NR Digital

Country Life

The Enchanter

by Richard Brookhiser

Doug came over during one of the cold snowy spells. He was described by Ovid in Book XI of the Metamorphoses, when Tmolus, a mountain in Asia Minor, judges a musical contest between Pan and Apollo: “[He] ridds his eares / From trees, and onely on his head an Oken garland weares, / Whereof the Acornes dangled downe . . .” Yet Doug has the most careful hands, with which he knows how to make or fix anything.

He recalled a similar cold spell when he had to bury a beloved dog. The ground was frozen so hard he could only dig out the beast’s silhouette. If you want to lie in a box, don’t die until spring.

Then he took out of a jacket pocket a handful of wooden discs. Like many artists and artisans, Doug is a showman, displaying his handiwork with a conjuror’s flair, as if to say, I do magical things with wood or stone or metal; now for my next trick . . . “Do you know what these are?” he asked.

Each disc was not quite two inches across, and maybe three-quarters of an inch thick. Their flat surfaces had patterns, horizontal or vertical depending on how you held them, of dark lines, which made irregular jags or waves. The discs looked like pieces of desert sandstone from the Southwest, though they were obviously wooden.

My wife and I have been around Doug long enough to recognize what he held. They were slices of spalted wood, spalting being a condition caused by fungi. Different fungi leave a variety of discolorations in the wood of different trees, but spalted maple is the most beautiful.

That is what the things were; but there was also a story behind them. On one of the back roads (there are two roads of the same name, one called Upper, this one called Lower) sits the home farm of a family with a German surname. They came to the country in the 19th century, but they married into a Dutch family who had arrived two centuries earlier. Next door is an old fieldstone house that was recently sold. The exterior is landmarked but the new owner put in mod cons and made various other improvements. Among the improvements: He took down two immense old trees. It was time for them to go — the center of one was rotted out — but Doug noticed that the wood of the other trunk was spalted. The owner was happy to be rid of it; Doug would be happy to take it off his hands — there are tabletops, countertops, who knows what in there — but he needs transportation. He has no truck and his current cars are not doing well. The weather is also uncooperative — he saw the fallen trunks in a balmy interval, but now they are sealed in snow tombs. As a trial he took one of the miscellaneous fragments lying about and milled it into discs.

“But where did you get the wire?” we asked. One of the discs had a copper wire attached to its rim — the first step to making it an earring, or stringing it into a necklace. But Doug would not have bought the wire. The cost of materials has gone through the roof in the past decade; he haunts the free-stuff section at the local dump, and will grab almost anything wooden — desk drawers, doors. If they can’t be made into something else, they can always go into the stove. Even in the best of times copper was an expensive item (which is why urban scavengers strip pipes from abandoned buildings).

The copper on Doug’s disc came from an accident: When he was using the snowblower he cut an outdoor extension cord. The cord had been underground for years; maybe this winter’s freezes pushed it up to the surface. Doug retrieved it and stripped off the outer sheath, to the white, black, and green lines within. Then he could have peeled the colored insulation off these lines to get down to their copper cores — a laborious process. Doug is a very patient man; when he was a little boy, his parents noticed that he had been unusually quiet in the next room, and went to see why; he had found pinking shears, and was pinking every leaf of every potted plant in the room. But he is even prouder of his cleverness than of his patience. So he made himself a one-off device, a razor attached to a ring; by pulling the colored wire through it he sliced off the insulation a foot at a time.

So jewelry gets made, and will go to Doug’s friends. Some will pay, some will receive it as gifts. There will be no line of Spalted Eveningwear, though. Doug has worked in factories, and he once helped build a Burger King in the town next door, but repeated tasks go against his grain. After he casts a spell, he moves on to the next one. When routine enters the picture the story is lost. Will he chop down more trees by the old stone house? Snowblow more extension cords? The uniqueness of the finished product is lost as well: Who wants two Sistine Chapels? An avenue of Parthenons?

There is another thing that is often lost in regular production: noticing. The wooden earrings began with a man driving around, with his eyes open. One day he saw something beautiful that was a bonanza. Other days it is something merely beautiful or interesting. One time Doug left us a message that he had spotted a roadkill owl. He had put the deceased in the back of a pickup truck in a friend’s driveway and left directions so we could pay our respects.

Doug took his discs and parted with a wish for spring. Then he will be able to work in earnest. His work space is outside; he used to have a roof over it, but a fallen tree took that down.

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