For this week's home and garden issue, we checked in with some of our favorite artisans, growers and craftsmen for fresh ideas and DIY know-how.
Chuck Oakander dreams of waves intermingling with wood. The dreams will be so vivid that they'll wake the arborist-sculptor from his slumber and send him to his notebook, where he'll scrawl out the vision—and then he'll create it.
The Bolinas arborist makes functional, fun sculpture from tree trunks, and one of his signature creations is the long, carved-out wave benches, rendered mostly from Monterey cypress. These designs are as sculptural as they are functional, and sync well with Oakander's passion for surfing—where he's strictly of the longboard persuasion. Oakander is all about the curls and the burls.
He has carved about a half-dozen of the benches in his 25 years working as an arborist-sculpture. Oakander doesn't get up in the trees much himself anymore, he says, leaving that work to a younger, more nimble crew—and sometimes he'll leave the crew at a work-site and head home for a few hours of sanding and grinding his latest work. No matter how tired he is, Oakander marvels at how working on one of his sculptures is a kind of instant rejuvenator. He also sport-climbs redwood trees up on the Bolinas ridge, for kicks.
The 56-year-old is a friendly and ruddy-faced icon in Bolinas, known as much for his surfing skills as for the functional sculptures that populate his property—and at some homes around town—and which take many months to complete, from initial rough-out to the final, smooth and sculpted product.
Oakander looks for trunks and trees that speak to his swirls-and-curls aesthetic, adding that he's not interested in standard woodworking conventions when he's designing or dreaming up a piece. He's not interested in milling wood, and hard-angled table corners seem to bore him—or at least he doesn't dream of them.
"I am drawn to things with interesting curves," says Oakander.
Asked to name an artistic inspiration, he immediately identifies his across-the-street neighbor, fisherman and clay sculptor Josh Churchman. Also his mom, Oakander adds, who was a night-owl, an art teacher and a maker herself, mostly of clothing.
The pieces he renders take many months to be fully realized, and there's often a long waiting period before he even gets to work on a piece after he's secured the tree. Depending on the wood and where it was growing (in the shade or in the sun—it makes a big difference in how the wood ages and decomposes), he will age the wood for between six months and six years before bringing the tools of his trade to bear on it.
But don't call Oakander a chainsaw artist. The chainsaw comes out only at the very beginning of the process, when Oakander is roughing out his latest vision—for example, a massive and gored-out trunk that presents a tempting place to rest one's head, and whole body, after a vigorous Bolinas ramble. After the rough-out and after the wood is aged, it's on to various adzes and power grinders and Oakander's favorite tool of all, the gutter adze (it was once used to make wooden gutters, he explains), which he deploys and demonstrates with obvious glee.
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ADZE MAN Chuck Oakander’s wood sculptures sometimes take years to complete.
Oakander is committed to using sections of wood that might otherwise wind up in the dump. When he started out as an arborist some 25 years ago, there were lots of people in West Marin who burned firewood for heat; that business has dropped off considerably in recent years because of county regulations and other factors.
"We used to burn a lot of this wood up," says Oakander. "I feel some responsibility here, too, that the wood is not wasted."
In addition to Monterey cypress, Oakander also uses blue-gum and red-gum eucalyptus, black acacia, California bay laurel and coast live oak. "Each has sculptural qualities of its own," Oakander says during a tour of his workshop and grounds. He's still working with Monterey cypress trees that were downed in a storm about 10 years ago, and which he hauled to the shop from nearby Dogtown.
Oakander may have one of the more popular front-yard gawk-sites in the county. People pull up all the time, he says, out of curiosity and occasionally to make a purchase. He says that for every 50 or 60 who take an interest in his sculpture, one will follow through all the way to the end.
There's a really cool carved-out chair in the garage that he's been working on and that reminds me of Game of Thrones by way of an Ent-approved furniture store. The cutaway inside the flagellated trunk looks like it was burned out by a sculptor, a popular technique. But that's all-natural damage to the wood, done by a fungus, Oakander explains. He fashioned a separate lift-off seat for the chair, which he says could sell for around $15,000. Oakander has also sold simpler hand-hewn pieces in the $1,000 range. He did carve his wife, Cass Hicks, a neat wooden spoon from a lemon-tree branch on the property—a labor of a different kind of love, and one that he's not going to do for you.
Oakander has also carved out some pieces on commission, but prospective clients should not expect him to sit down and draw out the specifications. This is an all-natural process, in an all-natural town, and Oakander has a dream for how this should go.
"A landscape and garden isn't just a landscape and garden," says Sebastopol's Erik Ohlsen. "It's a place to resolve a lot of issues."
At least it could be.
Ohlsen is something of a permaculture impresario. He runs five businesses from a five-acre plot off Gravenstein Highway South that houses offices for his Permaculture Artisans landscape business, the Permaculture Skills Center nonprofit, incubator farms, a digital mapping service and a new ecology-based children's' book publishing company.
The site, with its interpretative gardens and designs, is open to the public.
"We wanted to make this totally accessible to everyone," says Ohlsen.
The incubator farms help ease the problem of access to farmland, a costly commodity in the North Bay. The Permaculture Skills Center's 10-week, farmer training program attracts students from all over the world. The current class has students from as far as Finland and South Africa.
"This place is really on the map for the global permaculture community," Ohlsen says.
All of Ohlsen's businesses and programs are based on permaculture, a school of agriculture and social movement created by Australia's Bill Mollison in the 1970s. Put simply, permaculture is a method of design based on the principles and systems of nature. That sounds simple enough, but too often nature is seen as an obstacle rather than an ally. Instead of working with topography, water flow patterns and existing flora and fauna, we impose our plans on the land. In spite of how many chemicals or dams or bulldozers are used to make the round peg fit in the square hole, the garden, farm or economic system that isn't integrated into the natural world will fail sooner or later.
Permaculture looks at all the pieces of the puzzle—water, soil health, energy use, plant type—and tries to weave them into a harmonious whole, says Ohlsen. Decisions about what to plant in permaculture begin with questions of utility.
"In a permaculture landscape, we always look for useful plants," says Ohlsen.
What's a useful plant? It's one that smells nice and looks good, but also has other functions, such as fixing nitrogen in the soil, producing food or attracting beneficial insects.
One of Ohlsen's favorite plants is comfrey. It's a squat little flower that reseeds rather prolifically. The roots have well-known healing properties. Cut off a pile of leaves and weigh them down in a bucket with a rock, like a batch of sauerkraut, and in a few months the smelly ferment can be used as fertilizer at a ratio of 25 to 1.
If a 10-week course is more than you need, Ohlsen has some basic spring gardening tips:
• Grow food as close to your home as possible. Out of sight, out of mind doesn't make a garden grow.
• Keep as much water on-site as possible. Using mulch, swales and "rain gardens" to hold moisture means your landscape needs less additional water and is drought-resistant.
• Instead of discarding yard clippings, pile them up to create mulch and compost. Chop and drop.
As much as it is an agricultural philosophy, Ohlsen says permaculture is a model for social change, and it's one he's eager to share. "We want to take our model out into the community," he says.—Stett Holbrook