In late March this year when Spring was pulling off the pall of Winter, and buds were swelling on the tips of the Beech trees’ branches, a deer walked casually into our garden as if an invited guest. I was sitting in the window when she sauntered in off the drive, no hint of wariness, no hesitation, only an inquisitive snuffling around the vegetable beds we had recently been preparing. As Winter had receded, the anxious cloud of spreading infections had cast its own shadow over the life we had been living. We had rapidly taken stock of financial implications, had drawn in our purse strings, and rallied over a weekend to create new vegetable beds. We laboured over these with an enthusiasm for the new life we would be ushering in, and in our digging we washed away any anxiety we had been carrying. As I watched the deer silently from the window, my wife capturing the moment digitally, it felt as if she were a messenger, a reminder of the power of nature, of the life-force that surrounds us, of the rhythm of life and death. As it turns out we were not alone, millions of people the world over witnessing acts of defiance from creatures normally largely invisible to us.
The roads in this part of rural Devon were empty of traffic, the road close to us silent in the air of a still morning, the usual quiet drone not penetrating the woodland wall that surrounds us. The part of me that wishes at times to disappear from the world, to act as if I am alone in it, relished that sweet emptiness. Yet contradictions soon began to break through the dream I had started to create of a brave new world, a quiet, peaceful world where animal and human live in harmony. Contradictions that manifested in the angry roar of supercharged engines, as a white Lamborghini, and pale blue Porsche raced passed me at break neck speed as I put the rubbish out at the end of the drive, or the red Ferrari that overtook me on a blind bend as I drove home one day.
I was snapped out of my reverie, reminded that there are infinite variables to the human responses that arise at times like this. I had no sports car to take for a jaunt on the silent roads, only a workshop full of tools and I began to wonder what I would do with them now. My courses were on hold, as was any other teaching and the yearly exhibition which acts as a metronome for the rhythm of my making was soon cancelled. The guests that come throughout the year to stay in our cabins did not arrive, and the cafe to which I go regularly to write had closed its doors. I still woke in the same room, heard the cacophony of the birds at dawn, ushered my book through its editorial process and hung out in the evenings with my wife and daughter. Yet all the ‘to dos’ of life had disappeared, all the structure of my day had all but vanished. We walked more, talked more, zoomed more and drank more coffee and wine.
After the deer had visited, I wondered about the wild and the maintained, about the work of the human hand and how it can keep the wild world at bay. I loved the fact that the deer had exhibited no fear in our garden, was acting only as if she were part of our world, was still content to stroll in and out as we busied ourselves with our very human lives. The deer proclaimed her parity with us, offered her tacit opinions of our labour, found her way easily in and out of our fenceless garden. The male pheasant came strolling in as regularly as ever, proclaiming his loud presence among the background music of all the other birds. He would strut up onto the bank and soon we would see him standing on the old decaying bench looking due south, over the young barley crop and out to sea. The life around us throbbed to its usual rhythm while the news of the world outside us made us appreciative and guilty of the life we live. For my own part I found myself adrift in a familiar world, much like the world I had been in, but I less tethered to it.
The deer’s casual appearance, her physical representation of will, as well as that of the explosive force of life that Spring was ushering in, helped bring me focus. My hands began to itch for purpose, as if they as representatives of my human being, needed to lead me out of the thick fog I had found myself adrift in. I began to see things I had been blind to for years; the bed we didn’t have ( a mattress on the floor our place of rest for the last 20 years); the decaying bench on the bank to which the animals gravitated but that could barely support the weight of a human; the bedside tables we had never needed because of the bed I hadn’t built; the gate I had rustled together ‘temporarily’ from an old pallet 5 years before.
The only furniture of mine we had in our house were pieces I had made speculatively or as prototypes that I had never sold. I had made nothing purposefully for our home, as I couldn’t justify the time. I now strolled around our house as if I were that deer snuffling at the edges of our life, causing me to question what I prioritised, to ask myself why was it not ok to make for us, to use the opportunity that had presented itself to bring the dignity of my skills to our home.
Over the next few months the pallet gate was replaced by a beautiful cleaved chestnut one; the mattress found its way a foot or so off the ground, supported on a great oak and chestnut bed frame, two bedside tables either side of it; and two new chestnut benches appeared on the bank around the old decaying one, a set of steps leading up to them proclaiming the inauguration of a new space. Now, when my gaze happens upon these pieces, or more specifically when a balmy evening allows us to take a glass of wine out to the benches, or we sit up in bed with our morning coffees clutched to us, I feel as if their making brought some restitution to the life that seemed earlier to have been slipping from me. As if the very fact I can make, brings restitution to the contradictions implicit in our existence.
Anyone who seeks to make objects by hand today is a representative of our ancient ancestors, who in developing the use of their hands, in taking themselves from swinging ape to thinking, speaking human, ushered in the complexity of the life we now find ourselves sharing on this crowded planet. They found a way to thrive within the unpredictable chaos of their surroundings, by creating shelter, hunting and gathering with weapons they had made and baskets they had woven. They found their own volition and empowerment in a world where decay and death were always close by, where life was representative of its own fragility on a daily basis.
The benches on the bank, the gate and the bed are representative of the legacy of our ancestors, are a reminder of what our hands can do, yet they are divorced from the imperatives of survival. I do not need a bed frame, can and have slept soundly on the floor, have managed with a recycled pallet for a gate and can always sit on a blanket on the bank. Yet, the fact that I CAN make, while I can also go shopping for anything I want that other people and factories have made, reminds me of my empowerment. And in a time like this, where underlying assumptions of our society are being fundamentally undermined, I feel in the making of an object the restitution of my own capacity, that in my quest to make I somehow haul myself from the chaos of life, from the unpredictability of things, from the fragility that pulls at the edges of us. It is, I think a human inclination to seek to restitute some sense of prior normality in a time of change. It is a human inclination to use our hands to make things, to build and rebuild things, to keep some sense of order among the silent threat of the wild that birthed us.
This thought transports me back a few years where I find myself in a wooded enclave, high stone walls to one side along the path I walk, and smaller paths intersecting obliquely to it every 50 metres or so. The wall is lined in stone rubble, piled half way up its height, some of the stones huge, many engraved with letters or motifs. 80 years ago these innocuous discarded blocks formed the memorials and tombs of the jewish community who had migrated to Vienna in the preceding 100 years, confident in their ability under new laws to become citizens of the Empire. The rubble wall runs for a hundred or so metres, is a few metres deep, and having wandered it a little, I head in towards the shade of the trees. I’m in the Jewish Cemetery in Vienna, a list of names and grave numbers in my notebook, and I start looking for row marker to orientate me. After a little struggle I find some of the tombs and memorials I am looking for, my grandmother’s parents and other relatives. I was born in Vienna as were my father and his, but this is my first time here in this deathly place. I get myself lost as I walk out of the overgrown area of small graves into a grander part of the cemetery. I remember my Grandmother telling me of the gravestone she had erected after she had returned from concentration camp, finding the Kary family Mausoleum destroyed. I remembered her disdain for the ostentatiousness of the building, and I guessed that whatever I was to find would be much more modest. On a large corner plot, the foundation of a great mausoleum near by, no sign of ours, stood a discreet black granite obelisk, my grandfather’s, great uncle’s and great grandparents names carved into it. Dates and place of death silently described them as of old age and illness, or as murder. The Mausoleum that they commemorated had once stood here, but exists only in an old photo on my laptop. It is huge, Palladian in style, big enough to accommodate a two up two down on a quiet suburban street.
2 weeks ago an email cut briefly through the English construct of my character, and drew blood a little deeper in my flesh. The Austrian State it told me was now happy to give me and my brother the citizenship that it had taken from our father. In fact, the email said, my children and theirs could also become Austrian Citizens. Funny timing I mused, as my European identity is about to be robbed from me through Brexit, the kind Austrians, persecutors of my family, are there to help. I can remain a European citizen after all. Restitution is at hand, I can be a proper Austrian again, and those times when the police tried to force me out of the apartment can just be forgotten, as can the murders, the robbed property and forced labour. Later in the email from my cousin is news of a plan to rebuild the Mausoleum. I don’t know what to think, only perhaps that sleeping dogs should lie, that the stones piled against that wall should remain a just memorial, and that rebuilding anything might just take the idea of restitution a bit too literally.
I think that part of the reason I make is to make sense of things, to solve problems that I can solve, to calm the torpid waters I am birthed from. The plank I take from a pile that once formed a tree, which has sat drying in one of my sheds, can now become the material onto which I focus my endeavours. I take some tools off the wall in the workshop and soon I am lost in bringing an idea to life, in creating an object out of the rough hewn plank I had dragged in. Over days and weeks a three dimensional representation of my thinking rises out of the ground, and with every step I take it becomes an ever more polished and assured representation of the skills I have. It gives me a sense of purpose and presence that I often find difficult to hold onto, specifically in light of the heritage I carry.
The idea of hauling out the stones to rebuild the tomb of my forebears sounds poetic, that through the rebuilding there will be healing, that we could all find some peace. It sounds like it would line up with much of my thinking, yet I cannot feel the peace in it. Perhaps I should take one or two of those rocks and make a small pile, light a candle, sit there a bit and then quietly walk away. Yet to rebuild a building that proclaimed a status long robbed, a building whose ostentation would have attracted some of the rhetoric of anti-semitism, seems unnecessary. Let sleeping dogs lie, put energy to grow our own power and not reclaim that already lost to another world order.
Making allows me this, as does any creative act; allows the power to claim something for oneself, a voice expressed through a developed skill, through a sequence of repeated and practised movements, through a familiarity with ones body and a trust of the knowing it holds, separate to the contortions of our mind. Making is an act of restitution, a signal to self of the power one has to shape one’s own world, to feel some semblance of control.
I sit on the benches I have made in the fading evening light and I imagine the doe walk silently in, nod to me in gentle acknowledgement and then snuffle her way around the new vegetable beds inspecting our work. The pheasant saunters up and jumps onto the arm of the other bench, his wings gentle movement lifting him effortlessly up. There’s a woodpecker in the oak tree rat-a-tatting in pursuit of a bug, and the clumsy flapping of pigeon wings as a male courts a female on the low branch of a beech tree. I am sitting there with them, glad that I have had this opportunity to pause, to slow down and take stock, to gift myself with the fruits of the skills I developed to make sense of the chaotic world I find myself in.