“It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand.”-Michelangelo
I envy those who can create a physical object of beauty. A painting from a blank canvas, a functioning mug from a lump of clay, a marble statue of defiance, a statue of a mother, in mournful resignation, the body of her dead son draped in his final vulnerability across her lap.
I do not have paint brushes, a potter’s wheel, or hands that can mold or chisel.
I stand in awe of artists like Michelangelo. To create timeless beauty out of nothing but imagination and native genius. Michelangelo took two years to carve David, in the rain, out in the elements, with little rest, and with little food. How admirable, the single minded focus. The contribution to history. Apparently, Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to find it.” Did this man approach every block of stone with inspiration and a drive to find the beauty within it? With what passion did he move through his life? Was his genius a blessing or curse? Was it thrilling to be able to create such a work like the Pieta or was it a torment only momentarily relieved? Somewhere in between? Was Michelangelo pleased with his Final product or did he have regrets? Did he ever want to smash his final work out of frustration or disappointment?
I admire Michelangelo’s genius as much as I admire the single minded focus. That ability to tune out the inner and outer noise and to see only the task at hand. I have never had that. Perhaps that is what makes one a genius-single minded focus. Not sure. I know that I don’t have it. My attention span has a far greater resemblance to the flitting butterflies that are vanishing from our woods and fields.
I work with far humbler talents and much less skill. I have no ability to create something out of nothing. However, I too must rely on imagination as I cut, carve, and mold something anew out of what nature has provided. Instead of a beautiful human form captured in stone, I see a mighty, ancient forest held in thrall to the depredations of the past and the mistakes of the present. I feel what should be the cooling shadows cast by the missing chestnut, elm, and hemlock that belong to and would do much to sooth these warming lands. I see more of what is missing than what is present. I have no ability to recreate this beauty; at this point, that work is left to the scientists working on their hybrids and biological controls. I can only help that which remains. I do not have a block of marble, a lump of clay, a blank canvas. In front of me, I do not have a form waiting to be freed, I face an imperiled habitat needing rescue. I work with urgency.
I must imagine the mighty oak arising from the space I have chiseled out of the rose with its interwoven stalks that stretch for yards. I must cut and slice with my pruners to provide the shelter for the soil and opportunity for compost. Stepping back from my work, I must reevaluate what is to be removed and what will stay. David‘s muscles, sinews, and veins are the bark, leaves,and veins of the trees and bushes I must identify as I carve. As Michelangelo is a master of creating the human form, I work to master identifying the forms of the native plants. I must study, allowing for observation and refocus, before I make my next cut.
Carefully, in order not to destroy the beauty I am attempting to free, I must trim the honeysuckle vine from the hornbeam; I must gently tug the bittersweet from the ground to not trample the Christmas fern; I must wield my mattock with care as I swing to pull the privet from its place in the center of the emerging masterpiece. I would not want to harm any snakes or turtles that are not as selective as I about their shelter. I would not want to carve too much, being faced with the failings of my mistaken chiseling.
I must rely on the hope that this place, this space, the moments I spend in this open-air workshop will create something worthy of history. I will not be here when and if, the oak sapling joins the canopy of trees far over my head. I will not be among those who may wander these woods centuries from now, admiring the soaring trees, the flowering understory, and the clear running creek. I just have to hope, to have faith, that like David, someone will see the value and protect this masterpiece that is these woods. My work rests on this faith.
“Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish” are words also attributed to Michelangelo. I know that the work of clearing Reddy Branch is the work of decades. Even if I created a steady calendar of group work days, working alongside those that have a kindred faith, time would still work against me. Even if I were to work year round, I would not have enough hours in my life to finish this task before me. But, what excitement and comfort there is in knowing that my hands will not be forced to be idle! I am blessed with a near endless canvas upon which to work. I have acres of woods to carve and chisel and it is good.