long hot soak after strangling weeds and assassinating insects in her sunny garden. As for me, what I want this cedar hot tub for is the cedar itself. The aroma, the feel, the mysterious smoky grain of the wood. Because I’m crazy about wood—not woodworking, but anybody fascinated by wood ends up working with it, though afterward both the wood and I wish I’d left it alone.
It started innocently enough in the late 1960s, with Mr. Fuchs’s high school shop class (for which over the course of an entire year I produced a brilliantly varnished oak gearshift knob for my parents’ 1965 Impala, a tiny cherrywood table that wobbles, and a thing that looks like another oak gearshift knob, only huge, the size of a small watermelon, and which actually opens up so that you can hide cigarettes and condoms inside it—even now, 40 years down the line, my finest creation), and progressed to the point where I’m now a member of the Idaho Forest Owners Association.
Once in a while I think of Mr. Fuchs, our shop teacher, and I wish I’d been less of a smarty and learned from him how to make things out of this stuff. In the course of demonstrating how to fashion a mortise-and-tenon joint, he could whip out a sturdy little table in a matter of minutes. Mr. Fuchs had reached his late forties having lost no more than one half of one index finger, a good record. I’ve seen woodworkers whose appendages looked more like a duck’s feet, or even hooves. Guys with opposable thumbs and nothing to oppose them. They love working with wood, and I love working with wood, but right there our passions diverge. They want clean angles and snug joints, and with exalted concentration they labor to produce them, using words like plumb and level and square. For me these are wishful, fantastic concepts. I just hack away. “Measure twice, cut once,” Mr. Fuchs used to tell us. I measure five times and still end up cutting 10. Last summer, working on a 12-by-12-foot cabin, I measured a board for a windowsill at least half a dozen times, and I mean very carefully, and I still managed to come up with a board 17 inches too long. Too long isn’t so bad. You can always make it shorter. Too short, however, ends up in the stove.
But Mr. Fuchs, wading through little heaps of sawdust, surrounded by smirking adolescents who mispronounced his name loudly at every opportunity, Mr. Fuchs, with his gray flattop haircut, his stupidly affable face, his sort of rectangular head, which looked as if it had been narrowed in a vise and his mind along with it, Mr. Fuchs merited no voice, let’s say, in my affairs. Mr. Fuchs represented the used-up older bunch still stuck in the first half of humanity’s most relentlessly progressive century. And wood came to seem like that too—out of date, old-fashioned, not ready for the rest of the millennium. You couldn’t hold it over the flame of a disposable butane lighter just to see it turn to molten goop, like plastic. Or make beer cans out of it like aluminum, beer cans you could drain into your throat and crush with one hand and then belch.
I grew up in cities of concrete and asphalt and glass, and after Mr. Fuchs’s shop class, I never gave wood much thought until I lived in Gig Harbor, Washington, in my twenties, and took a job, for a brief, miserable spell, clearing land for a future motel. This involved cutting down all the trees, every last one, and stripping them of branches (called limbing) and cutting them into 16-foot lengths (called bucking) and stacking them up to be loaded onto trucks and sold as logs. No work for a scrawny college graduate, and certainly not the kind to make me fond of trees or branches or logs—especially logs. A log is nothing like a pole, believe me. I’m sure it’s because they’re heavier at one end than the other and tend to shift, but when you pile them together, they seem much more alive than trees, inexplicably animated, liable to explode. Once I witnessed a log flop off a stationary pile and light on the ground like a young gymnast. You may think I’m lying, but if you’ve been around logs, you don’t. This kind of labor wasn’t only exhausting, but risky, what with the treacherous materials and murderous saws, and my work habits didn’t help. In those days I didn’t mind whuffing on a reefer out of sight of the boss during the half-hour lunch break and returning to work unable to do much but astound him with my negligence and incompetence, my alien stupidity, and the general weakness of my frame. He was an old cowboy, and whenever it all got too much for him, he used to lash me viciously between the shoulder blades with his filthy hat and demand to hear what, if anything, I’d learned in my years at college. To this day, I wish I could produce an answer for him. It took us about two months to level 10 acres, just him and me.
But the wood, man, the wood. Once in a while, usually during the psychedelic lunch break, I’d find myself looking at the rings on a stump, a whole history in concentric chapters, the tight rings representing less growth, harder years, the wider rings recording easier times, and every trauma recorded too, every lump and scar replicated in the next ring, always more prominently, never subsumed and forgotten, the flaws growing bigger. And I’d wonder how a whole lot of dirt and water could rise up into a forest. And what were they going to build the motel out of? Logs. Here the stuff of buildings waited almost ready to be used, shedding leaves and needles, inhabited by rodents, later to shelter men and women. And then lunch was over.
I wandered south. Again, a city of asphalt and stone: Phoenix, Arizona, in the middle of the desert. Not a lot of wood there. The curious feelings I’d had staring at tree stumps didn’t trouble me there. I forgot about wood. I swore off liquor and dope, and worked odd jobs until the unbelievable summer heat drove me east to the village of Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. There I got married and moved with my new wife into a 150-year-old house with a fireplace, next to which I placed my desk and spent eight hours a day “working on my book”—splitting the firewood, arranging the material for the fire, getting it lit with a single match, watching it burn, the grain of the wood blackening and standing out as it charred, the flames revealing poignant truths having to do with life and death and transience and upwardness, and then I might write a little scene, always having in it a fireplace and a long description of what went on there, the flames and poignance and upwardness and so on, and then it was time for supper. I grew to approve so deeply of wood fire that I found it worthy of consuming the only copy of my first novel, a manuscript I’d sworn to destroy yet had carried from place to place for years. I hope this seems, as I write of it, only a bout of youthful romanticism and not a private creepy idolatry, but I tell you that the shrine of my fireplace was worthy of this victim, and as I watched each page turn to smoke, the burden on my soul was that much lighter, until I was free of the writer I’d failed to become and free to be the one I was.
The most wonderful thing about the writer’s life is that you can live wherever you want, as long as you can afford it, and we wanted to live in California. We found 28 acres with a distant ocean view in Mendocino County at the very end of that bygone era when only hippies and bikers were interested in land in Northern California. Rural landowner! Country squire! The minute I saw it, I loved the place. It wasn’t the ocean view or the apple orchard, or the ramshackle stables or the stucco shack with a bullet-riddled ceiling where the previous occupant had held his girlfriend and his own motorcycle hostage until the local deputy had talked him into going down to the Gualala Hotel bar for a drink (he was never charged, though his wrinkly old dad, from whom I bought the place, told me, “I asked the sheriff if I should maybe take his guns away”). It wasn’t the local color or visual beauty. It was two redwood trees near the front gate. When the old boy showed me the place, he stopped the truck and pointed to them—each nearly 200 feet tall and a dozen feet in diameter—and said, “Those are over 1,500 years old,” and something changed in my heart, and I was lost. And that old man knew I’d be lost. Those ancient beings, gray and green-topped and emanating a gargantuan serenity, were the first of the property’s features he’d pointed to. Any human being would have bought it from him right away.
Most of the coast’s original redwoods were long gone, but second-growth trees covered Mendocino County, and everything around there was made of it, including our stables (the word has a certain dignity these animal shacks didn’t merit), where Mrs. Johnson kept a couple of horses. These two animals stood around nibbling all day on the boards of their stalls and would have eaten their entire home if we hadn’t painted it with creosote to dissuade them. I thought redwood smelled great, but I never felt tempted to chew on it. To be frank, I’ve never cared much for horses. They’re stupid, and hay is expensive, at least in the quantities they require. If they’re just going to stand around all the time, why don’t they take root and feed themselves, like trees? They ate grass too, in a 10-acre pasture fenced around with posts of old-growth redwood from a monster like the couple still growing on my land, only it had fallen who knew how many centuries earlier, before the loggers arrived a hundred years ago to topple the great giants and ship them 128 miles south to be turned into San Francisco—and this monolith had lain in the middle of the Gualala River, in the water, for all that time, until the previous occupant, the hostage-taking biker, had hauled it out with a backhoe machine and split it up, by hand, into jagged posts. The only thing I liked about those horses was their pasture’s fence posts.
We called it Doce Pasos Ranch. My wife and I loved the place, but not each other, and after the divorce, all I had left of it was a baseball cap with Doce Pasos Ranch on its crown, an item of apparel I called “my $100,000 hat.” I hunted the North Coast for another paradise, but I had only a few grand, and by then the world had discovered Mendocino and the only hippie-biker bargain on offer was a couple of acres with a geodesic dome that appeared to have been struck by a meteor. I needed trees, and I needed them on extremely cheap, abundant land, and that’s how I ended up in northern Idaho.
I found a “country estate” in my steeply reduced price range, on 23 miles of unpaved road not far from the Canadian border, 120 acres where we (new wife and two kids) lived year-round for 10 years, until 28 feet of snow in ’97 cured us, and now most winters I teach writing in Texas. During the summers, I rattle around the Idaho place (Doce Pasos North; our motto: “A whole new generation of baseball caps”), working on novels or plays and collecting funny-shaped logs—twisted or humped or otherwise, to me, fascinating—for The World’s Biggest Wooden Sculpture, which I haven’t yet started. I may never get it started, but I’ll come here every summer. Civilization has become uninhabitable, at least on a year-round basis. I don’t enter here in a spirit of romanticism. It’s a necessary and practical form of retreat, like jumping behind a boulder when the buffalo stampede.
The property borders U.S. national forest. The backyard heads east past the Montana border and for another couple hundred miles, over a series of mountain ranges, to Glacier National Park, nearly every square foot of it covered with evergreens. Our patch accounts for about 3,000 of these trees, slightly more than the inhabitants of the nearest town, Bonners Ferry, about 32 miles south. Not long after I took up residence among the pine and spruce, I got a letter from the Idaho Forest Owners Association, offering me membership. As there aren’t any dues, I was proud to accept. Once in a while, they send me newsletters promoting trees and tree owners. I don’t know what else they do.
But the wood—the wood! Our house is made of four-inch-thick cedar boards and nothing else, no insulation, no drywall, just wood, man, and we heat it with a wood-burning Blaze King stove. In the early 1990s, a hundred-foot pine fell outside and just missed destroying our little dwelling. For three years this tree lay behind the house, as prepossessing and colossal as a crashed airliner, until I borrowed an “Alaska mill,” a device with which, allegedly, one person and a chain saw can cut a big log into straight boards. My friend Russ, a former Alaska logger, a sturdy, thickset man, in fact a person so closely resembling a bulldog he really belongs in a cartoon, knew all about chain-saw mills and came out to instruct me, which meant standing around with a cigarette clamped in his teeth, painting the forest atmosphere with his memories of brothels and brawls and epic binges and the thundering deaths of millennia-old trees, while I tried to make sense of the contraption. And then I had these wonderful slabs of lodgepole pine. A welder made me a sturdy trestle to rest them on, and I whipped us up a dining-room table. All I had to do was take the wrinkles out of the wood and shine it up with varnish, but somehow the process consumed two summers.
Russ wasn’t entirely useless. He advised me that most lumber is sawn parallel to the annual growth rings, revealing the “flat grain,” the peaks and jags that look like the ink-brush landscapes of Zen monks. Cutting at right angles to the growth rings produces boards with “vertical grain,” the tight lines that I don’t find quite as interesting. I went for flat grain, because I like to sit at the table in the morning and drink coffee and stare at the tabletop. After some years now, I’ve got the whole thing memorized, and if I had any Zen-painting skills, I could probably reproduce the whole thing on parchment. Yet I never tire of studying the grain, I never stop feeling there’s still more to see, I keep finding something fresh to admire.
Lately I’m in the process of raising a small cabin. I like the sound of that. It implies something organic and living, without square corners or level surfaces. My daughter’s first comment when she visited from college and I took her up to show her the 12-by-12-foot cottage by the singing creek was “That doesn’t look stable.” It took me a while to get her to step inside. She glanced around wildly, said “Very nice!” and got out as quickly as she could. I should confess that this cabin was built mostly by other poets and writers, old friends and former students of mine who turn up for pleasant visits and get pressed into slavery. Later this spring, assuming I’ve succeeded with the hot tub, I’ll surface the cabin’s floor by myself—birch and alder from a neighbor’s land—and then our summer visitors and I intend to construct a big deck behind it, after which we’ll have a deck-christening party with lots of people dancing on it to pounding rock ‘n’ roll. Expect a minor tragedy.
Nowadays I seem to draw wood to me. A few years ago, the land next door sold to two wood millers, a father and son, who hauled in a trailer home and a portable mill and started cutting up trees into boards and giving me all the extra stuff. Not long after the arrival of the millers, a neighbor woman down the road took under her roof a new man friend, a one-legged guy who carved statues and totem poles out of logs and who went only by the name of Brad. Brad possessed a true gift for fashioning animal forms out of cedar, bears and eagles and such, representations not just lifelike but fat with vigor—arrogant eagles, sincere and well-meaning grizzlies, totems thumping with an ancient power. I liked to watch him tease these personalities out of cedar logs with tiny, specialized chain saws. Brad was in flight, it turned out, from an old conviction for growing marijuana, and when the Good Guys caught up with him, they gave him 15 years in the Idaho Correctional Center, and I inherited several tons of cedar logs. By this time, I’d collected enough free rejects from the millers, and unborn bears from the carver, that I had to spend thousands on a large carport to cover it all.
I go to Home Depot or Lowe’s on a simple errand and spend hours touring the stacks of lumber like a kid at a carnival and staring at the ranked cans of wood stain the same way I once watched cotton candy being made. White pine, yellow pine, larch, birch, cedar, Asian mahogany, Pickling White, Riverstone, Pearl Blue. Minwax has a water-based rosewood I’d like to experience. In the presence of wood, I do feel something very much like the interest of a child in things like candy and dessert. In fact, the pile of wood scraps in my carport excites in me the same mixture of greed and satisfaction I experienced as a boy coming home with a shopping bag full of inexplicably free candy on Halloween. They just give the stuff to you. You just put on a mask and knock on their door. And wood is like that too. The stuff grows on trees, grows out of dirt, transmutes from a cone or seed into a living thing that casts a long shadow and comes to us almost ready to use. When a tree is felled, its connection to the earth is severed and it begins its service as a material. Until that moment, it eats and drinks and breathes among a multitude all doing the same thing, yet in a tremendous silence. Surrounded by these civil, agreeable neighbors, I live removed from the other multitude, the two-legged horde in the assemblies of technology and confusion. I’m revived from the numbness that comes under the avalanche of superabundant information and appeals and images and goods for sale, and I’m restored to my childhood—not to my childhood in the woods, because I didn’t have mine in the woods, but to that era in my life when the cares of the adult world floated far overhead, like clouds, and a few things down near the ground held all the meaning on earth for me.