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.
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
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FLOWER FARMER
According to Modern Farmer magazine, we’re in the midst of a flower-industry boom, the biggest since the 1990s. As delightful as flowers are to smell and admire, in Sonoma County they are part of a timely conversation about local farming, commerce and community.
“A lot of people don’t realize around 80 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from other countries,” says Nichole Skalski, a floral designer and member of the five-year-old North Bay Flower Collective. More often than not, she says, “the imports come from farms that treat workers poorly, and use pesticides and chemicals not regulated by the U.S.”
The collective of 15 local farmers, florists and floral designers living and working in Sonoma County calls its approach “slow flowers,” borrowed from the international Slow Food movement. Just as Slow Food underlines the importance of seasonality and locality, the flower collective strives for a deeper understanding of the flower market, its place in the community and its environmental impact. This focus flourishes when growers and designers are brought together.
“I think it’s important for the designer to hear how the farmer tended those seeds until they were passed on to be included in an artistic design for a wedding ceremony or gift to a loved one, carefully selected and arranged,” Skalski says.
The collective also supports its members in what Skalski calls “an essentially tough industry” by providing educational, marketing, resources and business opportunities. The value of “local,” too often a marketing buzzword, is front and center with collective members.
“Locally grown flowers aren’t grown strictly for shelf life and sturdiness for air travel,” Skalski says, “so we see lots of heirloom, fragrant and more delicate varieties than imports will ever provide.”
Fresh bunches of those delicate varieties, and many more local blooms, can soon be smelled and purchased at Skalski and partner Kathy Green’s new flower shop, California Sister. Named after the butterfly Adelpha californica, the shop will open in Sebastopol’s Barlow shopping center later this month.
“Our mission is to grow and support our local flower farms, our local economy, and make locally grown flowers more accessible,” says Skalski.—Flora Tsapovsky
Michael Deakin’s nickname “Bug” is a mystery—even friends who’ve known him 35 years don’t know how he got it. What they do know is that the founder and owner of Heritage Salvage, Petaluma’s reclaimed building-materials retailer and custom building company, can and will do anything with wood. A master builder, Deakin deftly puts his love of repurposing to use in outfitting everything from posh restaurants to rustic gardens.
Deakin first learned woodworking from his father. “His motto,” says Deakin, “was, ‘If it’s broken, we can fix it, and if we don’t have one, we can build it.'”
Growing up in British Columbia, Deakin started working with reclaimed materials back in the 1970s in Vancouver, starting a collection of wood and steel while working in demolition. “We took to what we considered stealth building,” says Deakin, whose first reclaimed building project was a four-bedroom house constructed in eight days.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1978, Deakin started building sets in the movie business, where he grew as a carpenter and designer. He also spent seven years traveling the world and studying architecture, marveling at sights like 40-foot-high bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong.
He moved to Occidental in 1983, and started building custom homes in his neighborhood. In 1999, Deakin put an ad in the paper to take apart chicken barns in exchange for the material, and got 36 responses in two days, amassing a new collection of old material. “I have three acres out there, and my sister said, ‘Buggy, I’m glad you don’t have 10 acres.'”
These days, Heritage Salvage is half design and construction services, and half retail building material. “It is a very unique model in that respect,” Deakin says. “Very few companies like ours do design and build while also selling wood.”
Salvage, though, is Deakin’s true passion. “I love finding the stories and passing the stories on,” he says. “I’m the guy who, when we are taking apart a barn, talks with grandma and grandpa and finds out what happened in that barn.”
When Deakin is not out in the field finding long-forgotten pieces of lumber or claiming well-worn sheets of metal, he can be found on Heritage Salvage’s three-acre spread of land, working with the company’s resident art teacher Chris Cheek, head designer Heather Gallagher and an expert team that includes welder Dave Rawson and yard dog Chris Raby. “They’re all artists and hard-working people,” Deakin says.
Heritage Salvage is also known for its creative projects in the community. Heritage regularly works with the Rivertown Revival festival to help the event achieve its rustic aesthetic, and donates wood to the nonprofit Petaluma Bounty for planter boxes and garden greenhouses. The company has also built custom pieces for the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum, Tolay Park and several local schools.
Deakin’s story can be found in his book Heritage Salvage: Reclaimed Stories, which chronicles the company’s process and philosophy alongside gorgeous photos of some of the more than 150 restaurants and countless homes Heritage has shined its light on.—Charlie Swanson