Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Burning Saplings and Juniper

 "I want to know the world." ~ Peter

I spent six hours yesterday
burning saplings and juniper
I had thinned out from our stand of woods last year.
I cut the trees and the brush
in order to see deeper into the woods and grow a
wider range of woodland plants than the thick, close growth allowed.
I killed hundreds of saplings to do this
and the moral weight of doing so
will be the subject of some future essay
but I have another story to tell just now.
Toyokuni III/Kunisada (1786 - 1864) Japanese Woodblock Print Conversation at a Bonfire, 1861

I began by digging a pit in the snow
ten feet across, a foot down.
Then I dragged the brush from a number of stacks
and piled a good sized mound about eight feet high.
A little before ten I lit the fire.
It took until the third lighting to raise a sustaining burn.

It was in the twenties, no real wind, a bright clear day
and I looked forward to spending the entire day
outside feeding and tending the fire.

There were apple prunings, maple, choke cherry and
ash saplings, some pine and juniper.

Once ignited and settled down, the furnace-like heat
took in whatever I gave it, green wood, rotten wood,
ice encased wood, some seasoned wood.

Occasionally my wife came out to say that the fire was
too high and I should stop adding wood.
Later in the morning she helped me drag the cuttings
towards the fire from the piles I had left the season before.
Each time she delivered another arm full she had something to say about the fire.
After each armful  she would sit
down and watch me for five or ten minutes
and talk to me about something
even though I was mostly on the other side of the fire
and couldn't hear her.
I, however (I am now 61 and we have been married for
39 years) felt good about a girl (she) watching me (a boy)
doing something physical, something manly
like lifting, throwing, burning.

It was simple work: 
pick up some saplings or prunings
free them from entwining others and from the snow and ice
drag them over to the fire
and throw them on in the right place.

Towards one o'clock
I could feel my fingers throb
from the many little bruises of the spines of the apple,
the twists, squeezes and strain of clamping down on the bigger stuff.
My shins and thighs were banged around and scratched.
My ankles were sore from stepping on the ice,
the piles of brush, getting caught in forks,
punching down at an angle through the snow.
My nose was cut by a snapping branch.
My eyes were red and teary from the smoke.
My nose was running down into my mustache
and on to my top lip where I could taste it.
My knees and hips ached from the extra burden
they were asked to carry.
I burnt a hole in my sweat shirt.
The hair on my chin got scorched and turned from white to yellow.
My shoulders and forearms began to loose
their strength and resiliency.
I began to slow down between dragging the wood to the fire
and going out to get more.
The armfuls got smaller, the throwing got shorter.

A little after two
I had cleared all the brush I could free from the snow
and sat on a bench with a container of ice water
my wife had brought out earlier.
The burn was steady and low
all the small things were gone,
only thicker pieces were burning.
There was hardly any smoke.

So I went in for lunch.
My hand shook so much
I had to leave my elbow on the table
when I put a spoonful of soup in my mouth.
The sandwich
required two hands,
neither one of which could clamp down on the squishy thing
firmly enough so that one thing or another wouldn't slip out.
After lunch I washed the few dishes and was in no hurry to finish,
letting my hands wallow in the warm soapy water.

I looked at the fire at around three.
No wind, steady burn of coals, just a bit of smoke.
So I took a hot shower
and got into bed to read and take a little nap.
Arms at my sides, palms up, legs straight out
I lay on my back.
My body tingled, joints throbbed, bruises pulsed.
Every thing ached.
Sleep pulled me quickly under.

When people see me lifting rocks, digging earth, dragging wood,
they think I am working hard.
When I stop to talk with them
my clothing is soaked
I am covered with dirt
and my breathing is labored.
It does look like I am working hard.
But I am not working hard.
I am not working.
I am having a conversation
between my bones and blood, muscles and guts
and the world.

I often do this,
wear myself out acquainting my bones and muscles and skin with
trees, stones, earth, water and fire.

I want my bones, my blood, my guts
to meet the world directly.
It's not enough for my eyes and fingers to meet the world,
to go out on blind dates with the world,
to see, touch, smell this world
and then to tell the rest of me, the inner things of me,
what's going on out there.
I want to introduce all of me, with no translations,
to the world.

I want to be stopped by the world.
I want to come to the end of me
the end of what my bones will bear.
The end of what my muscles will lift
what my lungs can sustain
my hands hold
my heart endure.

I want the world to be my rule.
I want the world as it is to be my rule.
Not my wife, or my mother, or my friends, or what's in books
to tell me when to stop
when enough is enough.

I want my will, simple and fragile,
to be measured against
the stubborn stones, sullen logs
god damn gravity.

I'm tired of my mind timidly bossing me around.
I want something I do to be honest
to leave nothing out
to go to the point where I can go no further.

It's not only my desire to meet the world directly
that drives this peculiar behavior.
It's; how else will I ever meet me?

My quivering collapse into bed
I take as a measure of me
that I can obtain from no other trustworthy source.
How could anyone else tell me of these kinds of things?

If I could make it to the bed
with energy to spare
it would be just that same portion of me that would never meet the world,
never have that conversation with the world.
And as in all conversations,
never serve either as a mirror or a lens

I want to know the world.
In a biblical kind of way.

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