myth and poetry

Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives

Mythopoetry Scholar January, 2010
scanner Art by Richard Lance Williams
This Issue: Health & Well-Being


Well-Being and Making Things
by Dan Mack

… field notes on stirring the imagination with things

I recently finished 14 days of teaching in a high school equipment repair class. No writing, no poems, no magical objects. We made two Adirondack Chairs. It’s part of my field research in the “poetic capabilities of just making things.”

About 25 years ago, I shifted from being a wordsmith-broadcaster to being a craftsman-object maker. Specifically, I’ve been making rustic furniture from saplings and tree limbs. I’ve gotten much more interested in the why of making things than simply the how. I’ve gotten to know more about the mute language of objects, its grammar, vocabulary, slang and formality. I have found myself in a rich, new world as challenging and profound as the world of words of poems and prose. To learn, (and un-learn) more about this process, I often teach about it at all levels from kindergarten to older adult learners.

Things Speak #1 
When I’m in the elementary school as a “Tree Expert” or “Artist” I’ll bring some chairs and pieces of bark and maybe some bones and stones and say this is what I work with.  The teacher I often collaborate with,Pat Reinhardt, reads poetry to children everyday (like a kind of Pledge of Allegiance to the Imagi-Nation). Coincidentally, she had read this poem with the children just the day before I visited: This is by Mary Carolyn Davies, poet, playwright and novelist, (1888-1966):

Be different to Trees 

          The talking oak
            To the ancients spoke
            But any trees
            Will talk to me        
            What truths I know               
            I garnered so
            But those who want to talk and tell
            And those who will not listeners be
            Will never hear a syllable
            From out the lips of any tree

I ask if trees can really “speak” and everyone says “no” and then a few eyes blink and hands flutter and there are comments about wind and rustling leaves. I nod and ask: “How does that make you feel when you hear the wind and the leaves?”… That starts a discussion which usually heads towards the idea that there are lots of ways to “speak” without words.

We look again at my rustic chairs and I ask what they are saying. I get a lot of answers… and move quickly to handing out five smooth river rocks, all about the same size and color, to each student. The handing-out activity is interesting in itself.  They immediately rub, stroke, examine, smell the rocks. Then I say: “See if you can arrange these stones in some interesting way so they say something.”

For about three minutes there’s the clackling of rocks… Many children immediately make a Happy Face with the rocks and groan when I say: “Oh, I forgot to say, no Smiley Faces….or Sad Faces”. More clacks.

“OK what do we have?” Then for about 15 minutes there is this torrent of stories made from stones. Certain themes reappear: Loneliness (1 apart from 4), Family (circle of stones), Buildings (stacks, bridges) Adventure (the odd stone goes on a trip), Pop Culture (Robots, Transformers, Monsters).

Then we start again, “Now can we arrange the stones so that when someone else looks at them, they will get a feeling of sadness?  Hmmm, that’s tough. It rarely works very well so I’ve taken to handing out a list of ways of feeling which I use in all kinds of teaching. Usually, I give this and a small workbook of similar things to the teachers a week or so ahead of teaching. Often, the teachers have already gone through my workbook with the students before I even arrive. My thunder is not stolen. It’s magnified. I’m able to have the next level encounter with both the teacher and the students.

Here are the possible emotions of things (oh, and people):

Alert              Angry              Annoyed          Anxious           Awed               Bitter

Beautiful        Betrayed          Bored              Brave             Burdened         Calm

Cruel             Cheerful          Clever              Confused         Crabby           Destructive

Disturbed        Empty            Embarrassed   Envious           Excited             Exhausted

Fearful          Foolish            Frantic            Fragile            Frustrated       Frightened

Forgiving        Full                  Gratified          Greedy           Guilty              Grieving

Grumpy        Helpful                Hurt                Homesick        Horrible            Ignored 
Immortal        Infatuated        Infuriated         Isolated            Lonely             Jealous  
Joyful               Kind                Lazy               Mystical           Mean               Melancholy

Nervous           Obsessed         Outraged         Pain                 Peaceful          Persecuted

Pity                  Playful             Pleased            Proud              Refreshed        Rejected

Relieved           Righteous        Scared             Satisfied           Silly                 Sleepy 

Stuffed             Shy                  Stunned           Startled          Sympathetic     Tired

Tense               Ugly                Uneasy              Violent             Vulnerable       Weepy

Well-being       Wicked             Worried           Other Feelings??

So from the stones we sometimes talk about the possible feelings of trees. My intention is to introduce the notion of animism, that there might be spirit in all the world. As a teacher, I try to resonate with experiences people have had of that animism… those moments when they felt akin. It is usually non-verbal and my field research interest is to learn more about this phenomenon.

Things Speak #2

Ask the group to take a “break” and go outside and gather a few small things that they find. “Oh, let’s say three things, each no bigger than what fits in the palm of your hand. Let’s be back in ten minutes.” These directions are indistinct and clear at the same time. Results usually include the living and the dead, the hard and soft, the small and smaller and an odd piece of litter. Each person then takes a few minutes to introduce himself and why he found those particular things. The collection of the three different items creates an immediate and potent poetic base of associations and contrasts. This is a fast, rich and usually mesmerizing experience where people connect with each other on several different levels.

Let me interrupt these practicals to lay out my main point. There is something special in the act of making. It engages in a special way, both new and old. It addresses a set of needs that are hard to address otherwise. It is more like dance or music than it is writing. We are in a post-reading society, where according to the NEA report, Reading at Risk, fewer and fewer people opens books and every year book sales drop. Perhaps this haptic, visual, non-verbal nature of the language of objects is ever more important. It is like the cathedral stained glass windows from another time of literate history.

By “making”, I mean making things with simple, available, found, natural materials; just some sticks, just some rocks, just some leaves.  “Just some” is crucial to the success of speaking in things. If the materials are “just some”, they remain just out of reach of the critic, the expert and those other voices from within which organize, restrict, judge, shape and belittle. If you are working with “just some branches”, it’s not even worth the time for your inner critic to pipe up with some statement about how expensive or precious this all is and how you better be careful and do it right and that it seems that everybody else is more adept at this…“   Ephemeral natural materials are a natural sedative for the inner critic. They also level a playing field. Students, of all ages and abilities, already have a rich history with natural materials. I have often seen the pyramid of achievements and aptitudes stood on its head when just sticks and stones are introduced. Learning disabilities become imaginal assets.

That “vocabulary” of natural materials includes trees, branches, clippings, logs, saplings, roots, leaves, vines,  pods, bark, stones, bones, nuts, shells, driftwood, feathers, nests, soil, mud, sand, rusted, corroded and decayed objects. Notice how common all of these are. Acquiring them usually circumvents the marketplace. They are all just found and collected. There’s “just” again. Just anybody can get them. This is the exasperation of the commonplace. Just anybody can collect shells on the beach, or pick-up sticks or rocks. It is momentary relief from certification, licensing, permits, degrees and gate keeping. It is a reminder of the ways we are all the same. It fractures the hold of the academy on art and craft. It sidelines “mastery” in favor of the right to self-expression, which might be called “play”.


The Needs Addressed By Making Things

I see four clusters of needs that can get addressed and met in the act of making with natural materials. Those are the Need for Wonder, the Need for Stories, the Need for the Organic and the Need for Dexterity.

This Need for Wonder has several aspects. Wonder is most simply the opportunity to admire the world for its vitality, complexity and relentlessness. It’s the chance to feel WOW! for no one reason. It’s also called numina. This kind of Wonder can happen looking out a window at the sky, the park, the garden, the birdfeeder. It’s that momentary---we could hardly stand much more---amazement at being here. So working consciously with natural materials can stimulate and address this need.  Of particular value is the hunt. This is delight at finding something wonderful: colorful leaves in the fall, tiny new leaves in the spring, acorns, acorn caps, eucalyptus nuts, beach bricks. There is something primal happening in the hunting and gathering of surf-tumbled shell pieces, milkweed pods, all-white pebbles. 

Play is an aspect of Wonder. It’s a little more active and directed that the awe of seeing and the simple pleasure of hunting and gathering. Play is the capacity to look behind, under, to the side of what seems to be a self-evident truth. Playing is affirming that when it’s one thing, it’s another, and another. Play is first an attitude and then maybe an activity. Gwen Gordon writes about this:

The Buddha described how the noblest qualities have "near enemies," qualities that are often mistaken for the noble ones, but which lack deep care and connection. In the Buddha’s teachings, the near enemy of equanimity is disinterest. I propose that the near enemy of play is entertainment and recreation. Competitive sports, video games, luxury cruises, and high stakes gambling on the stock market are not play. Neither is drug use, or shopping sprees. They are attempts to get relief from the gray backdrop of our play-deprived lives through forms of near-play that lack intimacy with the world. That is why near-play quickly becomes compulsive. It can never satisfy our deepest urges for true play as intimate participation in the cosmos. The free-spirited true play that is our birthright has become so dangerously distorted by a play-deprived culture that we confuse it for war.

On one level, this play is another re-organization of the seeming chaos and endless material of life organized into a series of changing patterns. When I teach rustic work, one of my encouragements is to “Just take these natural forms and put them in some pattern, adding some geometry onto the organic order of nature.” There are so many geometries to use, some linear, some non-linear. There is the order of utility, the natural materials become a “useful” daily objects: a stool, trellis, chair, table or bed.  There is the order of just play… limitless combinations of material into pattern. Sand castles are an example. So are stone cairns, labyrinths, gardens. Patterning and ordering seem to be a very basic human need and it is one fundamentally independent from utility. Just watch young children play.

Things Speak #3

With older students and adults, I ask that they bring a “favored object” to one of our meetings. Small children know it well as “Show and Tell”. Retrieving it for older people is an act of creative mercy. Everybody gets a chance to explain what they brought and why. It’s an outstanding story-telling event. Because they are holding a comfortable, familiar “prop”, there is usually an ease and fluency in the story telling. The intimacy that develops in the group is fast and palpable. I can still remember such stories that were told more than ten years ago. Like the high school star athlete quietly showing the tiny scull cap he wore as a preemie or the young man showing a whale vertebrae and stunning the room with the story of how this was a gift from his uncle who lived alone on an island in Alaska and died when his cabin burned down.

This exercise illuminates another aspect of Wonder. Things have and often retain the capacity to move us. The sight of a thing, touching a thing, smelling a thing can spin us back out and around. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida calls this power punctum, a Latin word for “piercing”. He refers to a simple photograph of himself and his mother as having this inordinate power in his emotional life. Seeing it pierces him. This is a core part of the need for Wonder: to be shaken.  It’s called the numinous, to be awake, alive…

2) The second cluster of need, The Need for Stories, is related to the Need for Wonder.  It’s often the story or stories that lead to the wondrous response of awe, shock amazement:  We are always trying to tell stories, figure out the story line.  Kurt Vonnegut describes the proto story as “man in hole; man gets out of hole”  All daily lives are greater and lesser stories, often being told as they happen on the cell phone:  Yeah, I’m in the parking lot now. Whew, what traffic! A minor heroic epic? Stories, even mundane ones, are all threads in the vital myth-making needed to live. Joseph Campbell’s lifetime of work is clear on this.  We must have the stories to know who we are and who we can become, what’s expected of us, what the prevailing notions of reality are and finally stories to stay in touch with the mystical around us.

Of more interest than just stories are the Deep Stories we are searching for. By choice or not, we hunt the daimon, that other self, the true self that eclipsed during the first part of life as the bright sun of socialization, mores, expectations cooked us.  The daimon waited, along with many other lesser “s’elves” for the cue to step back on stage.  That often happens after a certain age, or by accident or initiatory event.  So stories that reflect danger, risk often hold the kernel of the daimonic.  Most authentic activities in life involve the search for the angelic, or original self.  It may be as simply named as Fate and the task is an old one: amor fati, the coming to know and love our own destiny. Things help.

3) The Need for Dexterities is perhaps ill-named. It’s just the thirst to learn to do something more, new and different. We are embodied and as such have sets of moves and movements which get us through life. There is a need to develop these, modify these as we go along.  We need to refine them and add new ones, share them with others. As a teacher of making, it is my primary job to first make the act of making inviting and a likely success. If the need for dexterities is satisfied well enough, the other needs are enlivened and responsive. 

Things Speak #4

Building two chairs in an all-male high school equipment repair class had absolutely no room for poems, stones or favored or found objects. It was about dexterity. My challenge was to get the chairs done and exploit those moments in the process where something “else” could happen. There were many such opportunities. During the process, (14 forty-minute periods), the measuring, marking, sizing, constructing, packing away, taking back out were the real times for side comments, compliments, questions. I didn’t really teach in a formal sense. I more ambled around. I was there to develop the bricoleur in these nine guys, not the virtuoso craftsman. That bricoleur is a cobbler, working with what he has, in the time available, and always interested in the best possible job -- under the circumstances. So I was there to help define some new edges. What was “good enough”? A moment to step back and say that although it was well-cut, well-assembled, it just doesn’t look quite right. It doesn’t look inviting.   “What can we do?” Furrowed, then raised brows. “Shape it here, a circle there, larger arms, taller back…” Engagement! … and the final chairs reflect it!  The chairs “spoke” about beauty, cooperation, repair, comfort, competence.

4) The last cluster of needs is The Need for The Organic.  This includes sensuality, awakened and emphasized sense experiences. (This has been recently underlined by Richard Louv and his wry clinical notion of “nature deficit disorder.”) This also includes encounters with Organic Time.  Unlike technological time, in organic time, things are not always available when you want them. There are seasons. There is waiting and planning. There is accommodation to using what is available here and now. Humans are hard-wired with the organic and experience distress in the relentless presence of the technological. Making with natural materials explores this and relieves this. By keeping exercises focused on the here and now of found materials, a whole new, always-present environment is revealed. The renovated image of Green Man, that vegetal being who at once is eating and spitting out leaves, who is dismembered in the winter only to re-appear every Spring; Green Man is the guide to understanding more about organic need. 

Things Speak #5

I use Green Man in schools alot. He’s slightly horrific and helps me introduce another basic important idea in an increasingly fundamentalist society:  Ambiguity.  I pass around a Green Man face and ask what he’s doing. Some say he’s scared, others that he’s scaring people, that he’s eating those leaves, that he’s puking them out (“can I say that?”);  Still others say that’s he’s tired or surprised or sad….  Yes, yes, yes. I ask: “Hey, can he be doing all these things?” Furrowed, then raised brows. “Yes!” “Well, that’s ambiguity… that things can mean a few different things all at once.”

Student Letter:  

“Thank you for teaching us about Ambiguity. I’m glad I know about it.”

Is there a nicer thing in the world to know about?  Everything may not be as it appears.
(I think of the words of Buddha from the Diamond Sutra: “Things are not as they seem. nor are they otherwise.”) Whew! This is the gift of the organic. In the acorn, is the oak tree. James Hillman has been the most relentless teacher of this concept. The Organic presents us with the kindness of potentiality. “You’ll get there!” And perhaps, there’s even a pattern or a general timetable for things to happen, to grow. Being reminded of the integrity and slowness of growing is a balm for people bruised by the cascade of anything you want when you want it. So the Organic has to do with Time. It’s slow time, forgotten time. It’s the time of magic realism and dreams… fast slow, but not mechanical clock time.  It’s the time of the soul, where ten years may be needed to better understand parts of an old dream.


Another way I’ve found to encounter the poetic power of things is Gifting. Gifting, like Play, suffers from the marketplace.  As the marketplace has commandeered and tried to present play as simply recreation, gaming and sports, Gifting too, is often restricted to holidays and laden with reciprocities and obligations. The effect of this is a kind of zero-sum mentality, which is drawn to measuring and weighing. “The more they have, the less I have. I give this and I’ll get that.” This impoverishes the power of given things. 

Things Speak #6

I’ll ask people in a workshop to make something from natural materials to give as a Gift to someone they don’t know. This is usually perplexing at first. There aren’t really any common models for this, so I get asked if they can give it to their child who is not here right now, or exchange with someone else in the class whom they didn’t know till recently. No and No, it must be an utter stranger. Well, that’s not exactly so. Once prohibited from an “exchange”, people are free to recognize a coincidental, accidental, intuitive nature of encounters. People have gifted someone “they just keep seeing” or a service worker or sometimes they just leave a gift for someone who sits next to them on a bench.

Gifting in this way keeps the grammar of things from getting too mundane. There is an exciting “unknown” to this kind of giving. It’s kind of a spiritual lottery. “You can’t win, if you don’t play”. It recognizes a largeness of community that often eludes regular daily life. The Tsunami relief and 9-11 are significant versions of gifting to a larger community, but they are, obviously, based in tragedy and compassion. This more modest kind of gifting addresses a delicate, less graphic sense of community-building.  It’s in the spirit of that 1980’s bumper sticker Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.  There’s still something to it.  Clichés don’t come from nowhere.

I’ve found that there is a capacity for the poetic in the use of common found natural materials when relieved of the burdens of utility and “projects”. The alert teacher of the language of things creates clearings, moments, portals for the hunting, sharing, arranging, patterning and making of things and then helps some of those things move on to others. Teachers --of young children, adolescents and life-long learners-- create opportunities for play, storytelling, new skills and the experience of wonder. The teacher is a conjurer, an enchanter, but most simply, just a guide. That process expands the traditional forms of creative expression and exploration and brings new constituencies back into the realms of creative and emotional education.


“Be Different to Trees” by Mary Carolyn Davies in Favorite Poems Old and New.  Edited by Helen Ferris.  Doubleday, NY. 1951.

----------- . Reading at Risk.  National Endowment for the Arts, 2004.

Gwen Gordon   Play: The Movement of Love, EarthLight Magazine #48, Spring 2003,  Vol. 13, No. 3.

James Hillman. The Soul’s Code. Random House, NY 1996.

Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: reflections on Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.1981.

Kurt Vonnegut in New York State Writer’s Institute. On-Line Magazine. Summer 2001, Vol. 5,  No. 3.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 1926.

Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin, 2005.

*****************************Mythopoetry Scholar January, 2010*****************************

Dan Mack

Author BIO

Daniel Mack describes himself as a working imaginalist. He has been making furniture and things from sticks and natural materials for thirty years.  His stick furniture is in many museum collections and he now works on large-scale architectural projects using trees as columns and beams. 


Archetypal psychology has been a profound atmosphere for his work.  Since encountering James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld in 1979, he has been working though the richness of this field.  A tour to Ireland, Shadows and Stones, with Sylvia Perera in 2000 was an important grounding in the place-based quality of psyche.

His personal work has turned from furniture to what he calls “anima” carvings from small hand-sized pieces of river driftwood and a growing collection of Imaginal Tools “for tasks yet to be discovered.”  He is part of growing community of makers who experiment with how spirit becomes matter.

He has always been teaching about such work.  Each summer he teaches at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY , at his studio in Warwick, NY and sometimes on-line.  He has also been a journalist and has written seven books, mostly about working with sticks. He has begun freely publishing on-line a creative workbook, Hair on the Shower Wall and Other Creative Opportunities


Hair on the Shower Wall and Other Creative Opportunities

The Adirondack Chair and The Hammock (2008)

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