By Antonia Malchik
You’d think, given Russia’s tumultuous history, the country would have a more dramatic landscape than the one it inherited. Its revolutions and massacres cry out for powerful mountains, like the Rockies that defined my childhood. Instead, its few sprawling cities trickle out into miles of taiga—boreal forests, the first obvious shift being groves of aspen trees quivering in that silvery way they have, flashing light from leaves in high summer. Watercolor paintings with a ubiquitous gray-pink winter sky and lone Russian Orthodox Church domes seem incomplete without the aspens. They are rooted in the allure of the country and its history, a culture in which poetry is pre-eminent and the past wrought hard with stoic endurance.
Aspens are communal. A grove of aspens is actually one organism, connected via an underground root system that sprouts from an individual seedling. These underground systems withstand the most devastating forest fires and regenerate with young seedlings—all genetic clones—that can grow up to three feet a year. While each tree itself might only live for a few decades, the entire root system can survive hundreds or even thousands of years—stands have been found in the American West that are tens of thousands of years old.
The analogy to Russia is hard to miss if you know something of the country’s history. Russian communities had traditionally worked as a collective, or mir, bound by a concept translated as “joint responsibility.” A community as a whole, not individuals or families, was responsible for things like tax payments and military conscription. Land was redistributed every now and then as families grew and shrank. The system had been in place for hundreds of years, long before America was formed, and functioned right up until it ran into the Bolshevik revolution. Mir wasn’t an idea formed by utopia-seeking philosophers; Russia’s “geographical vulnerability and agricultural marginality,” as one historian puts it, made joint responsibility a requirement for survival.
Like the mir, aspen trees thrive by virtue of their collective strength and resources.
My Russian-born father told me (incorrectly, it turns out) that aspen wood was useless. He was visiting a few months after I had taken my first woodworking class, and I’d been getting a little obsessive about wood. More often found mixing bread dough in the kitchen or with head bent over a notebook, pen in hand, I’d recently begun using a drill and a sander and filling the back of my station wagon with abandoned stumps and branches dragged out of the woods. I’d been making three-legged tables and driftwood chairs, the sound of the orbital sander whining in my unprotected ears. I’d abandoned my usual flowing skirts in favor of jeans and tried applying a screeching, vibrating axle grinder to the innards of a cedar knot. (I had no idea making a rustic wooden bowl would be so violent.) I spent months making a table out of a solid block of maple, even now marveling at the beauty that emerged from the deep scars left by an indifferent sawmill, how its ripples and honey colors make me feel alive.
I’d lost myself sometime in the previous year. I’d grown numb, then tired, then depressed. My children’s demands crashed onto my head, crushing me into exhaustion as if I’d been sandbagged, and daily I stared out the windows, contemplating what their future would be in the face of climate change and epidemics of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and planetary chaos, wondering what the point was of trying to teach them to read, or forcing them to always say “please,” or denying them as much chocolate as they wanted.
I knew these thoughts weren’t healthy, much less helpful. I needed a distraction that would take me out of the house and require me to do something besides think too much. My head had taken over my life. Every day was split among my job as a freelance copy editor, the thousand fractured moments that came with caring for small children, and writing. Even my leisure time was taken up with books. Mothers like me often say that they’re drowning, but I wasn’t drowning; I was turning into some gaseous substance that moved through the ether, that existed but couldn’t feel. So I signed up for a rustic woodworking class hosted by the local nature museum at random because it sounded more enticing than lectures on birds. In that first class, I spent a day learning to make a chair using driftwood branches and a drill, and I got hooked. Over the next few months, woodworking started to drag me back down to the ground I’d always loved.
My father and I had just dropped my son off at a part-time kindergarten surrounded by birch and aspen trees, and we were taking my daughter, Alex—or she was taking us—for a walk around the property before getting back in the car.
“It’s horrible now, looking at all this wood,” I told him. “I can’t just appreciate it anymore. I want to take it all home and make things with it.”
“Not with aspen.” He picked up one of the hundreds of limbs lying around and showed me: where it had broken off the tree, the branch’s guts were exposed. They looked like bundled fiber optic cable or a bag of spaghetti, except thicker. If you tried to cut it, it would crumble to pieces. Bound together, several branches would barely be strong enough to hold something up.
“It’s no good,” my father said. We walked up and down the driveway of the school’s property, Alex stopping to poke decaying leaves and swing her dinosaur umbrella around, narrating every step we took because she never, ever stopped talking.
“I wish we could do this more often,” I said. My father knew that I had never been a lonely sort of person. But I did get lonely for this: his company, walks and conversations, my family, my home, mountains and trees that nurtured and spoke to me and people who understood me, who laughed at my stupid, snarky jokes. He lived in Russia, back in his homeland, and I in New York, and we saw each other once a year at best, often only once every two years.
“You need more help,” he said, returning to our earlier conversation. I’d told him about feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t mentioned that I was feeling numb and depressed and non-existent.
I’d told my older sister, though. She lived off in California with her three kids. My family was so widely scattered that it wasn’t even deserving of the word. My younger sister lived in Oregon, my mother in Montana, my in-laws in England, and, of course, my father in Russia. I had a few friends where we lived, but not a single one that I could call on for regular help in any but the most dire of emergencies.
“I know. What can I do, though?” We’d talked about my husband and me moving back to Montana. I didn’t know how much help it would give me in the mothering, the living, the feeling of non-existence, but I craved my home like drink, like the coldest, purest spring water that runs off the peaks no tourists ever venture to. I wanted to be there, closer—if not to every single family member then at least to the place we were mutually attached to.
Aspen, I found out later, is actually widely used for random things you never think about—wooden matches and shredded paper packing material, for example, because it doesn’t burn as easily as other wood. It can be used in furniture but is hard to work because it’s soft and tends to shred or “fuzz” (to use a fancy woodworking term), can gum up equipment, and often refuses to take a finish or stain, although its softness makes it easy to shape. While it’s still used in areas of Russia for roofs, the wood has to be absolutely sound or it ends up rotting quickly.
The wood that my father and I picked up had been lying on the wet ground for a long time. It was decaying; we could pull it apart with our fingers. But its community would continue to thrive. Even when aspen trees are cut down, the root system keeps going, sending up multiple clones for every felled tree. Killing the roots requires girdling, a process of carving out a band of the bark, cambium, and phloem in a circle around the trunk. Girdling prevents nutrients from reaching the root system, which will eventually die.
I didn’t tell my father everything: that it wasn’t just parenthood and the lack of help. That my unmooring had a lot to do with how my writing ambitions had shipwrecked a couple of times, leaving me despairing for several months; how I then let the kids’ learning and nurturing slide into too much television and a reliance on packets of organic hot dogs. How useless I felt as a human being. I couldn’t tell him these things. Not when his parents had survived Stalin’s purges, when his father had made his way out of the Siege of Leningrad in the middle of the starvation winter, stumbling in the last stages of dysentery, when his mother had worked night shifts as a metallurgical engineer up in the Ural Mountains and then gone home to hoe potatoes and hunt for mushrooms and chop wood to keep her children alive. They’ve left so much to live up to.
I didn’t tell him how I’d started shying away from a particular shelf in our bookcases, where The Artist’s Way is kept, among other creativity/inspiration volumes of its kind. Memories of all those morning pages—three free-association pages handwritten immediately on waking, as sternly instructed in The Artist Way’s introduction—the weekly artist dates required, supposedly, to nurture my inner artist self, the facing of fears and claiming of goals, of throwing the doors of the inner self wide open to serendipity—they form a tender spot, a sore point, a wound.
My writing ambitions weren’t a secret from my father. I was one of those children who would write short story collections, in crayon on yellow legal pads, and bind them together with yarn and cardboard. In my twenties, I went off to an MFA program after two unproductive years as a journalist. And I worked really, really hard because hard work is the thing I’m best at. The harder I worked, the higher my ambitions became. I formed big dreams. Huge dreams. Dreams of many published books and attendance at notable conferences and magazine editors tapping out emails to me.
Dreams all out of proportion with what I wanted the rhythm of my life to feel like. The continued refusal of those dreams to come true infected my parenting, my friendships; they sucked the life out of all the little things I used to take pleasure in: cooking, making jam, weeding the herb garden, watching the heron fish at the pond next door, teaching my son math. I let those dreams define who I was, forgot what it meant to be a complete human being.
When I started woodworking, I hoped to find myself in the wood, or at least find a sense of groundedness in the physical labor. I started volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill and became ravenous for information: why elm is so hard to mill and work (it twists and warps and its grain runs every which way), what black locust is used for (anything from artsy coasters to decking because it’s as hard as cement), what created that thin, black lacing—like a spare Picasso pencil drawing—in the sliced trunk of maple lying around (spalting, caused by fungus, which makes for beautiful furniture or bowls if caught early and dried thoroughly but makes the wood too weak to use if left to spread). I wanted to learn how to work with different woods, but I also wanted a metaphor for who I was. Secretly, I hankered to relate to maple, like the table I made after the scars were sanded down and the exposed beauty glossed with beeswax and almond oil.
Instead, the more I saw of the whole, beautiful hardwoods laid out under my sander or sliced open in eight-foot lengths on a Wood-Mizer mill, the more I felt crumbly inside, full of barely connected shreds. Like aspen. Prone to rot.
“Leap, and the net will appear,” claims one of the paragraphs in The Artist’s Way, which has been a kind of writer’s bible for almost three decades now. “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,” which I realize now simply translates to “Work really hard and hope for some luck.” Because the bus driver might be a jerk and refuse to stop, or you might trip and fall on the sidewalk, or someone will suddenly block your way.
Where is the space between acceptance and giving up? Between loving who you are and turning your back on hope?
Walking with my dad, I pondered these questions but didn’t speak them aloud. I loathed my own first-world myopia because I was in fact wallowing in the pain of unattained ambition, not fleeing chlorine gas attacks in Syria, or throwing myself around my child’s body while American drones dropped bombs over my Pakistani village. I had never even suffered the self-dissolving pain of miscarriage or infertility, as many of my friends had.
I should be grateful for what I have, do something actually useful with my life, like my father’s parents had managed to do even when faced with hardships that I can barely imagine.
I want to be better, I wished I could tell him. To be less ambitious, less desirous of recognition. To know throughout myself, not just intellectually, that the potentials I once dreamed of and haven’t reached do not mean I’ve failed. I have done many hard things in my life, but this feels like the hardest: To accept that my existence might never be like a shining block of silver maple carved into a work of art, or an oak tree that will last untold generations.
Separated from my family, from the very few friends I have and treasure, from the mountains and pine forests that formed me, my art, my creativity, feels all-consuming, the one thing that defines my structure and growth. Working with wood helped bring me back to earth. I felt made of flesh again, rather than of the ether. But the depression only started to lift when I redefined my ideas of success in terms of fulfillment because when I looked back over the previous few years, the memories that brought me pleasure had nothing to do with writing accomplishments. The memories that glowed for me were nearly all related to my family, to time spent with my far-flung community, and to hiking and walking, relating in earth-bound ways to the Earth I love so deeply: walking the high cliffs plunging into the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Islay with my husband and in-laws, taking ten days off to help my overworked younger sister with her new baby, meals and conversations lasting well past midnight with my Russian relatives, trekking through the islands of St. Petersburg with my uncle, picking Montana huckleberries with my husband, laughing for hours in our giddy way with my sisters. My daughter retrieving her rain boots and umbrella and telling me firmly that she’s going out to “play with the rain.” My son reading a Little Bear story, stumbling but persistent, to his grandparents over Skype. My mother playing the guitar and singing one of her folk songs to my kids after we spent the night at her husband’s backcountry cabin, where the sheer weight of the unfiltered Milky Way made me realize how long I’ve lived under light pollution. That I’d forgotten how arresting the unshrouded night sky is.
The thrill of a magazine’s “yes” for an essay or an agent’s interest in one of my books burns out quickly and leaves no glow like these memories do. Only the act of writing itself comes close, reflects that slow crunch of my hiking boots over dry pine needles fallen on the mountains that are part of me.
In the same way I can work with wood slowly and honor its inner structure, I want to take my writing and transmute both the excitement inherent in success and the sting that comes with every failure. I want the whole process to take a more human scale, to become as creativity should be—not majestic or overwhelming or stunning, but nurturing to everything and everyone that surrounds it, part of the earthbound root system that keeps us alive.
Relating myself and my writing to aspen’s weakness and lack of inner beauty is not accepting a lower state of being. It’s part of a whole. And, when I am gone, my existence can still be worthy as shredded pulp to shelter my community or a matchstick to light a stranger’s way.
Like the members of a mir, like aspen groves, I need community. We all do, just as we need clean water and air, as we need to work and to laugh. To feel that we belong and that we have something worthwhile to contribute is necessary to human survival, a fact I had to lose myself to figure out.
ANTONIA MALCHIK lives in upstate New York, where she sometimes blogs about wood and writing and parenting and philosophy on Pooplosophy. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and can be reached through her website antoniamalchik.com.