BEMIDJI, MINNESOTA Before leaving the northern woods behind for the American West, we asked our Minnesotan guide, author Kent Nerburn, to talk with us about how he suggests people learn from each other across the native and non-native American divide.
“Nerburn” as he is known in this neck of the woods is the author of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” one of the most popular books in recent years about dialogue across the native and non-native divide. He is not Indian himself and opposes attempts by some white Americans to co-opt Indian culture as their own. He describes himself as “a man whose knife-edge balancing act is between Euro-American White culture and Native cultures.” His newest book is a series of essays for “Views from the Reservation,” combined with large-format photographs by John Willis, for the University of Chicago Press.
To answer our question, Nerburn grabbed a cup of coffee and his big yellow Lab, then took us into the woods behind his lake-front cottage in Bemidji. In a clearing, we found a life-size, dark-wood torso of what appeared to be a Crucifix, a classic subject in Western art. Nerburn has earned degrees in comparative religion and fine arts and began working as a wood sculptor in Germany many years ago. At that time, his own influences ran north to south in Europe, including the artists of Florence and Rome.
“We all know how Michelangelo talked about his affinity for stone. He would see a sculpture in a block of stone,” Nerburn said, “but he was talking more about the way a form fit into a stone. It wasn’t like the stone was talking back to him.
“As I began working in wood as a material, I found that I actually got to know a tree. I’d live with this big piece of wood for six months or a year and I would get a feel for its spirit. I worked with one tree, for example, and I began to realize that this tree was just so sad that I didn’t even like to work on it. Other trees were heroic. Oak is different from walnut or butternut. They all have their own spiritual presences. This absolutely did not resonate with the European sculptors I was studying.
“I tried to find artists and thinkers who had a spiritual relationship with their material. I kept finding Native Americans. The Iroquois would carve masks into live trees. These were people who understood what I was trying to do.”
Nerburn ran his hand along one side of the gaunt torso with a slumped head and one fragmented portion of a raised right arm. “This was the last piece I worked on. I’d really like to find a church that would be interested in installing this piece in a corner somewhere. In working like this, I’m always interested in both the seen and the unseen, spaces, silences and passages of spirit, but this isn’t the kind of formal piece that most people want. This piece has been aging for about 20 years now. At one point, I had it underwater in the lake for a year or two to help with the aging process.
“In this case, the figure is emerging out of the wood itself over time. First, I worked on it with sculpting hand-tools, but I also want wind and water to work on it. There’s a mystery to this piece. In some ways it does look like a Crucifixion but it also could be a Resurrection. As you look at the piece, it seems to be both pulling down and lifting up at the same time.”
We spent a long time contemplating the sculpture together in the woods. A 2,000-year-old Christian image still is slowly emerging from what once was a hardwood tree, even as rain fell on it during our visit.
“I am not a Native American,” Nerburn said eventually. “I don’t pretend to be a Native American. But I do know that we can talk honestly, if we do it very carefully. We can learn from each other on many levels.”
(Story and photos by readthespirit.com Editor David Crumm, who is spending 40 days and traveling 9,000 miles with his son Benjamin, a senior at Eastern Michigan University, traveling around America exploring what divides and might unite us as a nation.)