I never let the cost of art materials get in the way of my creativity, always ready to recycle, buy or acquire slightly used materials and many times transforming common place materials into art objects. In art school I was very influenced by Art Povera and it’s refusal to be constrained by class and official art. This is a tale of birch bark collection in the winter of 1987 while a member of the Fastwurms Collective.

A Shaggy Bark Tale

napob art
Napo birch collection, McCrae Lake 1987

I was reflecting on our last camping trip in winter of 87 when the bark of trees called us out, with dormant larvae waiting for marauding Wurms, with no mosquito audio enhancement to slow our harvest.

We leave three hours before daybreak, arriving after dawn’s bark setting up camp in the world of haute nature. Diggin’ snow cones till you hit bare ground creating a fresh bed of pine and cedar bows where my tent will rest. Then setting up the BBQ area, we stockpile dead oak and pulpy pine that make you cry a smoky cry, sun on our backs and not tired we work a long day setting up camp for the next few days. We have spent the day cutting wood and stock piling it in a dry area, soon it will be twenty five below zero, sitting by the fire yapping, the sun just left, “see you in fifteen hours”,  I call out as the last glimmer of sunlight disapates. We continue staging tomorrows run, it’s gotten a bit Chilly Willy and the flames don’t give a hoot. We retire to our mummy bags and bivouac sacs,  I froze all night, kept waking up, shaking out my hands and rubbing my feet, changed my double boiled wool socks at four am, buried deep inside the mummy bag I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead for the fourth time, have to memorize the route back.

Lone woodpecker perchance I’ll see at morning coffee, air photos maps for worming our way up country, swamp hopping, now sitting by the fire having porridge that goes cold as soon as you pull it away from the fire, it’s either too hot or too cold. Already thinking about lunch and hot noodles. Waiting for cloud cover to help in the bark harvest. The sun will bathe the “Arbor Vitae” with solar radiation, which will melt the ice formed between the bark and the pitch. This is evident as the birch skins pop away from the trees, we draw a straight vertical line with our knives then reaching under the bark, the entire piece of birch bark pulls away. If we can’t topple a rotting carcass with a shove we go for the bow saw, “say, isn’t sawing one of the sounds included in the Voyager Probe?”

We take care to leave enough rotting trees standing ‘cause we’re talking food from grub munching palliates and frequenting yellow belly sapsuckers. Those sap suckers will dig a double diner grid up the side of a birch tree, using Morse code to catch grub from pecking, while the telltale signs of peckers are numerous overkill holes in random patterns searching for carpenter ants living in their dead birch condos.

We return to home plate to sample noodles and baked potatoes, we will have to start cutting more wood to replenish yesterday’s stockpile. In one day we burn approximately a half a cord of wood. As the days pass we will have to walk further to replenish our wood supply, that is why we have wedged ourselves against this rock formation to shelter us from the cold wind and enjoy reflecting heat from the fire,  the rock face  is twenty feet high.

Keeping warm by our hypnotic incinerator feeding it oak logs, when you walk away from the fire a frozen silence that envelops you numbs your senses. The eerie sound of stress in the frozen limbs of trees shrieks out in the long winter night, again waiting for the sunlight to return. Exhaustion is the escape route to the collector lanes of dreaming, and the sub-zero air has us retreat into our bivouac sacs, our backs to the earth ready to travel in uncluttered dreams. In the coming days we are going north across the lake to new swamps having carefully pruned the supply in this area.

Hey last night I dreamt of Thomas Edison. I says to him, “Hey Tom, what’s new and different?”  “Well ya see this thing”, he says, “It cost me two hundred bucks and it enables me to talk to the dead”. I says, “Things like that are better off left where they lie. “They lied” he says.  “Ya they lied” I says.  Vaudeville dream awaking to the first glimmer of sunlight, I made it till morning.

We keystone for hours on wobbly sheet ice, snowshoes kicking sparks of sunlight off the powdered snow. We pass the inlet where the beavers chewed our transmission pole for our installation “Chew or Die”. I walk point out on the water, mind adrift slogging snow, the repetitive motion, like an invisible camel ride. The ice gives way and I go through the icy surface in a flash, this bitter cold I react by extending my arms as I sink to my neck but my  arms extended I lift myself up, how do I get out of this? Beneath the surface my bear paw snow shoes are pulled by the current and I can’t feel the bottom, I am grabbing a shield of ice. Frozen but not safe yet I slowly I remove my back pack and push it out onto the ice, slowly I am able to emerge into the subzero morning air the warm sunlight stinging my cheeks. Safe but with my clothes quickly becoming rigid, my partners alert me to move to shore where they will build three fires. After a climb up the shore and a rock face to a ridge where I strip down and stand within the three fires roasting slowly getting dressed in dry clothes. Still three days out here and today this little ghost went to the freezer. Weather watch radio forecasts minus twenty-five full moon hidden by cloud cover.

Dreaming is an incredibly rewarding escape, then I awake suddenly, is it morning already with a wave of relief. The day seems overcast, I unzip my mummy bag and push to find the zipper for my bivouac bag, then the zipper on the tent to discover it’s the moon, the sky is clear, the air razor sharp, it’s four a.m.… another four hours till sunrise, the drone of the distant highway drives me back into the sack. Isn’t our planet supposed to be vacationing in the glare of the solar factory? Got this problem, the sun won’t be here for hours, I read for a few minutes then drift off to sleep.

napob art
“Birch Girl with Earring” birch, copper, pine cone, shoe polish, lipstick. 9 x 7 ft., 1988, Art Gallery of Ontario

Trepanning for bark as materials for art making isn’t about remedial surgery, it’s an outright autopsy, finding butterflies, and hornet’s nests in the frozen pitch. It’s counting coup, it’s the transformation from growth to decay and recovery of the bark and transformation into artifact, it’s the medicine hide for creative work. Reaching under the skin, it cackles as it lifts away from the trunk, birch bark is always a reliable combustible for starting campfires. We have figured it costs thirty dollars per square foot to retrieve and access the mystical qualities of birch. With palm open over it you can sense hot spots where electrons wail for protons way down in the inner circle of electromagnetic fluctuations.

We awake at dawn, we are on the fourth day and will be heading home, this morning the camp is alive with solar laughter all three of us talking. Breakfast is cooking as we break down the camp, packing the bark and gear on sleds, what we take in we take out. The only signs of are presence are the charcoal rock of the fire and sooty footprints on the packed snow of the camp. We hike back to the pickup truck four miles away parked on the sixty nine’s narrow shoulder. There we load armloads of bark, we accelerate and merge, heading to the nearby truck stop “The Duck” for a well-earned grub steak.







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