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Neil Mathison

Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010.

 **Recipient of Best Notable Essay in Best American Essays by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt**

Wooden Boat

This May morning the harbor below our Friday Harbor house blushes pink. Scoter ducks scribe inky Vs through strands of kelp shaped like question marks. Across the channel, on Brown Island, the sun gilds the Douglas firs. In town – we can see it from our front deck – at the foot of Front Street, a green and white Washington State ferry loads its cars. Were it March, we might be among its passengers, but today, and for the rest of the spring and summer, my wife Susan, our fourteen-year-old son John, and I will commute by boat, our own wooden boat, which lies at our dock, suspended from its mooring whips, ready to skim the meanders and whirls and eddies of the morning tide. The boat is twenty feet long, hull black, topsides white and tan, her teak trim varnished – “bright” as we wooden-boat people call it.

We had the boat built expressly for this purpose: to deliver us safely, at high speed, and with some style from the mainland to our island retreat and back.

***

“A wooden boat,” the builders of our boat say on their Nexus Marine website, “has an indefinable beauty of line that is difficult or impossible to produce by molding or bending thin sheets of metal.”

After all, the line of trunk and branch is among the most harmonious in nature.

And there’s depth in wood, especially varnished wood – you can see inside it.

Wood perfumes the air with its resins – who hasn’t, on a summer’s day, lingered in the fragrance of a lumber yard?

Wood is naturally buoyant – you feel it in the way a wooden boat lifts on a wave, as if it were alive – and it has been alive, and remains alive in a way that fiberglass or aluminum never can be.

But wood is not for everybody, not for the capricious or the impatient or the hard-riding or the owner with a thin wallet. Varnish wears under the sun; teak abrades; paint fades; dings mar the perfection of brightwork. Wood’s longevity depends on the care you choose to lavish on it. A wooden boat, like a human being, is a brief, ephemeral flare of energy amid the cosmic slide to disorder and darkness, its very perishability part of its attraction (at least for some of us), a declaration of independence against the travails of time.

***

I began my love affair with wooden boats on a jet-lagged summer leave in 1988. Susan and I were living in Hong Kong – I was managing a computer sales subsidiary – but we had retained a Seattle houseboat as a home-leave retreat. I remember a July-bright afternoon, half-drunk from jet-lag, jogging over to the Wooden Boat Shop (now gone) on the other side of Lake Union’s Portage Bay where I spotted a cold-molded, wood-epoxy pram, its hull white, its interior a herringbone of cedar strips, its lines as neat as a cockle shell. I bought her on the spot and rowed her home. When we relocated back to Seattle, I moved her up to Friday Harbor where I would launch her from our dock and row her around Brown Island, and where, when her plywood bow began to delaminate, I cut out the rotted and splayed wood and, with epoxy and filler, laid in a replacement bow, a project well beyond my woodworking skills, but in which I found relief from the agonies of the “down-sizing” underway at the electronics company where I then worked. I liked the feel of the wood under my hands. I liked it that with epoxy and resin I could “heal” my little boat. I liked bringing the grain of the cedar back to life under coats of varnish followed by sanding followed by more varnish, so that in the end I could look deep into the wood, and so that when I rowed the boat, I felt as if I was floating inside a bowl of maple syrup. My work wasn’t perfect. There were sags in the varnish. Too much filler masked the grain. I could sail it on Lake Union, but it would never take us farther than that. But by my labor, I became invested in my boat.

 ***

When it was time for the boat that could take us from Seattle to the San Juans, or points farther, I went to the Nexus Marine boathouse, located on the slough-laced delta of the Snohomish River among pilings that were once log booming grounds and moorings for fishing boats. The building is two-story, yellow-planked, and barn-shaped with a high, exposed-rafter interior and open on one side to the river. There’s a “buzz-and-walk-in” bell. When you slide the door open, you enter a mote-softened, high-raftered space populated with big table-saws and drill presses, and beyond the saws you’ll see another door that is the entrance to the owners – David and Nancy’s – apartment. In the boathouse you may feel as I do: that you’ve stepped into Ratty or Mole’s house in The Wind in the Willows.

David is usually wearing jeans and boots and a carpenter’s smock and is out in one of the several rooms of the boathouse, which David and Nancy call “the shed,” amid plastic curtains and drying lights and boat jigs and racks of lumber that make you feel as if you’re wandering in a maze. David is medium-height and has just reached the age of sixty. A gray beard frames high cheekbones and bright eyes. He’s attentive to everything, answering only after considering what he is about to say, and then speaking in perfectly formed sentences. He laughs in sudden tenor bursts. David reminds me of a department-store Santa Claus despite the fact that he is trim and a long-distance cyclist and a vegetarian and a congregant in good standing at his Everett temple. In the sixties, David dropped out of Cornell Engineering. He joined the Army. On his discharge, he toured Europe on a motorcycle.

Nancy, who likes to call herself a reformed hippie, still has long, straight hair, a certain joy-in-life innocence, and a deep-contralto laugh that disarms you and draws you in. She is short and sturdy and as ready as David is to pick up a tool belt or a varnish brush. Like David she is unusually attentive to what you say – Nancy never fails to respond with a ready quip. She calls all the boats Nexus has built her “babies.” Before meeting David, Nancy was a theatrical director and set builder and a builder of other theatrical props. Later she and David went to Alaska where they fished for salmon in Bristol Bay.

“We fished,” Nancy says, “so we could afford to build boats.”

And, after Alaska, they did build boats – rowboats and dories and outboards and sailboats. Wooden boats. Beautiful boats.

 ***

As in any definition of beauty, the essence is illusive. David maintains that nautical beauty is “hind mind,” originating in our reptilian brains, and that people are genetically programmed to recognize it, but he also says that the lines of the most beautiful boats mirror their movement through the water. Sheer, for example, is the line from the bow to the stern at the top edge of the hull: it’s often shaped like the wave left behind by the hull’s passage. On a Nexus boat, the high bow is designed to rise in steep-pitched Puget Sound seas while at the same time keeping the boat dry. The low stern insures tracking in following seas and at slow trolling speeds. Each shape is derived from what the boat is supposed to do. In David’s view, function drives design.

“All boats,” David says, “are workboats.”

But David also says that the nature of wood predicates design. Wood must be bent and when it bends, it bends in fair curves. Marine-grade lumber is fine-grained and straight, like a Douglas fir tree trunk is straight, and the most elegant boat designs draw upon this trait of the lumber.

The best designers design like David, unveiling what is already in their materials. You hear this in the vocabulary of boat building. Dead rise is how flat or V-shaped the bottom of the hull is. Waterlines are imaginary horizontal slices cut bow to stern. Tumblehome is the inclination of a boat’s sides where the sides meet the deck. Dead rise, tumblehome, waterline: in the sound of the words, you almost hear the shapes of the boats.

 ***

During the winter of 1995 to 1996, frame by frame, stringer by stringer, our boat took shape. Finally one day Nancy called. “Have you picked a name?” A date was set for our boat’s launching.

The name we chose was Ceilidh, pronounced KAY-lee, a Celtic word for a party where whiskey flows and pipers play, where friends gather and drink and laugh and sing, where everybody tells each other lies, which was not unlike the party we convened the night we launched Ceilidh, at eleven in the evening, when the August tide was sufficiently high to float her off her ways, a night which, as it turned out, was also Susan’s fortieth birthday. The birthday limo, loud with its celebrants, arrived at the Nexus boathouse. Our guests spilled out, bearing their bottles of wine and their plastic cups of margaritas. Susan broke a magnum of champagne over the bow. John and I manned the cockpit. The Nexus crew winched us down until we settled into the Snohomish River light and dry and free floating at last, as if Ceilidh was coming to life, or perhaps returning to life, the wood within her, once afloat, resurrected.

 ***

The first few years after Ceilidh’s launching defined an era when our family was young and our friends’ families were young. Back then, summer was theatre and Ceilidh was our stage and we were impresarios organizing kids, tubes, knee boards, fishing rods, skis, tents, stoves, folding chairs, and portable barbecues.

But even back then Ceilidh was more than a vehicle for play.

Ceilidh was where my dad and I shared our last boat ride before he died.

Ceilidh was where my brother Charlie and I sought solace after Dad’s death by fishing on the west side of San Juan Island amid a pod of orcas, Charlie landing a salmon, the orcas diving around us, their flanks mirroring Ceilidh’s black and white hull, the orcas and us and all the world alive in the shadow of Dad’s death.

Ceilidh’s beauty can still catch your breath. Strangers often approach us. Your boat, they say, we’ve admired for years. The staff at the marina where we keep Ceilidh call it “our Nexus,” investing it with extra care as they launch and retrieve her. Once post 9-11, we were chased by the US Coast Guard, for no other reason, as it turned out, than to get a better look at our boat.

This is the boat we asked David and Nancy to build.

By having it built, were we nautically preening?

Or simply proclaiming ourselves to be alive, an announcement of our presence in the world?

***

On this May morning in Friday Harbor, however, I’m not fretting about preening.

The outboard engine is idling. Susan has wiped the dew from the windscreen. John is casting off the spring lines and the mooring whip lines. I throw the throttle in reverse. John pushes off and steps aboard. I back to the end of our dock. I spin the wheel. I shift the engine into forward gear. We motor out into the channel between Brown Island and San Juan Island.

The conical-hat of Mt. Baker rears up this morning looking like a volcanic strawberry sundae. The windscreen is fogging up. I zip open the canvas window, roll it up, tuck it above my head. I check my jacket zipped, slip on sunglasses, pull on a pair of polypro gloves, and palm the throttle forward. The boat rises on a plane, its bow pointed directly at Mt. Baker, and we are off and swerving over the curlicues and meanders and boils, our speed over thirty knots, the boat skewing back and forth, a feeling so familiar I can almost guess where we are by each rip and whirlpool, just as the Salish Indians paddling their cedar canoes knew where they were by rip and whirlpool, but now we are slaloming around driftwood, flying across a world gilded and silvered and crimsoned by the sun, a world in such perfect balance I am, as always, nearly tearful at its beauty – or is it the wind that causes my eyes to tear?

We have made this passage a hundred times, each time different. This morning, the speed and light and the crisp air are transformative, imbuing us and our boat with the splendor of this day, writing another day into our lives, into the very bones of our boat. And if anything was missing – the sunrise, Mt. Baker, John or Susan or Ceilidh – then this morning would be less than it is. But it’s all here. This morning everything is here.

Neil Mathison

Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. Find out more about Neil at http://www.neilmathison.net/

 

My Redwoods

I first saw a redwood in 1950. My family had just toured Yosemite and San Francisco. We were on our way home. I don’t remember much (I was only three years old). I do remember a saw-cut trunk, twice as wide as my father was tall, its growth rings labeled with events from history – the Declaration of Independence, Columbus’s voyage to America, the Magna Charta. I remember my mother explaining that this tree, the one she and I were touching, had been older than Jesus. Even then, even at three, I knew that something that old was old indeed.

The redwoods are old, some as old as 3000 years. Though we know the earthevolved from stardust and once-living things – comets and coral reefs and Cretaceous ferns, although we know it’s not eternal, by its daunting years, it seems eternal. But the redwoods are old in a different sense: they are old on a scale we can comprehend. Maybe because monuments raised by human hands – the Pantheon and Westminster Abbey –began to be built when a living redwood we can see and touch was already a hundred-feet tall. Maybe the fact that the trees lived when our ancestors lived makes our ancestors somehow less dead. Or is it a kinship we recognize with all life, a sense that we and the trees are of the same cloth?

They say to know a place you must let its soil become your bones, its seasons fall upon you, its winds chill you, its rains dampen you, its droughts parch you; you must watch its clouds sail overhead and mark its dawns, listen to its crickets, suffer its gales, savor its fragrances, recoil from its stenches, touch its rocks and trees and grasses, warm your feet in its sands. They say you must live in a place to know it. But I don’t believe it. In my sixty-some years I have driven through the redwoods and walked through the redwoods and camped in the redwoods and changed my son’s diapers under the redwoods and watched my mother change my brothers’ diapers under the redwoods, and yet in all that time I’ve spent less than sixty hours in the redwoods. But the redwoods shape me, are always with me, anchor me. Some places take time to inhabit. Others inhabit you the moment you see them.

The oldest redwoods were saplings before the first brick was laid for the Parthenon and the Coliseum, before Chartre Cathedral or the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, before Fontainebleau, and (probably) before the Great Wall of China. The oldest are older than Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Baha’i. They have outlasted the Roman Empire, thirteen Chinese dynasties, what was supposed to have been Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The oldest have lived long enough to become the tallest trees in the world, to become (along with their Sierra sequoia cousins) the trees with the largest arboreal mass, and to become, next to the gnarled and weather-beaten bristlecone pine, the second-oldest living things on the planet.

Redwoods are also among the oldest species of trees. Their kind has survived longer than the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, and the giant ground sloth; they have survived the polar ice that seventeen times since the dawn of their kind crept down from the poles; survived the clash of tectonic plates that periodically rattles the California coast; survived the rise and fall of oceans; survived volcanic eruptions that turned summers into winter; survived the comet crash that killed the dinosaurs.

They are uniquely suited to survive. Their bark is thick and spongy and inures them to fire. During rainless summers they trap moisture from fog. The tannins in their bark repel insects. They survive flooding rivers – the Chatco, the Trinity, the Klamath, and the Smith – because their roots, unlike other species, know how to grow up. They survive despite seeds that are as small as tomato seeds; despite relying on the wind to pollinate them; despite germinating less than 1 percent of those seeds; despite less than one percent of those germinated becoming seedlings. They survive because they are monoecious meaning they have separate male and female flowers and do not require the pollen or seeds from another redwood; they survive because, if no seed germinates, new saplings will sprout from fallen trunks forming rings that are called “fairy rings” (a term I love for its folkloric beauty).

Redwoods have survived the arrival of Native Americans, the Spanish Conquistadores, and the Russian fur traders. They may not, however, survive the gold prospectors, railroad tycoons, loggers, the backyard-deck builders who call themselves Americans. Unfortunately for redwoods, their wood is an ideal building material. It doesn’t shrink, warp, cup, decay, absorb finishes, leak resins, or combust easily. This has led to a conflict between lumbermen and environmentalists that has lasted a century and which, by its lack of resolution, leaves the survival of old-growth redwoods in doubt.

If we lose the old-growth redwoods we may pay a higher price than aesthetics. While the Pacific Ocean tempers the cold, sends the wet-season rain, moderates the summer heat, eases with its fog the dry-season drought and thus creates an ideal environment for redwoods, recent studies suggest that an old growth redwood forest shapes its own environment by harvesting water directly from the atmosphere through “fog drip,” which in turn augments the aquifer, which in turn fills the streams, which in the turn provides pure clear water for, among other plants and animals, the endangered Northern California salmon runs.

You kill the redwoods, it turns out, you kill the salmon.

As an adult living in California, I often found myself in the redwoods, especially, it seemed, when change was sweeping my life.

I found myself in redwoods during the dissolution of a first marriage. I set out on a solitary drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco. The highway was endless and my back ached and my hands numbed and I fell into a torpor in which I saw everything and saw nothing. When I reached the redwoods I stopped at a roadside park. The day was gray and gloomy. It had begun to rain. Redwoods rose in dark, dense groves on either side of the road, their spired crowns broken by winter storms, the bases of their trunks charred by fire. To my surprise, as I sat at the picnic table sipping a Dixie cup of cheap California cabernet, it occurred to me that these broken and burned giants offered a note of hope: that life outlasts travail; that much could be said for simply weathering the storm.

I found myself in the redwoods again in April 1979, the month I got out of the Navy. I’d driven from Washington State down US 101 south, bound for a new, if uncertain life as a civilian. Before you reach the Oregon-California border, Highway 101 flirts with the ocean. It edges away at the Chatco River, kisses the coast again at the border, then skitters inland along the Smith River. The sky blazed blue. Wildflowers dappled the median. Douglas fir lined the highway. But I hadn’t seen any redwoods. Then a dense stand ahead loomed over lesser trees as if the redwoods were mitered bishops presiding over bent acolytes. I stopped the car and set off on foot through the grove. What I felt then was what I’d felt before and would feel again: a reverence similar to what you experience in the great cathedrals of Europe. Light falls in the same soft slatted way, as if it had passed through a clerestory window, trunks rise straight and true like piers in a nave, the boughs dome like arches. The trees spire up; your spirits lift; you’re closer to whatever it is that causes such beauty to exist. And how could it be otherwise? Isn’t a redwood grove – solemn, silent, sweet-scented – God’s true chapel?

Twelve years later, married a second time and with our one-year-old son John, I passed through the redwoods with my young family. We’d just returned to America after six years in Hong Kong and, though our life in Asia had been exciting and financially rewarding, we’d begun to miss the breathing room of the American West. In the press of our trans-Pacific move, however, we’d fallen into a state of exhaustion and ennui. Baby John was throwing up. His nanny Vilma had the flu. My wife Susan and I were suffering summer colds. Our homecoming drive had turned into an ordeal rather than a celebration.

We crossed into California and stopped for a picnic lunch along the Redwoods Highway. The July sun that only minutes before glared off the highway was now softened, and the stale air of our van gave way to the clean, camphor scent of the redwood forest, and as the redwoods rose above us, they seemed to shelter us, and for the first time since we’d returned home, I felt as if we’d finally come home, and it seemed not only that the redwoods welcomed us but that during all our time in Asia they had been here, a lodestone calling us back, and now, at this change in our lives, we were here again. Was it accident? Or was it destiny?

The year I’m remembering now, my son John is eleven years old. We’re camped on the banks of the Smith River in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. John skips stones across the river, which runs fast and clear here. On the opposite bank a forest rises: Douglas fir, western hemlock, big leaf maples, laurels, alder, tanoak, sorrel. And redwoods. We see their trunks, some red, some tan, some gray – the color varies because redwood color genes have evolved over such a long time that they have a larger than-other-species variety. The understory is dense. I wonder if it’s possible to even walk through it: salal, huckleberry, thimbleberry, sword ferns, rhododendron, and azaleas crowd each other in profusion. Not far from us, perhaps less than ten miles away, are the tallest redwoods on the planet. The park officials keep the location a secret (they fear vandalism) but in this rugged country even a redwood can hide. I don’t need to see them, the tallest of the redwoods. What brings me here is the whole forest, from the lichen on the forest floor to the great canopy above us with its hanging gardens and miniature groves invisible from the ground that I’ll never see. What brings me here is continuity. What brings me here is that I’ve been here before. What brings me here is that in this place I feel a reverence for life. What brings me here is that this is an ancient and holy place.

John holds up a flat, river-polished pebble.

“Call it,” I say.

“Five.” He slings the rock sidearm. One, two, three, four … The rock sinks. He shakes his head, shoots me a sheepish look.

I pick up my stone – black, the size of a silver dollar. Where was it born? In the fire of a volcano? The icy core of a comet? “At least five,” I say. I wind up and let it rip. One, two, three, four – it’s still going – nine, ten, eleven, twelve. The rock slides underwater. In a second, the current erases every trace. “Don’t worry,” I say. “You get better when you get older.”

“Like right, Dad.”

“Race you to camp?”

John takes off, his feet kicking up gravel. He’ll win this race.

But perhaps what I said was true. Maybe age does make you better. Maybe practice can lead to perfection. Maybe longevity teaches. Or maybe in the presence of old things you slow down, fall silent, listen, until at last you can hear the steady, soft heartbeat of the cosmos.